LITTLE ROCK — Mike Ross was telling me the other day that no one outside a 10-block radius of the state Capitol yet cares about the governor’s race of 2014.
After all, we must pick a president before that. We also must decide whether to imperil our Legislature with Republican majorities.
But Ross, the retiring Blue Dog Democratic congressman and a potential gubernatorial candidate in 2014, was incorrect. I care. And I was calling him from my home, which is a little more than 10 blocks from the Capitol.
We tend in Arkansas to stick with a governor. But Mike Beebe is term limited and can’t run again in 2014. So the open race looms as potentially epic, owing to the volatility of the time and the steady Alabama-izing of Arkansas.
Will we continue the tradition of a governor like Beebe who believes in state government services and knows how to make them work? You have Ross and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, and maybe Bill Halter, and maybe even another curious prospect offering themselves presumably for that.
Or do we switch to, say, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a Tea Party Republican with pizza experience? Darr and his insurgent ilk, favorites of the Koch brothers, would shrink state government to lower taxes on the well-to do, deregulate business and free poor people to navigate amid the lower taxes and unfettered commercial enterprises.
I called Ross last week to ask about something I’d heard. It was that he is undecided about whether to make the governor’s race and, instead, has lucrative consulting opportunities in Washington after he ends his congressional service in January.
Actually, Ross always has said that he is leaving Congress at the end of the year merely to consider a Democratic gubernatorial run. As a fairly well-positioned conservative Democratic congressional insider, there indeed are special interests in Washington that would pay him well to consult.
For now, though, Ross keeps his options fully open, requiring that he talk and behave as a serious candidate.
Ross and McDaniel vie for Beebe’s establishment and centrist Democratic mantle. In our conversation, Ross repeatedly invoked Beebe. The congressman talked of his long service as a Beebe ally (read: understudy) in the state Senate and of his like-minded fiscal conservatism committed to responsibly balanced budgets.
But there is talk that another Beebe associate, John Burkhalter of Little Rock and a Beebe appointee to the state Highway Commission, is interested in running, presumably as a Democrat.
Burkhalter is a 52-year-old engineer and paving contractor and businessman of considerable self-made means who formerly was chairman of the Economic Development Commission. Beebe’s press secretary tells me that the Beebes and Burkhalters have become close friends.
Apparently Burkhalter has that affliction affecting many accomplished men of business. It’s the governor itch. You remember Gov. Raymond Rebsamen and Gov. Sheffield Nelson.
But the rumblings are that Burkhalter sees a possible niche in a Ross-McDaniel contest and would fund his own campaign generously.
I spoke briefly by phone on Monday with Burkhalter. He said it was “way too early” for such a conversation and that he was committed to his service as a highway commissioner. But, yes, he said, he is considering a run.
And, yes, he said, he and Beebe are friends and he believes the state has been fortunate to have Beebe at the helm during “the toughest economic times of my lifetime.”
Halter remains out there ever-elusively.
Yet another Democratic prospect, Mike Malone of Fayetteville and the Northwest Arkansas Council, tells me he has thought about a race and believes a Democrat from Northwest Arkansas could compete in a general election.
But he says that would be unlikely in a field with Ross running strongly from southern Arkansas and McDaniel running strongly from eastern Arkansas and Burkhalter writing big checks and courting Northwest Arkansas.
On the Republican side, Darr makes Asa Hutchinson seem positively moderate, which is a touch of magic. And, yes, Asa has been thinking of running yet again.
But there is talk, which is merely that at this point, about U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, perhaps the stoutest force in contemporary Arkansas Republican politics. It is that he, with a young family, might have a greater interest in returning home to be governor than in challenging Mark Pryor for the U.S. Senate in ’14.
If Griffin could get his mentor and benefactor, Karl Rove, to throw some of that super PAC money into Arkansas in his behalf, then that would just go to show that it’s never too early to start worrying and wringing hands.
John Brummett is a regular columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com.