MAKING THE ROUNDS: Beebe, at one of a growing number of public appearances.
Mike Beebe decided he was interested in running for his local state Senate position in 1981. He was a 34-year-old attorney in Searcy and had never held elective office.
The odds were against him, for a number of reasons. First, the new lines drawn after the 1980 Census added his part of White County to a new Senate district dominated by Arkansas and Prairie counties. That benefited the incumbent, W.N. (Bill) Hargrove, a veteran senator who hailed from Stuttgart, the biggest city in Arkansas County.
“I didn’t know anyone in Arkansas County,” Beebe said.
But he decided to run anyway, and in January 1982 he went to Gillett for the Coon Supper, the biggest political event in Arkansas County, and a required stop on the circuit for any statewide politician.
“So we go by this guy’s house who always has a party before the Coon Supper,” Beebe remembered. “Back in those days, we had these tin buttons with my name on it, a sack full of buttons. [A friend] grabs them, he knows everyone, and he starts sticking Beebe buttons on everybody. So they all have my buttons on at the supper. We’re in Mr. Bill’s county, and it had an effect.”
Sure enough, Hargrove announced a few weeks later that he would not seek re-election. The Coon Supper story gets extra mileage because the pre-party was hosted by Marion Berry, now an Arkansas congressman, who claims credit for launching Beebe’s political career.
Scaring off opponents with a preponderance of campaign buttons is not the typical route to electoral success. But that anecdote is the only available explanation for how someone could face no opposition in his first political race when neither geography nor incumbency was in his favor.
And since then, through more than 20 years of holding office, Beebe — now the state attorney general — never has been opposed in a campaign.
Unopposed and unknown
Now, as Beebe moves closer to becoming the de facto Democratic nominee for governor in 2006 (no other Democrat, however obscure, has expressed interest in the race), his two decades of electoral ease could be his biggest liability, along with a legislative record that can be mined for damaging material.
Beebe is not officially a candidate yet, but an announcement is expected in early June. Even if he is not challenged for his party’s nomination, Beebe will face a big-name opponent in the general election, when the Republican Party will be represented by either former Congressman Asa Hutchinson or Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, who have already announced their candidacies.
“He’s never had the give-and-take of a true campaign,” said Richard Bearden, who is managing Rockefeller’s operation. “How is the guy going to react when after the May primary the Republican nominee whacks him in the head on something he didn’t think was a real issue? It will be a vastly different experience for Mike Beebe the candidate versus Mike Beebe the elected official.”
Beebe’s lack of campaign experience raises plenty of other questions about his ability to wage an effective campaign for the state’s highest constitutional office. It is impossible to know, for instance, whether he has the retail political skills to connect with voters. Can he deliver a good speech and debate effectively? Is he an effective fund-raiser, which will be especially important in a race against what is certain to be a well-financed opponent?
Another potential problem for Beebe is his statewide name recognition. Ernie Oakleaf of Opinion Research Associates could not reveal the latest numbers, but his 2002 survey for the Arkansas News Bureau — conducted when Beebe was running for attorney general — revealed only 33 percent of statewide voters recognized Beebe’s name, compared to 73 percent for Rockefeller. (Hutchinson was not on the ballot that year, and therefore was not included in the poll, although his brother Tim — then a U.S. senator — was recognized by 92 percent of the respondents.)
Beebe refused to discuss the 2006 campaign for this article, but he did say that he is “shocked” that through his entire career he has never been challenged for elective office.
“I never had a clue that would happen,” Beebe said. “People always throw that up, that I’ve never had a race. That’s not my fault. I stay in touch with people all the time, talking to them, getting their views.”
His supporters agree, and they believe he can overcome the deficiencies that result from his lack of campaign experience.
“There is nothing more character-building than having an opponent,” admits state Rep. Jay Bradford, who served with Beebe in the Senate. “But it’s not his fault. It is a credit to him that people were so satisfied with his service that they don’t run against him.”
Former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who participated in his share of hard-fought elections, said, “On the face of it, I don’t think it is anything other than something to talk about. He is not going to get elected without an opponent, and just because he hasn’t had very many opponents and hasn’t had a long history of races, does not mean that he isn’t perfectly capable of taking care of himself in a contest. Don’t forget he is an attorney, so he is accustomed to appearing in a courtroom on a regular basis.”
On the record
Beebe’s main advantage going into the governor’s race is that everyone agrees he knows state government better than anyone else likely to run against him.
“The most important thing I remember about Attorney General Beebe is that he always showed up,” said Bill Goodman, who became the state Senate chief of staff last May after 34 years with the Bureau of Legislative Research.
“If there was a meeting on a state issue, he would be there,” Goodman continued. “He would be there at the start of the meeting and at the end of the meeting — he stayed for the whole thing. Because he did that he became a known expert in the Senate for a variety of issues. He always volunteered to serve on task forces, committees, subcommittees. He was always deeply involved in state policy generally, because he was always involved in those hearings. As he got more seniority, he added to that knowledge, he was soon looked at as someone who would know the answers.”
The Senate clearly was a comfortable and natural environment for Beebe, who understood its rhythms, structure, and protocols. A January 1987 article in the Arkansas Times explains how Beebe quickly mastered the subtle arts of maneuvering in that environment:
“Beginning with the 1983 session, [observers] said, Beebe had somehow managed to ignore the unwritten rule about freshmen being seen and not heard, and had at the same time avoided the general opprobrium that normally accompanies such rash behavior. He had, they said, been assertive without being pushy, confident without being cocky, independent without calling down the wrath of the testy old bulls of the Senate. That’s not as easy as it sounds; one observer likened it to running at top speed through a cow pasture without stepping in anything.”
Beebe says that he didn’t have an agenda when he arrived in the Senate. (“I didn’t know what an agenda was,” he claims.) But he carved out a niche for himself as a deal-maker — someone who could create coalitions to get important pieces of legislation passed — and he ascended to the ranks of the Senate leadership by the early 1990s.
His style was pragmatic and non-ideological, which can be good or bad, depending on your perspective.
“I wouldn’t classify him as liberal or conservative, either one,” said Tucker, who has known Beebe since 1972 and whose governorship from 1993-96 overlapped with Beebe’s pinnacle of power in the Senate. “He was just practical.”
The flip side of that practicality, according to a longtime Senate expert who asked for anonymity in this article, is that Beebe was timid about being the primary sponsor of controversial legislation, voted for politically expedient bills, and accepted the ethically questionable culture of the Senate, even if he personally stayed clean.
For instance, this observer said, Beebe would often join his fellow legislators for golf outings sponsored by lobbyists. Beebe paid his own way, but his colleagues often would accept the freebie.
It is that kind of tightrope-walking that led Beebe to be called to testify in the 1997 federal prosecution of senators who created a kickback scheme utilizing state programs. Beebe claimed ignorance about their actions, even though he was running the Senate as president pro tempore at the time and the common understanding was that nothing passed the Senate without his at least tacit approval.
Beebe’s coziness with business and other special interests is well-known, but not easily quantifiable. His defenders say that such relationships are impossible to avoid as a legislative leader — after all, the lobbyists make a point of ingratiating themselves with anyone in a position of influence.
Still, Beebe shepherded the 1999 electricity deregulation bill while Entergy was a client of his law firm, and other companies with little or no business in Searcy kept him on retainer. One of his best friends is Morril Harriman, with whom he served in the Senate and who now leads the Arkansas office of The Poultry Federation. The list of similarly close connections to special interests goes on and on.
It could be argued, however, that it is an advantage for a Democrat to have such strong ties to corporate leaders, whose campaign contributions usually flow to the Republican side.
“He is going to have a great amount of support from the business community,” Bradford volunteered at one point.
Other possible vulnerabilities in Beebe’s legislative record are the votes he cast in favor of various taxes during his long career in the Senate.
“Beebe probably had 12,000 votes in the 16-18 years he was there,” Bradford said. “They’ll find 10 votes in his record that smell to high heaven and they’ll focus on that, and that will be his burden to explain.”
“Clearly Mike Beebe has a number of votes that we will be taking a look at,” confirms Christopher Battle, Hutchinson’s campaign manager.
Battle later added, “Mike Beebe is, in a sense, kind of John Kerry-esque. He has been engaged in government for a long time, but it is not entirely clear what he has done as a leader.”
Even though Beebe was hesitant about attaching his name to particular pieces of legislation, his commitment to education — particularly higher education — stands out in his time in the Senate.
His most notable achievement in that regard was the 1996 passage of Amendment 74 to the Arkansas Constitution, which established a uniform property tax rate that is devoted solely to the maintenance and operation of schools. Beebe also consistently worked to increase the amount of state funds directed toward higher education.
“Looking at his whole career,” Goodman said, “the things he stressed most were higher education and public schools, with the primary emphasis on higher ed.”
Beebe made the same point, and in doing so he brought in what may be the secret weapon of his impending campaign for governor: his life story.
“My number one area of interest was education,” Beebe says of his time in the legislature. “You can look at my background to figure that out. I’m a living, breathing example of what this country is all about, the American dream. Everyone has the chance to avail themselves of unlimited opportunities, and it starts with education.”
Beebe was born Dec. 28, 1946, in what he calls “an abandoned railroad dump” outside of Amagon, a tiny community in Jackson County. He calls it “the luck of the draw” that he was even born in Arkansas, because his late mother was working in Detroit at the time, and happened to come home to visit her grandmother.
“We went back to Detroit, but I lived in a lot of places growing up,” Beebe said. “I was raised by a single mother. I had a number of stepdads. I never knew my own dad. I have no brothers or sisters. My mother was uneducated. She was waiting tables; I was raised on waitress’ tips.”
Beebe says he lived in “a lot of ghettos,” including ones in Chicago, St. Louis, Houston and Daytona Beach. He and his mother landed in Newport when he was in the ninth grade, and that is where Beebe graduated from high school in 1964.
A student loan allowed Beebe to enroll at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, although he worked several jobs to make ends meet. He started law school four years later at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, but the Army Reserve called him to active duty and he spent 1968-69 training in Georgia and Alabama. After that, he returned to Fayetteville, earned his law degree in 1972, and landed a job at Lightle, Tedder and Hannah in Searcy.
It was a politically active law firm. Ed Lightle was a state senator, Cecil Tedder became a circuit judge, and Jim Hannah won several judicial elections on his way to his current position, chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Beebe first applied his political savvy in an unusual way, by angling for a seat on the ASU board of trustees.
“Usually those appointments go to people who helped the governor,” Beebe said. “I didn’t know Dale Bumpers from that window. I was 26 or 27 years old, and he didn’t owe me anything.”
But Beebe asked Lightle to write to his fellow senators requesting their endorsements for Beebe’s appointment. He called everyone he knew. And in January 1974, Bumpers named Beebe to the ASU board.
Beebe served there until 1979, when Gov. Bill Clinton replaced him. That was a big disappointment to Beebe, but it led him to consider the race for state Senate that led him to where he stands today.
Candidate in waiting
Beebe has been the presumed nominee before. He disappointed quite a few Democrats when he decided not to run for governor in 1998 and 2002, when many believed he had the best shot at defeating Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Asked about 1998, Beebe replies simply, “I didn’t think I could win. I looked at the polls. I wasn’t termed out of the Senate and I was doing well in my law practice. My son was going to be a senior, and most compelling was his last couple of years in high school. But I would be less then honest if I didn’t admit that it looked like an uphill battle.”
When Beebe again decided to pass on the governor’s race in 2002 in favor of a run for attorney general, rumors swirled that Beebe had cut a deal with Huckabee. It didn’t help that the Republicans did not field a candidate to run against him.
But Beebe said his decision to try for the attorney general’s office was motivated by his “love of law.”
“When Mark Pryor decided to run for the [U.S.] Senate, I thought there would be a ton of folks running for attorney general, Democrats and Republicans,” Beebe said. “I didn’t have a clue that I would run unopposed.”
Clinton has said many times that his favorite job was attorney general (an office he held in Arkansas from 1976-78) because “When I was attorney general, I didn’t have to hire people or fire them, appoint people or disappoint them, raise taxes or cut spending, and if I did the first thing unpopular, I could always blame it on the Constitution.”
In many ways, Beebe’s tenure as attorney general has been a holding pattern for his inevitable run for governor. In a typical week, like March 28 through April 1, Beebe’s public schedule included participating in a ceremony declaring Internet Safety Day, visiting a school, and speaking at meetings of the Phillips County Rotary Club, the Fayetteville chapter of Altrusa, the Russellville Chamber of Commerce, and Arkansas chiefs of police.
“He has been smart,” Bearden said. “Look at the things he has done as A.G. Every time I turn around he is giving out fans to elderly voters.”
Indeed, Beebe’s reputation as a cautious, pragmatic politician has remained intact, even as only weeks remain before he must wade into the unknown thicket of a brutal campaign. One gets the impression that he would postpone it forever, in order to maintain his dignity and avoid the side of politics he clearly does not like. It is almost as if the governor’s race is being forced upon him, and if term limits had never been enacted, he would have finished his career in the Senate.
“To be candid, I hope I don’t get to the point where I do something just for the sake of doing it,” Beebe said. “I enjoyed the work of the Senate. I enjoyed having my own job, my own law firm. I enjoyed the combination of private sector work and public work.”
Now Beebe practically doesn’t have a choice but to run for governor. He is the embodiment of the hopes and pent-up frustrations of Arkansas Democrats who desperately want to re-claim the governor’s mansion after 10 years of Republican rule.
They see Beebe as the only chance they have to win, and they have cleared the path for him. Now they must hold their breath, cross their fingers, and wait to see what happens.