Columns » John Brummett

Halter punches; Beebe deflects

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It’s a bright, cool Saturday morning in this lovably gritty city of Little Rock in this lovably eccentric state of Arkansas.

I just watched Bill Halter, a Rhodes Scholar from North Little Rock and Catholic High who ran the Social Security Administration for a while, dare to venture into electoral politics.

He stood in front of the state Capitol and announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor. He did very well. Democrats and Arkansans are lucky to have a man of this caliber who offers himself for leadership.

Then I observed Attorney General Mike Beebe, a poor single mom’s boy who became one of the state’s best lawyers and the state’s most able and responsible legislator through the 1980s and ’90s. He now dares to offer himself on the Democratic ticket for the higher accountability and responsibility of governor.

He stood in front of reporters to respond to Halter. He did equally as well. Democrats and Arkansans are lucky to have a man of this caliber who offers himself for leadership.

It was a morning about ideas — Halter offering and Beebe either seconding, making a case they’d been his in the first place or, more generally, deftly deflecting.

It was like a good boxing match. You had the underdog, Halter, showing himself to be filled with spunk and punch, a threat to inflict damage. You had the favorite, Beebe, taking the punches without suffering any cuts.

Halter said Arkansas needs a lottery for education. He said our people are going across state lines to play the numbers anyway, and that the children of Arkansas should be the beneficiaries. It was a strong point.

Beebe let Halter have the wheel on that divisive subject. Then he straddled it, seeking to be formally open to an idea many favor but officially concerned about an idea many oppose.

The attorney general said he worries about the inordinate effect of a lottery’s lure on low-income persons. On the other hand, he said, Georgia has done wonderful things in scholarships with its lottery.

He said we should have this debate, and, if we can devise a responsible lottery proposal, let the people decide. He said he wouldn’t oppose a lottery if “done right.”

That was good politics and probably not bad policy, coming out foursquare like that for responsibility, concern, scholarships, the right of the people to vote and his acceptance of their decision either way. Seldom can one lead by following, but this may be the rare exception.

Halter said we need to stop pork-barrel spending by legislators in the General Improvement Fund. Hallelujah, I said to myself.

I figured that would force Beebe into a corner, seeing as how he’s a veteran legislator who often controlled spending in this fund and now surely wants to stay ingratiated in rural Arkansas where they like it when legislators come home with money for street lights, sidewalks, senior citizens centers and rodeos.

Not so. Beebe said rightly that he’d always emphasized using that money for state, not local, projects. He said he’d announce specifics in February for using some of the GIF for matching grants for economic development.

Halter called for ethics reforms, including a ban on lobbyists and their political action committees from contributing to state candidates.

Beebe, who is close to many business lobbyists and has taken lobbyists’ money, responded that he was concerned about an equal playing field for campaign fundraising. That was to say that he didn’t intend to disarm unilaterally with a big-time Republican opponent looming. But he pointed out that he was sponsoring and voting for ethics reform in the late 1980s, and doing it again in the late 1990s.

Both candidates said they’d stand up for poor folks by raising the minimum wage and getting tough with usurious payday lenders.

All in all, Halter offered himself viably as a fresh face and Beebe responded viably that there’s much to be said for a veteran with vigor.

I intend to enjoy and celebrate the moment, since we’ll turn soon enough to obscene spending, silly ads and negative attacks.

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