Someone needs to say a congratulatory word to and about Bob Johnson, the state senator from the countryside of Perry and Conway Counties.
Not so long ago, Johnson’s legislative record, even his legislative future, faced seemingly grave threat, to wit:
• House Speaker Bill Stovall had solidified the House to kill Johnson’s bill to let Deltic Timber Company defy Central Arkansas’s water interests and develop houses on the edge of Lake Maumelle. Stovall, who can’t run again in the House and resides in Johnson’s senatorial district, was considering running against Johnson, whose term is up this year. Speculation was that the powerful interests of Little Rock would ante up for Stovall because of Johnson’s wholesale assault on the drinking water.
• A lawsuit was filed challenging the constitutionality of local pork projects of the so-called “Brotherhood,” a self-named Senate coalition. This assembly of strange bedfellows — rural Democrats, Republicans and Central Arkansas African-Americans — was forged largely by Johnson’s uncanny knack for personal persuasion. Its over-arching purpose was to force millions in surplus funds that could have gone to schools to be distributed equally among all senators for their arbitrarily chosen preferences back home, like street improvements in Johnson’s little Perry County town of Bigelow.
• The more responsible establishment of the Senate was talking about a re-vote next year on the president pro tempore’s position. The Brotherhood’s designee, Sen. Jack Critcher of Batesville, had defeated the old establishment’s man, Dave Bisbee of Rogers, a moderate Republican, in a secret vote thought to be 18 to 17.
So, how are things going on all of that?
Stovall said the other day that he’s not going to run against Johnson or for anything. He cited family and business concerns. He must not have liked his chances running among the country boys as the city boys’ man.
State Sen. Gilbert Baker, chairman of the state Republican Party, tells me the GOP is emphasizing the recruitment of candidates for open legislative seats, not challengers to seemingly popular Democratic incumbents like Johnson. It bears mentioning that Baker is a member of the “Brotherhood,” more an ally of Johnson than of his party colleague Bisbee. Such is the peculiar nature of Arkansas legislative politics, where party matters less than personality and geography.
Just the other day, a Pulaski County judge said the following about the lawsuit against local-project spending: While there might be constitutional problems with some of the projects, the street work in Bigelow seemed to pass muster barely. The judge saw an arguable statewide tourism purpose, since people go to Wye Mountain to see daffodils.
Personally, I’ve never had to drive a Bigelow street to enjoy the radiant and abundant daffodils of Wye Mountain, which is five miles to the Little Rock side of Bigelow.
Meantime, the idea of a re-vote on the president pro tem has been pretty much abandoned. The old establishment can’t find a vote it could turn.
Johnson and the Brotherhood will lead the Senate next year. Put that with the lobbyist-friendly Benny Petrus as House speaker, and, well, let’s just say Central Arkansas ought to be glad it has condemned the Deltic Timber property and that the only argument seems to be price.
“I can’t win a clean-water, dirty-water argument,” Johnson told me last week. He said that wasn’t the real issue, but that Central Arkansas Water had craftily framed it as such.
I’m still suspicious that Johnson and Deltic could make a legislative run at pre-empting Central Arkansas Water’s eminent domain rights elsewhere in the watershed.
While I’m giving Johnson his due: I owe him an apology for writing with a ridiculing tone that his street work in Bigelow includes street lamps. He said it absolutely will not.
Johnson’s bill referred only to “street improvements.” I offer this not as a defense, but only as a point: One of the problems with these local projects is that they are defined too broadly.