Columns » John Brummett

Democrats in Arkansas down to one

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As recently as two decades ago, Democratic primaries remained tantamount to election in Arkansas, pretty much. As recently as one decade ago, Democratic primaries drew all the competition while Republicans anointed their nominees pre-emptively. Even now, Republicans can’t always come up with a respectable candidate for every position and Democrats use a slow, lazy inertia to elect old-timers to offices like secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and land commissioner. That makes the early formulation of the governor’s race for 2006 all the more noteworthy, even a sign of a new day. The heavyweight primary action will be on the Republican side where two well-known, well-financed and well-connected candidates — Lt. Gov. Win Paul Rockefeller and Asa Hutchinson — will pit conservative politics against really conservative politics. Meantime the Democrats have become the Republicans of two decades ago, saying they already have their lone and anointed candidate, Attorney General Mike Beebe. He’s a lawyer and moderate pragmatist who was the best state legislator of the modern era, a smart and personable insider and fixer. He’s been the Democrats’ governor-in-waiting since the mid-1980s, when as a sharp young state senator from Searcy he was first declared the logical successor to Bill Clinton. But he also is a man whose gifts as a retail politician connecting in the coffee shops in opposition to an actually breathing opponent — which he’s never encountered — are completely untested and undeterminable. Still unknown as Beebe nears his 60th birthday are his talents for thinking big ideas and articulating large messages. There once was a candidate who said, “This race is not about ideology; it’s about competence.” It was Mike Dukakis. If our politics hinged on competence, George W. Bush would have lost the last two presidential races. Ronald Reagan would never have become president. Blanche Lincoln wouldn’t have survived the 1998 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, against Nate Coulter, who was so competent that he ran last in a four-candidate field. Even so, all Democratic hopefuls other than Beebe apparently will be discouraged from applying. Jason Willett, the new state Democratic chairman, essentially nominated Beebe the other day in comments to The Associated Press. That means no youthful dazzler like Dale Bumpers will be welcomed should he come down from the hills with a smile, a shoeshine and a positive reform agenda. No Vic Snyder will be welcomed should he dare to rise from mere principle. I suppose I’d best give up any notion that some capable Democrat might run on a two-point platform: • Ethics reform, by which not one cup of coffee could be bought for a legislator or state official by a lobbyist, an area where Beebe is vulnerable, since his best friends and closest advisers are big-time corporate lobbyists like Morrill Harriman at the Poultry Federation. • A more strategic, deliberate, open and accountable use of the General Improvement Fund to apply that pot of cash balances and interest earnings to early childhood development and dire needs in fast-dying rural Arkansas, such as infrastructure and high-speed Internet. This is another area where Beebe is vulnerable since he used to divide up the pork in the General Improvement Fund all by himself. P. S. — What Beebe may lack in retail political experience, he counters with a compelling personal story. Born in a small town in Northeast Arkansas to an unmarried waitress who took him to myriad schools in multiple states as her unstable personal and employment life never weakened her commitment to her only child, he and she finally settled for his high school years near Newport, where families reached out to help the hard-pressed mom and her academically promising boy who would someday become the predetermined Democratic candidate for governor.

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