- BRIAN CHILSON
A Christmas party this year at a home just a few steps from the Governor's Mansion was something of a group therapy session for the several hundred liberals who dropped by.
Striking, amid the political gloom, was how often people pointed down the block and remarked how the occupant, Republican Asa Hutchinson, had been a bright light.
Yes. Let us now praise the governor for a starkly moderate record, at least in comparison with other red-state executives:
If taxes must be cut again, the governor at least has asked to focus this year on people at the bottom of the income ladder, left out of his first income tax cut.
He fought the ballot initiative on medical marijuana, but now says the voters must be respected and the regulatory process is moving ahead. He also prefers the efficiency of executive rule-making to cope with inevitable glitches, not excessive legislative meddling.
Speaking of legislative meddling: He took state command of Youth Services when lobbyists stopped his effort to contract with a new private operator of lockups. He threatens to ask a court to decide whether the legislature has usurped the executive's power to contract for executive agency services. (I fear a terrible 2014 constitutional amendment may have done just that.)
He's promised greater state attention and even money to the state's ailing foster care system. He's also been careful to withhold judgment so far on some legislative efforts, perhaps well-intentioned, to curb the powers of neutral courts in child placement decisions. The legislation seems overly influenced by a single case, a bad start for law-making.
Time and again, he's been careful on hot-button social issues.
Republican Rep. Charlie Collins wants to force colleges to allow staff to be able to have concealed weapons on campus. Hutchinson, who's been a spokesman for the NRA, said he prefers the current system in which college governing bodies make those decisions.
There's support in the legislature for a bathroom bill to require people to use the restroom that matches their birth gender. Said Hutchinson: "I think the compelling arguments are: One, we don't have a problem. Secondly, we're awaiting more information from the courts and the Trump administration, and I do not believe that we ought to be engaged in legislation when there's not a problem. ... From the solutions I've seen in other states, they can be counterproductive."
He's forthright about the need to end the state's dual observance of the birthdays of civil rights hero Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee, who fought to preserve slavery. Said Hutchinson: "I've read biographies of Robert E. Lee ... and he was on the wrong side of history. He was on the wrong side of that war. But I think you also have to look at how he tried to join in healing the nation afterwards. I think if Robert E Lee were here today, he would say 'move my birthday, and Dr. King deserves the recognition.'"
He declines to stir the anti-immigrant pot in the brush fire over the potential use of a rural facility in Garland County as a temporary home for displaced immigrant children without documents. He's worked in Homeland Security. He knows these are primarily Central American children fleeing desperate situations. He doesn't see them as a safety risk, any more than the troubled U.S. kids who once used the facility for job training. He also said he looked dimly on legislation to dictate what municipal policies must be in immigrant matters. He said he favors local control.
There's plenty more big stuff, not the least his fight to continue the Obamacare Medicaid expansion here, his promotion of computer education and his fight to end the criminally abused General Improvement Fund allotment of "surplus" money for local pork barrel projects.
I could qualify several of these items. For example, there's some self-interest for the governor budgetarily in keeping expanded health coverage for Arkansas and in doing away with GIF pork barreling. And I expect no moderation on some issues, women's health care, particularly.
But the list of pluses is remarkable, particularly in these dark political days.