Columns » Max Brantley

Asa's team

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It's a measure of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's appointments that the most widely praised appointment so far was of a man ineligible to hold the job.

This week, Hutchinson said he wanted University of Arkansas System lobbyist and former state Sen. Johnny Key to be head of the state Education Department.

Key is currently ineligible. He has neither a master's degree, nor a teaching certificate nor 10 years of experience as a teacher and school administrator, as the law requires.

The law will be changed to say that if an education commissioner has a deputy qualified for the job, that's good enough.

Key's appointment was widely applauded. He has experience as an education policy-maker. He's a nice guy. He has a reputation for an even temper and bipartisan tendencies.

Key is a lot like Hutchinson. His amiability makes him seem more moderate than the avengers like Bart Hester. But beware judging philosophy by amiability. Hutchinson is no less responsible for legalizing discrimination against gay people than Bart Hester. He simply didn't want to affix his signature to the law.

Key ran a preschool that opened each day with a prayer and Bible readings. Unlike Rep. Justin Harris (R-West Fork), he quietly complied with the Constitution after objections were raised.

Key also pulled some special language committee trickery to up the cap of state-supported virtual charter school students from 500 to 3,000. That put the state on the hook for an additional $20 million a year in support for home schoolers equal to that given schools with cafeterias, gyms, buses, a full complement of teachers and other expenses. Those virtual students have lagged behind regular school counterparts, by the way.

Key also pushed the legislation that all but ended bars to interdistrict schools transfers, choices that are driven too often by race.

His philosophy aligns with that of the Waltons and other wealthy activists pushing charter schools, vouchers, on-line education and other tactics to upend the conventional public school system.

If Key's appointment signals a transformation of the Education Department, it will be apparent first in Little Rock, where Key will become the "school board." Will he allow continuation of the district's own plan for improvement, with assistance from such solid helpers as Baker Kurrus? Or will he propose an outsourcing of schools to private management organizations?

For his equanimity and hard work and amiable demeanor, Key is more welcome than some other Hutchinson appointments. For the first time ever, the Securities Department isn't led by a lawyer, but by a retired stock broker. The governor put a non-tenure track UALR instructor in a $100,000-a-year higher education department job because Ann Clemmer ran for office as a Republican. The same political consideration made Stacy Hurst, who'd worked in her husband's florist business, head of the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

Marcus Devine, who left leadership of the Department of Environmental Quality to run a rules-breaking oilfield waste disposal firm and whose personal court record includes tax and private debt suits, is leading the Department of Youth Services because of his putative managerial skills. Tracy Steele, who made a mess of a couple of state jobs but gave Hutchinson a rare endorsement from a black Democrat, got a $100,000-a-year job heading an agency that oversees permits for health agencies.

Hutchinson named Arkansas Republican Chair Doyle Webb's wife, Barbara, to head one state agency, Workers Compensation, and his sister-in-law, Becky Keogh, a gas industry executive, to head another, the Department of Environmental Equality. Both departments are important to major corporate interests that provide political campaign finance muscle. Another politically tinged appointment was his new Alcoholic Beverage Control director, Bud Roberts, brother of Michael Roberts, a lawyer who heads a law and consulting firm with which the governor's son, Asa Hutchinson III, is now associated. This week, we learned Republican state Rep. Nate Bell's wife, Phyllis, is a $50,000-a-year lobbyist for the governor.

David Sterling, who ran for attorney general on a hate-federal-regulations platform, is now a top lawyer at the most federally regulated and financed agency in state government, Human Services.

So if Key is cut more from Hutchinson's mold, good. The governor has preserved Obamacare in Arkansas for two years. He's taken a balanced approach to corrections between punishment and rehabilitation. He's emphasized tech education (though not — so far — the pre-K building blocks of good students). Now if he could just up his game on appointments.

More trickle in. Hutchinson picked Wes Ward, a 32-year-old with little work experience outside Marine service, to be Agriculture secretary, a position created and first held by Richard Bell, the head of Riceland Foods.

NOTE: This version of the column includes some appointments that don't appear in the print edition.

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