Columns » Jay Barth

Ways to serve

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Last Friday, the statewide newspaper included two prominent headlines about former Arkansas state senators. On the front page was the story of former Sen. Jon Woods' conviction on 15 of 17 counts in a federal public corruption case in Fayetteville, a trial masterfully reported throughout by the veteran Arkansas journalist Doug Thompson. On the front of the Arkansas section was a celebratory obituary observing the death of former Sen. Jim Argue (D-Little Rock) from an aggressive kidney cancer. Two very different headlines about two very different men who happened to hold the same public office.

At the heart of the Woods case was his use of state General Improvement Fund appropriations as a mechanism for personal enrichment via kickbacks from the program's payees. (The most telling moment of the trial, as reported by Thompson, came in testimony from former Sen. Micah Neal (like Woods, a Springdale Republican), who remembered bemoaning his own financial challenges to Woods in advance of getting in on the game "because he observed Woods had a nicely furnished Little Rock apartment with sports memorabilia such as a baseball bat signed by Pete Rose and a signed photograph of Michael Jordan.") At its heart, the Woods case was about a criminal combination of a self-serving government official and governmental opaqueness to hide those sins.

My own interactions with Woods were fairly fleeting. The one I remember best centered on him bragging about his skill in drafting titles for legislatively referred ballot measures that would resonate with the state's voters. Woods' particular pride and joy was the 2014 constitutional amendment that hid state officials' pay raises and term limits extensions within what was termed an "ethics" measure. As a political scientist who researches direct democracy, I was fascinated by the power of language on a ballot to determine major issues of public policy. But, I also found myself unsettled by the sense that the unprincipled Woods saw the people of the state as his playthings.

While we were a generation apart, I had the fortune of interacting in a much more profound way with Argue, as we served as fellow board member for Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families for the last seven years. Of course, I am most thankful for his dedicated leadership on educational reform in the aftermath of the state Supreme Court's Lake View decision that has been much noted in recent days. The moment in Argue's public life that I remember most fondly, however, was an exchange with then-Sen. (and current state Supreme Court Justice) Shawn Womack as Womack presented his legislation to bar gays and lesbians from serving as foster or adoptive parents in 2007. I watched from the state Senate gallery.

Below on the Senate floor, Argue — who knew he'd lose the vote — asked Womack, "Are you gay or are you heterosexual?" A startled Womack replied, "Excuse me?" After Womack replied that he was, indeed, straight, Argue asked, "Can you prove that to me?" Womack haltingly said, "I certainly would, yes." "How would you go about offering up proof?" Argue continued. "I'm not sure that's a conversation that we would have in mixed company," Womack responded. Argue then extended his argument to Womack's legislation. Womack admitted it would be up to the state to prove a prospective parent's being gay or lesbian. Argue asked, "How would the state prove that someone's homosexual?" Womack admitted it could be difficult, particularly if individuals were closeted. Going in for the kill, Argue asked: "We're not going to install a camera in the bedroom, are we?" Womack won the day as his legislation passed the Senate, but Argue helped set it up for defeat on the other end of the Capitol.

While quite hilarious, the exchange also showed Argue's combination of wily smarts and a dedication to stand up for those who did not have a voice in that chamber. In sharp contrast with Woods, it showed a principled stand against those trying to play political games with the disenfranchised.

Former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Dale Bumpers regularly recounted his father's lesson that service in the public arena is a "noble profession." Argue's life of service was a great example of that nobility. But, as Woods' use of the office for personal gain shows, the other side of that coin is the politician who goes awry, doing intense harm to the public that puts its trust in the legislature in the process.

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