Some people think it odd that the chairman of the supposedly nonpartisan University of Arkansas Board of Trustees is running as a Republican candidate for the state Senate. The Arkansas Times hoped to hear the opinion of the trustee/politician in question, Mike Akin of Monticello, but he declined to return our calls. He's notably taciturn for a public official.
Akin was appointed to the UA Board by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. Since he's been a UA trustee, he struck a for-profit deal with the University of Arkansas at Monticello, one of the educational institutions he oversees, to build a private retirement center on campus. Questioners were advised — by university officials, not Akin, who stood mute then too — that the UA allows its trustees to do business with the university, so long as the conflict of interest is made public and the trustee profiting from the contract doesn't vote on it. Suggestions that the UA adopt a higher standard of conduct for trustees have not been followed, so far as we know.
Earlier, when he was a member of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, also by Huckabee appointment, Akin accepted state money from the agency under him to take over a Dumas furniture plant and fold it into an ongoing Akin operation, not apparently the "new business development" that the taxpayers' money was intended to promote. Then he cut the Dumas workers' pay. He did not respond to inquiries about that transaction either.
Akin's opponent in Senate District 26 is state Rep. Eddie Cheatham, a moderate, low-key sort of Democrat from Crossett who is term-limited out of the House. The Senate seat is a new one drawn by the Board of Apportionment that consists of Ashley, Bradley, Drew and Chicot Counties, and parts of Cleveland, Desha and Lincoln Counties. Sen. Jimmy Jeffress of Crossett, who is term-limited out of the Senate, now represents District 24, which is similar to the new District 26.
Asked if Akin's dealings with public agencies under his supervision was an issue in the campaign, Cheatham said that he tells people, "I've never used a public position for my own benefit."
Cheatham is a retired public school teacher and college administrator. Akin, a furniture manufacturer, has a much larger campaign treasury. He also has the advantage of being a Republican in an area that is expected to vote heavily for the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney. Cheatham said that people sometimes ask him about President Barack Obama, and "I encourage them to remember this is a state race." But he said the questions about Obama don't seem as numerous this year as they were two years ago, when Cheatham was re-elected to the House. He said the people who ask him about Medicaid expansion, a major part of Obama's health care plan, are "mostly hospital administrators and health care people who seem to think that it's a good idea, that it would help rural hospitals." But he hasn't made up his own mind on the subject, he said. The legislature probably will be asked by Gov. Mike Beebe to approve the Medicaid expansion.
"The question of who can work better with Governor Beebe comes up quite often," Cheatham said. "I went in the House the same time he became governor. People want me to continue to assist him. I think we've done a pretty good job. We've had big tax cuts and a balanced budget. I fear it'll be different if it's given over to the other party."
Democrats have a slight majority in the Senate. District 26 could be crucial in deciding whether they retain it. Democrats have historically represented the area.
Akin's term on the UA Board of Trustees will expire in 2013. UA trustees traditionally serve until the governor names a replacement, which means that if Akin is elected to the Senate, he might be a legislator and a trustee simultaneously. He could avoid that by resigning from the board early. It's not known if that's his plan. Another question avoided.