Columns » Max Brantley

Trying hard for No. 2

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I’ve never quite understood, beyond the stepping-stone potential, why anyone would run for lieutenant governor. But in the last month, I’ve lunched with a couple of interesting Republicans who are dead serious about making the race in 2006. One is Dr. Carl Johnson of Little Rock, a black man from Marked Tree who is happy to acknowledge the help he received from white people (a fact I note because when he mentioned it once in a newspaper interview, it irritated some blacks) in moving through the University of Arkansas and the UA Med School. He’s hitched himself firmly to the Republican team and been rewarded by the governor with one of the best appointments in state government, the UA Board of Trustees. He’s also developed the kind of connections useful to grab a coveted seat on the Little Rock Airport Commission (complete with parking spot). Now he wants to move up. He tussles daily, if not hourly, with the question of how a black Republican nominee would fare in a general election. I think his first concern should be which candidate will be anointed by all-important Northwest Arkansas powers in the Republican primary. Should Johnson prevail in the primary, historic black voter resistance to Republican candidates will get a test and Johnson won’t be free of baggage. Testimony in the Nolan Richardson case showed that other UA trustees had used racial epithets. Johnson insists he’s dealt quietly and forcefully with them on that issue. Black voters might have wished for a more public display, even some resignations. But about that Northwest Arkansas question. Here’s where my other lunch partner, Jim Lagrone, comes in. He’s an amiable Baptist preacher from Saline County and twice president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention, which translates into pastoral friends at every crossroads, including, he says, Ronnie Floyd, the very political pastor of a Springdale megachurch. Lagrone described himself as a “liberal conservative,” though he’s as conservative and as literal about Scripture as you’d expect him to be. But his time as denomination president included a praiseworthy initiative for racial conciliation. My lingering question about Lagrone is sincerity, thanks to a Lagrone fund-raising letter I obtained later. It apparently was sent to all Baptist preachers in the state. Lagrone had told me his passion was creating better jobs for Arkansans. The letter didn’t mention jobs. It was a call to arms against Democrats, who “will stop at nothing,” he wrote. “Our Arkansas way of life will be in danger and our values will be threatened — the life of an unborn child, the right to bear arms and our most basic conservative convictions.” Lagrone invoked family values and the sanctity of marriage, as if Democrats spit on these things. And there were still more gun warnings. “I’ll make sure to protect our God-given right to bear arms.” (Help me here: Was it in the Old or New Testament when He signed off on AK-47s?) When I wrote Lagrone a note about the tone of this letter, he told me it was only supposed to go to “very conservative religious folks.” Call me crazy, but what’s wrong with sending the same message to every potential voter? I’d say Lagrone is off on the wrong foot with Democrats, including the many who believe in and practice family values. Some, he knows now, are Baptist preachers with my mailing address.

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