State Land Commissioner John Thurston is a pleasant, unassuming sort of fellow, which is about as much as can be said for any land commissioner. His is, as Thurston himself acknowledges, "a low-profile kind of job."
Indeed. Below governor and attorney general, all the state constitutional officers are little noted, and the land commissioner least. Even the lieutenant governor, whose job is baldly unnecessary, occasionally draws attention by presiding over the state Senate when the legislature is in session — a couple of months every couple of years — and appearing at public functions when the governor's out of town. Barring a catastrophe of New Madrid Earthquake proportions, the land commissioner toils in obscurity, or, more precisely, the land commissioner's staff toils. Unless a constitutional officer sets out to make waves, as Secretary of State Mark Martin seems to have done, longtime employees in his or her office will keep it running smoothly for the most part. There are 37 employees in the land commissioner's office today, and most of them were there before Thurston arrived in January. Some have more than 20 years' service. Even Nikki Heck, whose title is "communications specialist" and who sits in on a reporter's interview with Thurston, came to work in the office when Charlie Daniels was commissioner, a decade ago.
Daniels is fairly representative of the kind of person usually found in the lesser constitutional offices — someone who's supported and made friends with various politicians (most often, Democratic politicians), has certain political skills himself, and knows his limits. Since the voters approved term limits in 1992, these people can no longer settle down in one constitutional office indefinitely, as they once did, but they're adapting. (Sam Jones was land commissioner for a quarter of a century, ending in the early '80s, and was largely forgotten except when his name appeared on the ballot in election years. Lack of attention seemed to please him. He gave a bottle of whiskey to every state Capitol reporter at Christmas, and it was generally believed this was in gratitude for keeping his name out of the paper.)
After Daniels was term-limited out of the land commissioner's office, he then took over as secretary of state for the maximum two four-year terms. He's now the state auditor, having been elected in November 2010, at the same time Thurston was elected land commissioner. Mark Wilcox, Daniels' successor and Thurston's predecessor as land commissioner, was term-limited out. Thurston became commissioner by defeating the Democratic nominee, L.J. Bryant, who was not especially well-known either — really well-known people don't run for land commissioner — but more prominent than Thurston.
Now 38, Thurston was born and raised in Sardis (Saline County) and graduated from Sheridan High School. He attended Henderson State University in Arkadelphia before graduating from Agape College, a Bible college affiliated with Agape Church in Little Rock. He was a licensed minister for a time, ministering to prison and jail inmates, but he stopped preaching when his wife got sick, and didn't feel like going back to it after she died. For 13 years before he was elected land commissioner, he worked for Agape Church, a nondenominational congregation. Asked what he did at the church, he said he was involved with maintenance and security, "those type of things." He doesn't claim that it was a high-ranking position.
When people ask him what the land commissioner does — and they ask frequently — Thurston explains that he's essentially a tax collector. When the owners of real property don't pay their local property taxes, the counties convey the property to the state land commissioner for public auction. The proceeds from the sale of a particular piece of real estate are sent back to the county where the property is located. Most of the money eventually goes to the public schools. Since 2003, the land commissioner has collected more than $123 million for public schools, according to the office's website.
The office of land commissioner was created in 1868, as an appointive office. In 1947 voters approved a constitutional amendment making land commissioner an elective office. Arkansas is one of only five states that have an elected land commissioner. The Arkansas commissioner's salary is $54,000.
Before last year, Thurston had never run for office, nor been active in other people's races. What prompted him to run? "I'd always been interested in politics and public service. When I realized there'd never been a Republican in this office, I thought this was the time to run. I'd voted Republican, but I hadn't been heavily involved with the party."
Some Republican activists appeared as perplexed as anyone else by Thurston's candidacy, but Thurston says that when he told Republican State Chairman Doyle Webb of his plan, Webb said, "Come on." He borrowed money and ran a low-budget campaign suitable for a land commissioner's race, spending a little over $30,000. He received contributions from individuals, Republican groups around the state and realtors, and ended the campaign with no debt, something he's proud of. Some of his contributors had Agape connections, obviously. (Agape is the parent of an evangelical television network, VTN. A preacher/promoter named Mike Murdock is one of the stars.)
Mostly, Thurston drove around the state appearing at various events and putting up lots of signs. He frequently encountered his opponent and the two got along well. There are no debates in a race for land commissioner.
How did the obscure Thurston win? Bryant issued a statement the day after the election: "Last night was a tough night if you happened to have a 'D' by your name, and our race was one of those caught up by the tsunami that swept across America on this election day." Thurston concedes that a wave of Republicanism swept across the country in November, but he says that can't be the whole story. If people had voted a straight anti-Democratic ticket, he said, Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, couldn't have carried every county.
Republicans won three of the state constitutional offices, the best they'd ever done, and they probably would have won more if they'd put a candidate in every race. Asked if he and Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and Secretary of State Martin confer about the problems of a Republican officeholder in a predominantly Democratic state Capitol, Thurston said there might be impromptu discussion of state business when the three meet at public functions, but, "We don't hang out together." (Martin and Darr have not responded to Times requests for interviews.)
Has the small, modest John Thurston become a hero to Arkansas Republicans, with his surprising victory? "I've had people thank me for stepping up, but I think it'll take a little time for me to be considered a pillar of the party."
As for his own Republican heroes, he mentions Winthrop Rockefeller first — "He paved the way for the Republican Party in this state" — then Abraham Lincoln (not all of today's Republicans like to claim Lincoln) and Ronald Reagan (they all do like to claim Reagan). Rockefeller was a liberal, Reagan a conservative, but that sort of seeming contradiction happens in politics. Reagan always said Franklin Roosevelt was one of his heroes.
Lincoln's name was evoked once in fairly dramatic fashion during Thurston's campaign. As Thurston tells it, he was campaigning in the Heights when a man asked if he was a Republican. He said yes, and the man then said he wouldn't vote for him because Republicans were against black people. Thurston protested, mentioning Lincoln and his accomplishments. "I do not believe that DNA has changed," Thurston says. The critic was white, incidentally, like everybody in the Heights.
To make sure black voters knew he wasn't an enemy, Thurston ran an ad on a black gospel radio station — one he listens to frequently, he says — pointing out that he'd been married to a black woman. Her name was Tiffany; they met at Agape Church. She died of cancer at 28. They had no children, and Thurston hasn't remarried. "But I am looking."
The only unpleasantness since Thurston took office involved Rep. Keith Ingram (D-Marion), who wanted to take a big chunk of surplus funds from the land commissioner's control and use the money for legislators' pet projects. Instead, the money ended up being used, with Thurston's acquiescence, for state employees who were owed pay. Ingram also sponsored a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the offices of land commissioner and lieutenant governor. The legislature rejected it. The Ingram affair was the only time Thurston has felt the sting of partisanship, he said, and he was most hurt that Ingram didn't discuss his projects with Thurston. "He never came by one time," Thurston said. "That bothered me a little bit."
Even after winning the election, he still seems like an underdog.