Columns » Ernest Dumas

Don't need Darr, don't need the office, either

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Mindful of the great injunction that Republicans not speak ill of one another, Arkansas GOP leaders embraced Lt. Gov. Mark Darr's own explanation for converting some $44,000 of public and campaign funds to his own use: He is not a crook, they said, but just a poor fellow who is in over his head. He didn't know it was against the law to convert public funds and political cash to his personal use.

The lieutenant governor wades in very shallow water. When he's in over his head, you have a big problem. Arkansas has a lieutenant governor for one reason: to be ready to come to Little Rock and be the governor for a spell if the governor dies, becomes incapacitated or is removed from office. If Darr can't grasp the simplest rules for being a public servant he isn't suited to be even a governor in waiting.

So Darr should resign. Republicans clamored for state Treasurer Martha Shoffner to resign when, needing cash to maintain an apartment in Little Rock so she would not have to travel from her home in Newport every day, she solicited $6,000 from an investment adviser who got state business through her office. But as of this writing not one Republican has called for Darr to resign. They demanded that state Sen. Paul Bookout, a Democrat, resign for converting campaign money to his personal use, but Darr is different.

Both Shoffner and Bookout resigned. Leaders of the Democratic Party had demanded it.

Darr said last week that he would not resign and might even run for re-election. He did drop out of the race for Congress last summer after a Democratic blogger reported his wrongdoing.

But, in the end, Darr will have to resign, especially if the state Ethics Commission — half Republican, half Democratic — adopts the findings of its professionals. Before the ethics staff released its findings, the legislative audit staff confirmed the blogger's report that Darr had illegally taken state travel expenses.

Friday morning, the thoroughly Republican Arkansas Democrat-Gazette finally suggested that Darr resign. It had raged repeatedly against Shoffner and Bookout, so its silence on the Darr matter had become deafening. When the Democrat-Gazette weighs in editorially against a Republican, it must seem like the sky is falling.

To Republicans, you must assume, Darr's troubles just look like politics. After all, a liberal Democratic blogger, Matt Campbell, had targeted him and rummaged through his campaign-finance reports and the invoices of the lieutenant governor's office. So the story had a suspicious genesis.

But Shoffner's troubles began with the liberal Arkansas Times blog, which reported the sudden and inexplicable shift in investment advisers in the treasurer's office. Sen. Bookout's troubles began with a Republican critic's snooping into his campaign reports.

Darr's resignation should be forthcoming, but that won't entirely solve the problem. It would be a mild but worthy reform if the state used this chance to abolish the office. It would save the taxpayers a little money every year and create a more sensible succession when something happens to the state's elected chief executive. The Constitutional Convention of 1970 created a better succession, but voters defeated the document, for reasons other than scrapping the lieutenant governor.

Arkansas did not have a lieutenant governor until after the debacle of 1907, when Gov. John S. Little suffered a nervous breakdown soon after his inauguration and went home, creating a wild scramble that led to two temporary governors. So voters created the position of lieutenant governor, who would be elected statewide but lie doggo until the day when the state didn't have a governor. Needing to give him some menial task, the law empowered him to preside over the Senate in the occasional periods, some 40 or days a year, when it is in session. The U.S. Constitution gave the vice president that power, although vice presidents almost never exercise it.

The lieutenant governor isn't needed for that either. On days when the lieutenant governor doesn't come in, the president of the Senate or another member presides and it runs smoothly. If the lieutenant governor doesn't show up, absolutely nothing is lost.

Nathan Gordon, the Medal of Honor hero, was the ultimate lieutenant governor for nearly a quarter-century after World War II. He ran the Senate, had no staff, took a salary of $2,500 a year and rarely set foot in the Capitol when the legislature was not in session. When his law practice demanded he be in trial in Morrilton or someplace he called in and the Senate pro tem sat in the big chair. When Gordon quit, the Senate stripped the lieutenant governor of all his authority except recognizing which senator was to speak and ordering roll calls.

When Mike Huckabee became the lite governor he wanted the office to be special. He got suitable quarters in the Capitol, beefed up the staff, although they had nothing to do but tend to his political connections, and arranged for travel perks.

Darr took it to a higher level. The office budget soared to $400,000 a year, his salary to $41,896. Four executive assistants, who knock down $350,000 among them, issue statements for him, like the one praising Exxon Mobil for its handling of the giant oil spill in Mayflower.

You know what happens with idle hands, which may be poor Mark Darr's best defense. We should remove the risk and end the office.

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