Columns » John Brummett

Oh, and Marion Berry retired, too.


Oh, and Marion Berry retired, too

Madness so pervades Arkansas politics that the announced retirement of an entrenched 14-year Democratic congressman who sits on the Appropriations Committee is the least of it.

Marion Berry has been getting tired of the grind for several years. I'm told he nearly retired two years ago. He's 67 and there have been health issues. He has an uncommonly expansive rural district, Arkansas's First, stretching from the southeastern Delta to the north-central hills, and he has insisted on traveling it extensively.

Redistricting after this year's census will gain the district yet more territory as it loses population share. Maybe it will pick up White County, where Republicans are popular. There is the farm. There are grandkids.

Being a member of the House of Representatives isn't all that great. It's pretty much drudgery if you're in the minority in the current polarized climate. Being in a big majority this year has been no cakewalk either, not when you represent a district that drubbed a president of your party by 20 points and while the woman who got you on Appropriations leans on you to give her just one vote, on health care.

Most likely this seat will remain Democratic. Even Republicans begrudgingly admit that. The region has not been represented by a Republican since Reconstruction, which is not to say stranger things haven't happened. The district did, after all, favor John McCain over Barack Obama by 20 points. The biggest theme right now in Arkansas, the First District aside, is a potential seminal shift. It's an angry mood nationwide for incumbents, yes.

But it seems potentially a little more than that in Arkansas.

It's as if the perception of the Obama tilt of the national Democrat Party has threatened the comfortable conservative Democratic culture of the state. The extreme right in Arkansas is galvanized; the center is defensive; the left is irrelevant.

It begins with U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln's extraordinary vulnerability, which has to do with Obama, and its domino effect. She polls with such consistent and overwhelming weakness that there is open talk among Democrats that maybe she'd pull a Chris Dodd and do the party the favor of stepping aside so that Wes Clark or Mike Ross would run. She seems unlikely to do that, having raised $5 million and not being very appreciative of this lack of respect from a party she's worked hard to oblige.

If Ross were to run for the Senate, that would send a half-dozen Southern Arkansas politicians into a race for Ross's congressional seat from the Fourth District of southern Arkansas. The district also likely would remain Democratic, though with less certainty than the First. Jay Dickey, a Republican, did, after all, represent it not too many years ago.
It seems fairly certain that U.S. Rep. John Boozman, the state's only Republican congressman, will announce any day now for Lincoln's seat. That's mostly because of general dissatisfaction with the vulnerability of a nine-man Republican field and specifically with state Sen. Gilbert Baker's inability to solidify himself as the establishment frontrunner.

Baker will have to decide whether to stay in a race for which he's raised more than a half-million dollars. He vows he won't try to drop down to Congress for the vacancy created by Vic Snyder's retirement. I almost forgot to mention that development, since it was last week's news. Republicans lead the polls for that vacancy.

If Boozman goes for the Senate, Asa Hutchinson will presumably want to go back to Congress, for some reason. And he'd win. Northwest Arkansas is staying Republican. There's that certainty at least. A congressional delegation stable through the 2000s at 5-1 Democratic conceivably could be 3-3 this time next year. I'd think 2-4 is very unlikely. But we've been 3-3 before, in the late ‘90s when Dickey was in Congress and Tim Hutchinson was in the Senate.

The only thing certain is that Democrat Mike Beebe will run for re-election as governor and win to keep the ship steady over choppy waters. I think.

But I probably ought to hold on to this column until shortly before deadline, just in case.

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