So far, it appears the Beebe administration was worth waiting for.
Governor only a year and a half, Mike Beebe has reached goals that eluded his predecessors, spoken out on controversial issues when he could easily have remained silent, and maintained an amazingly high level of popularity through it all, even with people who didn't really expect to like him much. Somebody suggested he could be Governor for Life if the state constitution didn't impose a two-term limit.
These happy days were a long time getting here. As far back as 1987, when Beebe was a very junior state senator, the Arkansas Times asked “Is This the Next Bill Clinton?” and in all the election years since, followers of politics have discussed whether and when — most thought it a question of when — Mike Beebe would make his move for higher office.
As it turned out, Mike Beebe was most certainly not Bill Clinton in one regard. Clinton leapt up the political ladder as fast as he could go. Barely out of law school, he ran for Congress in a race his party didn't expect to win (and didn't) but in which he could gain political capital for later successful races (and did). He was attorney general at 30, the youngest governor in the nation, president at 46. Beebe was 60 when he took office last year, Arkansas's oldest first-term governor in 75 years.
Even after Clinton left the governor's office and made advancement possible for other Democrats, Beebe remained in the state Senate — a very prominent senator to people who knew state government, a man who made the Senate work, but still a state senator. Political junkies speculated that he lacked the famous fire in the belly successful politicians are supposed to possess, that he was afraid to face an opponent (he'd never had one, amazingly), that he'd used up all the potential a politician is allowed.
Perhaps, it was said, he's simply intimidated by Arkansas political history, which reflects that legislators who run for governor don't do well. Some of the thousands of votes that legislators cast are sure to be thrown back at them. And those unpopular votes may be all they're remembered for. Legislators are familiar to the media, the lobbyists and the hard-core fans of politics, but they are not well known to the general public, even if, like Beebe, they've also served a term as attorney general.
Beebe says now that it was other people, not him, who did most of the talking about his advancing to higher office. He might still be a senator today, he says, had not the voters imposed term limits in 1992.
“I was content,” he says. “I had the best of both worlds. I had a real, satisfying job [as a highly successful lawyer], I was making money [in quantities perhaps especially gratifying to one who'd been a poor boy], but I also had a say in public policy. People talked to me about running for higher office, but I didn't fan the flames.” As a teen-ager, he'd thought about being a U.S. senator, and, like Clinton, he had a hero. The same one, in fact — John F. Kennedy. Pictures of President Kennedy adorn the governor's office.
“But as you grow older, your youthful ambition becomes tempered,” Beebe says, denying aspirations to higher office now. “I love where I am.”
The story of Beebe's impoverished childhood — born in a tarpaper shack, moving all over the country with his waitress mother, settling in Newport long enough to graduate from high school — was comprehensively told in the 2006 governor's race. With ambition, and assistance, young Beebe made it to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro and then to the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville. He had a vague notion of becoming an FBI agent. While he was in law school, he got a summer job with a Searcy law firm. He liked the people in the office, he liked the town; after graduation, he joined the firm full time. This was a fateful decision.
The firm then known as Lightle and Tedder was a political law firm, of a sort found in many towns across Arkansas. The senior partner was Ed Lightle, who'd served a few terms in the state Senate before retiring undefeated. Cecil Tedder would soon be elected circuit judge. A young associate, Jim Hannah, would become a chancery judge, and later chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Beebe won some big lawsuits right away, according to state Sen. John Paul Capps of Searcy, who was a state representative in those days and now holds the Senate seat that was Beebe's. The two men became close friends. “For about 16 years, we worked together on legislative issues and we never had a cross word,” Capps says. There's a crosstown expressway in Searcy called the Beebe-Capps Expressway.
Beebe says he didn't join the Lightle firm because of its political connections, but he made rather quick use of them nonetheless. An opening appeared on the Board of Trustees at ASU. With the controlled brashness he seems to have always had, Beebe saw no reason why a 25-year-old shouldn't fill it. Though the goal was appointment rather than election, Beebe's quest for a seat on the ASU Board of Trustees was his first real experience in politics, he says. He contacted everybody he knew that he thought could be helpful. Lightle helped, of course. So did Archie Schaffer, a Beebe acquaintance who was an assistant to Gov. Dale Bumpers, and related to the governor by marriage.
“The first time I was ever at the Capitol was to be interviewed by Bumpers for the ASU appointment,” Beebe says. Bumpers himself had been largely unknown before he was elected governor. He may have felt a kinship with Beebe. He appointed him, in any case, and Beebe had acquired a little bigger reputation than he'd had before. (An unkind observer, an alumnus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, say, might suggest that the pickings among ASU grads are generally slim, but such an observation would be rightly scorned. Incidentally, Governor Beebe won't push for a football game between UA and ASU. “Not my job,” he says. “I think it'd be good for the state, but it's not something for state government to get involved in.”)
After every census, the legislature is redistricted, and so it was after the 1980 census. As always, various plans, backed by various interests, were under consideration. Searcy was in a Senate district with Batesville. Although Searcy was bigger, the Senate seat once held by Lightle now belonged to Sen. Bill Walmsley of Batesville. According to Walmsley, who still practices law in Batesville, the only way someone from Independence County could win the Senate seat was if he had strong connections to White County too. That fit Walmsley perfectly — he'd grown up in Bald Knob and had relatives all over eastern White County.
But Searcy was still growing, faster than Batesville. One day, Ed Lightle asked Walmsley, “How'd you like to lose Searcy?” Walmsley said he'd be delighted. Lightle had a young law partner in mind. (By this time, Tedder and Hannah had left the Lightle firm for the bench, and Lightle was working only part-time. A young Beebe was the senior full-time member of the firm.)
The redistricting plan that the legislature approved in the 1981 session took Searcy out of Walmsley's district and put it in a district with Stuttgart. Searcy was bigger than Stuttgart too, but Stuttgart had an incumbent senator, Bill Hargrove, who'd said he would seek election in the new district. For months, Beebe — now a Senate candidate, to no one's surprise — ran for the seat as if he had an opponent. Eventually Hargrove withdrew, and Beebe was elected without opposition. He would be re-elected several times, and then be elected attorney general, all without opposition, which says quite a lot about the impression Beebe makes on people, and the supporters he attracts. He wouldn't draw an opponent until the 2006 governor's race, when Asa Hutchinson confronted him.
When Beebe ran in 2006, some followers of politics were skeptical of him because he wasn't associated with any particular cause. “What is he for?” they asked. He was known as a fixer, a man who could arrange a compromise on anything, who'd accept the lesser of two evils. He was friendly — too friendly, some said — with special interests. As governor, he hired a former poultry industry lobbyist as his chief of staff. Before he was a lobbyist, Morril Harriman of Van Buren had been Beebe's closest friend and ally in the Senate. Legislatively, the two were virtually inseparable.
Some of the skeptics were persuaded by Beebe's enthusiastic support from Senate colleagues who were known for passion and principle. People like Jodie Mahony of El Dorado, a fighter for public education, and Jay Bradford of Pine Bluff, whose progressive views made you wonder how an insurance salesman came to hold them. Bradford, a proponent of mental health programs among other causes, has been appointed by Beebe as director of behavioral health services at the state Department of Human Services (DHS). Mahony has worked on Beebe's gubernatorial staff.
“He and I started in the Senate together in 1983,” Bradford says. “It didn't take me long to realize I wanted to be on his team, because he was gonna be a real factor.” He was intelligent, obviously, and he understood the importance of pleasing the senior senators who could be helpful. Sen. Knox Nelson of Pine Bluff was a power in the Senate at the time. Nelson quickly acknowledged Beebe as a comer. Despite winning Nelson's regard, Beebe was a leader in a group of young senators who would force a change in Senate procedures. The old rules allowed powerful members like Nelson and Max Howell of Jacksonville to chair two or three committees apiece. The new rules permitted only one chairmanship per senator.
One day during Beebe's first term, a reporter happened to be standing nearby when Bill Moore, a longtime senator from El Dorado, approached Beebe and told him that he was the only one of the newcomers who observed the old Senate niceties — on winning recognition to speak, and other such matters. Beebe said something like “Aw shucks,” and the reporter thought, “He doesn't miss many tricks.”
Another trick he didn't miss was that of being accessible to the press. Many older senators were wary of reporters. Beebe (and Harriman) talked to them, with as much candor as could reasonably be expected. They answered reporters' phone calls, and addressed them by their first names.
Popular and influential though Beebe became, one senator remained uncharmed. This was Nick Wilson of Pocahontas, a man who exercised considerable influence himself, partly because he'd acquired a reputation as somebody not to be messed with. “I tried to get along with him for a couple of years,” Beebe says. “But he really didn't like me.”
The hostility came from a disagreement over committee assignments. Before the 1980 census, Wilson and Walmsley had been in a three-senator caucus with Sen. Jim Wood of Newport. Wilson and Walmsley were good friends, which meant that Wood got the poorer committee assignments. Redistricting put Wood and Walmsley in the same legislative district in 1982, and Wood defeated Walmsley. Redistricting also made Beebe the third member of the caucus with Wood and Wilson. Wood, who'd been a couple of years behind Beebe at Newport High School, formed an alliance with the new man, and now it was Wilson who received the inferior committee assignments. Wood and Beebe even took away Wilson's seat on the important Joint Budget Committee and gave it to Beebe. “He was the first true freshman ever to serve on Joint Budget,” Wood says. “And it was a perfect fit for him.”
Wilson never forgave the freshman his audacity. He and Beebe fought for 15 years, until Wilson resigned from the Senate just ahead of expulsion. He'd been convicted of a felony in connection with a scheme to defraud the taxpayers.
“Nick was very bright and very hard-working,” Beebe says. “He was on the right side of a lot of substantive issues. [Such as abortion rights.] His problem was his self-dealing. We had suspicions he was up to something, but our suspicions were all about DHS [the state Department of Human Services]. He was involved in a lot of DHS legislation.” Instead, Wilson fell because of a scheme involving improper payments to lawyers who were supposed to do state business in court.
Before he was brought down, “Nick was vindictive and intimidating,” Beebe says. “But eventually you make enough enemies that you reach the tipping point.” That meant that in the crunch, Beebe had more people on his side than Wilson had on his. Still, “He was as formidable an opponent as I've ever had.”
In a striking political paradox, Beebe's opponent in the 2006 gubernatorial race, Republican nominee Asa Hutchinson, accused Beebe of having been in cahoots with Wilson. Beebe says that during the investigation of the Wilson scandal, an FBI agent came to Searcy to interview him, and even handed him a subpoena to testify before a grand jury. He was jolted, and it showed. But the agent told him not to worry. “She said one thing she'd learned during the investigation was that a senator was either a Beebe man or a Wilson man.”
There are yet those who'll say that Beebe and his Senate partner Harriman had gained such control of the Senate that they must have known something of what Wilson and his gang were up to. Beebe says he and Harriman were knowledgeable, and engaged with the Senate process, but “We weren't as knowledgeable as people thought. I had a law firm, a job outside the Senate. We now know that Nick was full time.”
Nick Wilson aside, Beebe became what one legislative observer calls the Senate's traffic cop, not so much an advocate himself as one who told the advocates when they could go, and how far. Jay Bradford says, “I was the first one to call him ‘Atlanta.' He asked me why, and I said ‘Everything has to go through you.' ” Bradford was seeking Beebe's support for a bill, and got it. Beebe enjoyed being Atlanta, Bradford says, and he also enjoyed being called that. A bull-in-the-china-shop legislator himself, Bradford says that Beebe doesn't make emotional mistakes. And yet for all his cool calculation, or because of it, he retained the senators' trust. And he knew how to use it. Bradford recalls another occasion when he and Beebe argued — “I'm sure I was taking the more liberal side” — and he said that Beebe would be unable to win Senate support for what Beebe was proposing. “He said ‘Jay, I can sell iceboxes to Eskimos.' ”
So he's not without ego, but that's no surprise. A person doesn't enter politics without a certain amount of ego. But he generally keeps it under control, and people who've worked with him say that he believes, like Ronald Reagan, that you can do a lot if you don't care who gets the credit. In 2001, a source says, Beebe was the de facto governor, because the real governor, Mike Huckabee, couldn't get anything through the legislature. But Beebe didn't talk about it, he just did it.
People also say that he's a good listener, has trained himself to listen, and that's another sign of a person who doesn't get carried away with himself.
Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock remembers pushing Senator Beebe to support one of Argue's do-gooder bills. “He told me I needed to temper my idealism with a little pragmatism. I told him he needed to inspire his pragmatism with a little idealism.” And they've continued that debate, in friendly fashion, for years. “We both know you need both. I'm a lot more willing to lose on principle. He's a consummate problem solver. He inspires confidence in other people. A decade ago, I would have told you that the severance tax would never be raised. And Beebe pulled it off.” (Numerous proposals to raise the pitifully low severance tax had failed before Beebe won approval of an increase last year. New factors were in play this time, but it was a significant accomplishment nonetheless.)
Argue and others say that one reason Governor Beebe has been so successful with the legislature is that the legislative branch of government has grown weaker. Term limits prevent the development of new Senator Beebes.
“He's the only real hope for preserving the gains we've made in education,” Argue says. Argue and other legislators deeply involved in the reforms demanded by the courts will all be gone in a couple of years. Unless Beebe holds the line, new legislators will be tempted to ease up on accountability requirements for the schools, Argue said, and to fall into the old rut of funding other programs at the expense of education.
U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder of Little Rock served in the state Senate with Beebe in the '90s. “He was quick,” Snyder says. The legislative process can be slow and complicated; Beebe was known for grasping the key issues rapidly, and finding the weaknesses in a bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee, of which both he and Harriman were members, was a graveyard of bad legislation.
For all the bills that he guided through, with other people's names on them, Beebe himself didn't sponsor many. Snyder recalls, gleefully, being on the Agriculture Committee when Beebe brought one of his bills before it. “We asked a lot of questions, and he finally pulled the bill back. It was clear he didn't enjoy having his bills picked apart either.”
But Beebe was always available to help other senators with their legislation, and if he couldn't support it, to carefully and tactfully explain why, Snyder says. “He didn't burn any bridges.”
There was something else Snyder appreciated about Beebe. They were both raised by single women, with no child support. Both acknowledged that had it not been for public schools, public health, government loans, G.I. bills, etc., “We would never have been able to do anything.”
“Here he is in his 60s now, and it's still very much in his mind what would be good for the kids of Arkansas. He's well grounded in where he came from.”
Liberals have been watching Governor Beebe closely for signs of excessive influence by special interests. To date, they haven't seen it. “He's kind of surprised me, the things he's done in the way of a progressive agenda,” says former state Rep. Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock. Working behind the scenes, mostly, Beebe blocked legislative approval of a bill to bar homosexuals from adopting or serving as foster parents, and he's said he opposes a proposed constitutional amendment to do the same thing. He's also announced his opposition to a proposed amendment to deny services to illegal aliens, and that stance too carries political risk.
“On environmental stuff, he's been darn good,” Ledbetter says. “When it comes down to taking care of industry or taking care of the environment, he takes care of the environment.”
There's been hardly any harsh criticism of Beebe, and that's unusual. Reportedly, a recent poll showed him with an approval rating that was breathtakingly high.
“He's as popular as any governor I've known,” Wood says. “I might use the word ‘beloved.' ”
Beebe is proud of his pragmatism, untroubled that he's not known as a crusader. “I get criticized from those on the extreme left and those on the extreme right. I try to find a solution that's good public policy.” But, he adds, “I feel very strongly about a lot of issues, education the first, because it was of such value to me.”
Asked to name the major accomplishments of his administration so far, the first thing he points to is education, the making of improvements so that the public school system is finally in compliance with the letter and the spirit of court requirements. He cites the severance tax, and a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries, with an eye toward repealing it entirely. Reduction and/or repeal of the grocery tax was another project at which other governors and other legislatures had failed. Beebe carefully, and characteristically, notes the legislature's role in all this success.
He mentions another accomplishment, less tangible but, to Beebe, just as important. “We've created a climate where everybody is engaged, everybody is working together. That's important.” The legislative and executive branches did not work well together during the administration of his predecessor.
Asked what's hard about being governor, Beebe says it's making calls to the widows and mothers of Arkansas soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I'm glad I don't have to make the initial call. The military does that.” His questioner was unaware this was even part of the governor's job. It's not mandated, he says, but he feels the governor should convey the state's sympathy. Especially in the case of National Guardsmen — the governor is commander in chief of the Guard.
Setting execution dates is another difficult task, “no matter how heinous the crime, and even though the person was convicted and sentenced in a court of law.”
But it's all part of the job, and the job needs doing, and defending. A great cynicism has descended on the country, Beebe says, and “All of us are under an obligation to try to restore faith in our institutions. Cynics say that all politicians are crooks and liars. That's as dangerous to our democracy as just about anything.
“Restoring people's faith in the institutions of the best form of self-governance ever created is a worthy cause. If you want to plant a flag on me for a cause, that's a good one to plant.”
He grows on you.