Columns » John Brummett

Eclectic maze named Kim



Kim Hendren, the newly announced Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, was a Democratic state senator from Benton County from 1979 to 1983. That makes him odd already.

For full and fair context, he was a blustery conservative Democrat and this was shortly before the wholesale Republicanization of the county and much of the immediate region.

Hendren actually ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982, if you could call that running. Bill Clinton got a lot of votes in the primary. So did Joe Purcell and Jim Guy Tucker. Hendren got 3.8 percent, which kept him out of last place by besting Monroe Schwarzlose.

Along the way Hendren had married the sister of a couple of conservative young men also from the Gravette area in rural Benton County. Those would be the Hutchinsons, Asa and Tim, who would emerge in the mid-1980s as the hope of a new Republican generation in Arkansas.

When Hendren came back into state legislative politics nearly 20 years later, he was a Republican. It was a seamless transition. The book hadn't so much changed as the cover.

You could say he became a tax-and-spend, nanny-state Republican.

He went along with Gov. Mike Beebe on the severance tax and cigarette tax, deeming both to be logical means to meet legitimate needs.

But Hendren's defining legislative essence has been trying to put government in the decidedly non-libertarian position — some would say non-conservative one — of telling people how to behave in their cars and trucks and on their motorcycles.

He's a glorified traffic cop.

He tried repeatedly to get the use of hand-held cell phones banned by automobile drivers. He finally succeeded with a bill this time only to the extent that persons 18 to 21 are not supposed to talk on hand-held telephones while driving although they can't be stopped and ticketed merely for that.

Hendren also has tried and failed to require motorcycle riders to wear helmets or take out expensive insurance policies. And he has tried and failed to force dump trucks hauling sand and gravel to put tarps over that otherwise flying debris.

Hendren says all he's trying to do is what the state does logically and responsibly already when it tells people they can't drive 120 miles an hour the wrong way on a one-way street.

So let's sum up: He is cursedly independent, brutally candid, undeniably conservative in pervasive style and spirit, if not in all specific instances, and he has been both a Democrat and a Republican; he is tied into a semi-dynastic Republican family and, as a modern state legislator, has relied on common sense and gone along with a Democratic governor's tax increases while trying of his own volition to increase government's control of your activities in operation of your own motorized vehicle.

Thus he is a walking contradiction and eclectic maze.

An electrical engineer who's been in the radio, automotive sales and plastics businesses, he makes no sense unless you've been watching him for 30 years and watching for longer than that this peculiar culture called Arkansas politics.

Now he wants to replace Blanche Lincoln in the U. S. Senate.

You can trust that the inconsistent and pragmatically diluted conservatism he's practiced in Arkansas would evolve into a more polarized and unflinching conservatism at the federal level.

Federal politics tends to have that effect. It's one thing to agree that Arkansas must raise a few taxes to keep its budget balanced. It's quite another to behold a federal budget deficit of $2 trillion.

Hendren is 71 and folksy and can come across as a tad grouchy and gruff and temperamental. I'm dubious he'll be the GOP nominee and even more dubious he could get to the Senate if he emerged from the primary.

Lincoln has beaten two polarizing Northwest Arkansas Republicans already, first the late Fay Boozman and then Jim Holt.

Strong-willed independence of Hendren's type tends to hurt you in your party primary, where people prefer party-line automatons.

If you survive the primary, strong-willed independence will complicate the constraints the national consultants will design for you under the heading of “message discipline” in a general election.

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