Columns » Max Brantley

So many races, so few words

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As a momentous election builds to a climax, it's hard to know where best to deploy 600 words.

I write after AETN's debate between U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton, with two third-party candidates preventing focused exchanges by the major candidates. Cotton managed to say the name Obama roughly six dozen times — once every 10 seconds in his closing remarks. He also repeated bodacious whoppers in a cold, robotic performance. He provided an effective context for nice-guy Mark Pryor, who zinged Cotton for his ownership by billionaires and his interest in nation-building overseas to the detriment of programs for American people.

In the governor's race, some of the same dynamics are at work. Republican Asa Hutchinson, in his fourth try for statewide office, presents an appearance of amiability that belies the meanness of his philosophy. Democrat Mike Ross is superior on substance, if not always on style. Hutchinson has been forced to renege on an instant income tax cut promise because of simple budget arithmetic. He continues to waffle on a bipartisan health insurance program that has provided health security to 200,000 Arkansas. He's a reluctant supporter of an increase in the minimum wage. Ross has a sound income tax plan (gradual) and is a firm supporter of the private option insurance plan and the minimum wage increase. But Ross, too, labors under the Obama ally label.

AETN gave voters — the few who bothered to watch — a piercing look at the 2nd District Congressional race. Former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays wore his good-guy outfit and talked about his successes as a nonpartisan mayor. J. French Hill, the millionaire Republican banker, did, as one reader suggested, a good impression of "Beverly Hillbillies" banker Milburn Drysdale. Fresh off pocketing a $4 million personal deal in a bank merger that likely will cost some co-workers their jobs, Hill made it clear that he philosophically opposed minimum wages and said they did little to help those in poverty.

These high-profile races have sucked up dollars that otherwise could go to important statewide races. If it mattered. Recent polling demonstrates, however, that there are more yellow-dog Republicans than yellow-dog Democrats in Arkansas, something in the range of 45 percent to 40 percent. It's a shame, because some statewide offices deserve more than party-line voting.

The state's chief election officer, Secretary of State Mark Martin, is a mystery man, rarely seen in public. His poor office management includes failure to educate voters about the voter ID law his party passed to suppress Democratic votes. His Democratic opponent, Susan Inman, is an election expert with a record as an amiable and accessible public official. Quite a contrast to the surly Martin who, alone among major candidates, refused to participate in AETN debates.

For attorney general, the Republicans nominated Leslie Rutledge, whose resume shows a string of undistinguished stints in political patronage jobs, a couple of which she left amid questionable circumstances. The Department of Human Services wouldn't rehire her on account of "gross misconduct," which perhaps included the abysmal decision to circulate a friend's email about a needy family written in cartoonish black dialect. The main alternative, Democrat Nate Steel, is a solid small-town lawyer and legislator.

Then there's the race for state treasurer. The GOP nominee is Dennis "What We Need is Another 9/11" Milligan, best known for attempting to blackmail Duncan Baird out of the primary race with some political dirt. Milligan beat him with sleazy tactics and liberal use of the word Obama. Baird supported the private option insurance legislation. Good Republicans still won't utter a word of criticism about Milligan, even though the Democratic nominee, Karen Sealy Garcia, is a squeaky clean former accountant for a Fortune 100 corporation and an able Hot Springs council member.

Partisanship and uninformed voters equal power in Arkansas politics today.

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