Columns » Ernest Dumas

Huckabee a conservative?

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Gov. Huckabee put himself in rarified company when he declared himself to be the most conservative governor in Arkansas history. Arkansas elected some mulish reactionaries back in the mists, but the governor said they did not hold a candle to him.

A few vitriolic people from what Huckabee once called the “Shiite wing” of the Republican Party and the rich man’s Club for Growth labeled him a big-spending, high-tax liberal, a description that was making its way through conservative blogs last week and troubling Huckabee’s young run for the presidency.

Calling yourself the most conservative of all Arkansas governors since 1837 is like calling yourself the whitest member of the Ku Klux Klan. You assume some keen competition. Since Huckabee does not speak rashly we have to presume that he has studied how he stacks up against the state’s 43 other elected chiefs.

He did not detail just how he built this ultraconservative record, but his signing of the income tax cut drafted by Democratic leaders in 1997 is most often mentioned. His campaign speeches in South Carolina and elsewhere boast of protecting public morals, which is the conservative value that is most likely to get him into the top rank of Republican candidates. Huckabee has backed measures to punish those who have unwanted pregnancies and opposed insuring rights for gays and lesbians. He has spoken against wider gambling and then quietly backed legislation to expand it, but that is a vacillation that has afflicted many governors.

Does his leadership on morals make him more conservative than a couple of former Klansmen who as governor fought the iniquities of gambling and of having a good time on the Sabbath? Huckabee says yes, he was more conservative even than Homer Adkins and Tom J. Terral.

“Holy Homer” crusaded against Hot Springs gambling for four years. Terral, who had to go to Bernice, La., in 1924 to find a klavern that would let him join so that he could run against the Klan-backed candidate for governor, made his toughest stand as governor when he blocked legislation that would have permitted Sunday baseball. But even that and the boast that he was the first governor in 20 years not to raise taxes could not get him elected to a second term.

Gov. James P. Clarke, the leading family-values politician of the 19th century, protected Arkansas from prizefighting. Clarke threatened to send the state militia to stop James Fitzsimmons from fighting James J. Corbett for the heavyweight championship at Hot Springs in 1896.

But Adkins, Terral and Clarke apparently were overmatched by Huckabee in the competition for most conservative. So apparently was Gov. Simon P. Hughes (1885-89), whose greatest stand as governor was to veto a bill by sinful city lawmakers to let butcher shops and bakeries stay open until 10 o’clock on Sunday mornings. Lawmakers wilted under Hughes’ fierce leadership and did not override his veto. But Huckabee claims to have been even more conservative than that.

But the big test is whether Huckabee, as he claims, has been a fiercer troglodyte than J. Marion Futrell and Homer Adkins.

Futrell, our Depression governor, was an apostle of small government. The Club for Growth would run him for president today. Futrell ran on a promise to halve government spending, already the lowest in the country. He fathered two constitutional amendments aimed at halting tax increases and government borrowing, which Gov. Huckabee, by the way, has successfully navigated.

He opposed spending money on high schools because the eighth grade was all the education any Arkansas boy needed. With 400,000 Arkansans, including nearly all school teachers, on federal relief the Roosevelt administration warned Futrell that it would cut off every dime of federal aid to Arkansas if the state did not raise some money to pay a small part of education and general relief like all the other states. Futrell didn’t flinch until Roosevelt actually dropped the ax in March 1934. Fearing lynch mobs of starving farmers at the Capitol, Futrell had the legislature pass the first sales tax and then legalize and tax whiskey and gambling.

It may have been that last buckle that allows Huckabee to claim he is more conservative than Futrell.

Huckabee, who speaks well of civil rights and utters compassion for illegal immigrants, will have some trouble with Adkins, maybe the leading Southern conservative of his time. When the U. S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ whites-only primary, Adkins declared the Arkansas Democratic Party “a white man’s party” and had a system of double primaries set up to keep blacks from voting in state elections. He hated the Japanese-Americans who were interned at Rohwer and Jerome during World War II, forbade any Arkansas business from employing them and had a law passed prohibiting anyone of Japanese descent from owning property. The law was declared unconstitutional. Jim Holt may match Homer, but we will have to hear Huckabee’s case that he is more conservative.

Those were all bourbon Democrats, among an almost uninterrupted string of governors from 1837 forward who were committed to keeping sin under control and taxes and government spending the lowest in the country so that Arkansas would be hospitable for business capital and economic development. The incredible success of their strategy is evident even today. Our governor is proud to top the list.

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