Columns » Max Brantley

Now what?

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The Arkansas Times goes to press Tuesday afternoon, an awkward time in an election week. You’ll receive this paper after the votes have been counted, but, at this week’s deadline, we can only guess at the results.

I’m guessing that the near-universal poll trends will be borne out and Democrats will sweep statewide offices in Arkansas. Republicans may make a few gains in the House of Representatives, but it will remain overwhelmingly Democratic, as will the Senate.

If this is indeed the future of Arkansas politics, it is not necessarily reason for great joy, even for a voter who typically votes Democratic. It is a time, even, for words of caution.

Gov. Mike Beebe will be as qualified as any predecessor to govern. We have no fear of him on technical or intellectual grounds. He’s a centrist and a consensus builder. He’ll be no comfort to either extreme. But he’ll be cheered into office by good friends who now make up the lobbying elite of Arkansas, notably in the energy and poultry sectors.

Beebe’s lobbyist friendships have roots in his legislative service. A couple of them began their political careers as colleagues in the legislature. So these lobbyists are not strictly — as is often the case — friends simply because they are paid to make friends with elected officials.

But they represent interests that don’t put taxpayer, ratepayer or, notably, environmental interests first. Their employers’ interests come first and they will have great access.

Elsewhere among the Democrats you have to look hard for effective counterweights to a government dominated by special interests, particularly with the toll that term limits exact on veteran legislators. Old-school pols who believe and practice nepotism dominate the state constitutional offices. Even the fresh faces, such as Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, bring unsettlingly close connections with power brokers. (His political godfather is Jonesboro real estate developer Bruce Burrow.)

You need a magnifying glass to find hope in the legislature. The Senate is headed by Jack Critcher of Batesville or, more specifically, by the graspy Brotherhood, the Deltic Timber-loving pork barrelers who regularly put parochial interests ahead of the common good. In the House, Rep. Benny Petrus will be in charge, he who provided his Capitol Hill apartment to the Deltic/Oaklawn lobbying combine at the last session of the legislature. He’s likely to install many cut from his cloth in key positions of committee power.

The Democratic Party — with Rep. Marion Berry and operatives of his persuasion in control of the party apparatus — further reflects the ascendancy of East Arkansas interests to 19th-century levels.

One-party dominance is something of an oversimplification. The Arkansas Democratic Party has never been a monolith. Many run for office under its banner for habitual or technical reasons. They vote like national Republicans on social issues. They are just as irresponsible when it comes to pork barrel spending and just as slavishly devoted to corporate interests.

But one-party rule is not a healthy thing, even so. There is no better illustration of this than six years of national Republican domination. Mike Beebe has more respect for law and Constitution than George Bush, but that’s scant comfort when I consider some of the opportunists soon to be riding high in the Arkansas Capitol. I expect, before it’s over, to have days when Mike Huckabee looks good by comparison.


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