Columns » John Brummett

Cavorting in the aisle

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It would be glorious to see more bipartisanship in Washington. But this variety we get in the insular eccentricity of Arkansas legislative politics is not so much bipartisanship as nonpartisanship.

That can place a premium on other, and not always pure, alliances. It can mean that politicians aren’t reaching across the aisle for the good of the people, but cavorting in that aisle for the good of each other.

True bipartisanship would apply among already elected officials to transcend the partisan considerations of their elections to solve real and pressing problems for the people. Applying bipartisanship to get each other elected in the first place — in a fund-raiser at a lobbyist’s office, for example — is less a noble notion. It starts to be about self-perpetuation and entrenched incumbency.

Two leading conservative Democratic state senators — Jack Critcher of Batesville, the president pro tem, and Bob Johnson of Bigelow, the incoming president pro tem — signed on as hosts of a campaign fund-raiser Wednesday at the Arkansas Poultry Federation headquarters for Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway.

Baker is not just any Republican. Until a few weeks ago, he was state Republican chairman all cozied up to Karl Rove and endorsing Jim Holt to be a heartbeat from the governorship.

Gov. Mike Beebe recently went to Conway and talked up a Democratic opponent for Baker. But here we had two Democratic state senators — the leading ones, arguably — getting out front to fortify a Republican against that very budding Democratic challenge.

This all goes back to that thing called the Brotherhood.

For years the Senate was run by well-meaning, hard-working progressives. They were mostly moderate Democrats, like Jim Argue of Little Rock and Jim Hill of Nashville, but not exclusively. Dave Bisbee, Republican of Rogers, was one of them.

Insurgents like Johnson, Critcher and Baker thought they were treated disrespectfully. So they forged this Brotherhood to wrest control of the Senate and run it their way, mainly to get equal shares of surplus funds for pet projects.

When Critcher ran with the Brotherhood’s backing to deny Bisbee’s natural rise by seniority to president pro tem, the state Democratic chairman at the time, Jason Willett, got confused. It was understandable.

Willett put out a letter endorsing Critcher, since he was the Democrat, over Bisbee, who was the Republican. But Critcher was actually part of an insurgent coalition encompassing Republicans like Baker, Shawn Womack and others. Bisbee was mostly allied with Democrats like Argue, Hill and Sens. Stephen Bryles of Blytheville, Jim Luker of Wynne, Mary Ann Salmon of North Little Rock and Sue Madison of Fayetteville.

Now we have this very Critcher, endorsed before by the Democratic chairman, endorsing the former state Republican chairman for re-election to the state Senate from Conway against the promise of vigorous Democratic opposition. And Bob Johnson is right there with them.

Baker says he simply asked them, and that they honored him by consenting.

It all happened at the Poultry Federation headquarters, more commonly called the Chicken House. The poultry president, Marvin Childers, is a former Republican state legislator. Childers tells me that any legislative candidate may use the poultry offices free of charge for a fund-raiser. It’s a convenient location, a block from the Capitol. And it can’t hurt the chicken lobby.

Bill Gwatney, the current state Democratic chairman, was once in the Senate. “It’s a club. We all know that, and I was in it. But this deal here is different. I was shocked.”

For the record, Gwatney says that the state Democratic Party, at least the part of it not represented by Critcher and Johnson, “is not going to be sponsoring any fund-raisers for the former state Republican Party chairman. We’re going to defeat the former state Republican Party chairman.”

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