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The mechanic

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If legislative prowess is measured in the number of proposed laws a senator filed in a session — or even in a career — Sen. Mike Beebe of Searcy would be an also-ran.

Beebe never built a reputation as a go-to Senate expert on a specific state government issue the way his colleagues made names for themselves on specific issues: Jodie Mahony with public education, Jerry Bookout with public health, Jay Bradford on social issues, and Mike Everett on constitutional issues.

But Beebe was the car mechanic who could open the hood and keep the vehicle-of-state running.

He sat on the most powerful committees in the legislature, most notably Joint Budget, which scrutinizes state spending, and the Legislative Council, which acts as a mini-legislature of sorts in between General Assemblies.

He doesn’t care much if he works with a Democrat or a Republican. He is impressed by brainpower, problem-solving skills and innovative thinking. He has had a plethora of opportunities to publicly blast Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and make partisan political hay. But instead, Beebe would go to the governor’s office and quietly explain what needed to be done and why. It frustrated his partisan friends, but it would frustrate Beebe more to see a solution and not get it implemented.

“If he’s right, he’s right; if he’s wrong, he’s wrong — it hasn’t got a thing to do with partisan politics,’’ Beebe said in a 1998 interview about his votes for and against Huckabee-backed proposals. “He did a lot of other things I thought were silly.”

Beebe has the reputation of being able to craft solutions to knotty problems. He is a consensus builder and a problem solver. When issues or problems surfaced, Beebe sought solutions, soliciting ideas, working through potential roadblocks before bringing his proposal to a vote.

He sponsored the 1994 law that ended partisan election of judges, and in 1997 was lead author of the bill creating ARKids First to extend Medicaid coverage to the children of low-income working parents.

At the height of his power and influence in the late 1990s, he served on the most sought-after committee in the state Capitol — Senate Insurance and Commerce, the place where bills affecting all manner of business and industries are heard, or sometimes buried. It is a committee where industry lobbyists try to peddle their influence. And legislators — who receive part-time pay for sometimes more than full-time responsibilities — can enjoy the benefits of associating with lobbyists with the fattest expense accounts in the state.

Beebe always prided himself on paying his own way at lobbyist-arranged golf outings, restaurant dinners and other social occasions. But questions surfaced over the years about the propriety of special interests — including what was then Arkansas Power and Light — paying retainers to law firms whose associates served in the legislature, including the Lightle firm of Searcy, which Beebe was a member of.

Non-lawyer legislators called the practice “legal influence peddling,” but Beebe and other lawyer- legislators balked at full disclosure rules, saying they would violate attorney-client privilege the lawyers considered sacrosanct.

Ethics reform continued to be a hot topic, with Democratic legislators attacking Republican Huckabee and his penchant for accepting gifts and his loose accounting of campaign money converted to personal use, prompting a series of actions by the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

Huckabee returned the volleys in 1997 when an Arkansas Times story exposed a scheme masterminded by Sen. Nick Wilson in which several sitting legislators — all Democrats — stood to profit from their public offices.

Beebe, at the time considered a potential candidate for governor in the next election, and two other legislative leaders announced they had crafted a proposal for a tough new ethics law and called for an immediate special session to enact it. But Huckabee balked, citing what he called his mistreatment at the hands of legislators in the 1997 general session, his first. Instead, Huckabee would establish a toll-free telephone line for people to call his office and report what they believed to be instances of impropriety by public officials.

In November 1997, Beebe blasted what he said was an attempt to politicize the issue.

“The worst thing that could happen is for people to try to politicize it and to demagogue it. That makes it easier for people to lose faith,” he said. “It is not a Democrat or Republican thing. It’s not the legislative branch versus the judicial branch or executive branch. It’s right versus wrong.”

— Joan Duffy

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