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I'm sipping coffee on the second-floor balcony of the Captain Henderson House in Arkadelphia, one of the best bed-and-breakfast inns in this part of the country. It's quiet on this Saturday morning. There's very little traffic on U.S. 67. The Henderson State University campus to my left is abandoned, the spring semester having ended several weeks ago.

This was my favorite house when I was growing up in Arkadelphia, though I never got to go inside as a boy. I knew it as the Stone House, not because stone was used in its construction but because it was the home of the Alvin Stone family. It was only as an adult that I learned of the home's ties to Charles Christopher Henderson, who was among the state's top businessmen in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Henderson was a banker, railroad promoter, lumberman, cotton broker, dairyman and cattle dealer. He was appointed to the board of trustees of Arkadelphia Methodist College in 1891 and was considered a leading layman in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He donated almost $20,000 to the college to help alleviate its debt. In May 1903, Henderson became board chairman and held the position for two decades. Arkadelphia Methodist College changed its name in 1904 in order to honor Henderson.

HSU has been going through a rough financial patch, a situation documented by a series of stories in this newspaper. I'm in a reflective mood on this morning, perhaps because I attended my 40th high school reunion the previous evening. I think about the thousands of Arkansans that Henderson has educated through the decades, many of whom were the first people in their families to attend college. I think about the importance of education in what historically has been a rural, poor state that has struggled to increase the per capita income of its people. And I think about what Gov. Asa Hutchinson can do in his final four-year term to truly move the needle in Arkansas.

May was a good month for the governor. He easily dispatched a far-right zealot named Jan Morgan, who had attempted to appeal to Arkansans' worst instincts. A number of the state's political observers thought Morgan would garner between 35 and 40 percent of the vote in her attempt to tap into the voter anger that propelled Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. She struggled to make it to 30 percent.

I had fears myself after seeing Alabama Republicans nominate a cartoonish character named Roy Moore in a race for a U.S. Senate seat. The GOP proceeded to lose a seat it should have never lost. Given the choice of a similarly cartoonish candidate, Arkansas Republicans proved that they are a lot smarter than Alabama Republicans.

Hutchinson will cruise to victory in the fall against token Democratic opposition. He knows that two of his biggest headaches in the state Senate, fellow Republicans Bryan King and Linda Collins-Smith, won't be back. Republican primary voters saw the light and defeated both incumbents in the primary.

Now Hutchinson has the luxury of thinking about his place in Arkansas history. He will be 68 years old when his next term begins and 72 when it ends. It's safe to assume that this is Hutchinson's final political campaign.

When I worked for Gov. Mike Huckabee, the priority of the final four-year term was dictated by the Arkansas Supreme Court. The court ruled just days after the 2002 election that the state's system of funding public education was unconstitutional. Huckabee's final four years were consumed by attempts to comply with what became known as the Lake View decision.

Hutchinson has more latitude with no such bombshells from the judicial branch on the horizon. We're fortunate to have a man like him leading the executive branch rather than some Trump clone. Call him The Pragmatist. While Hutchinson knows how to dish out red meat on the campaign trail, he has continued what has been more than five decades of progressive leadership in the governor's office.

That's a good thing. Since Winthrop Rockefeller was elected governor in November 1966 at the end of the 12-year Orval Faubus era, Arkansas has had a string of nine governors who have been pragmatists rather than ideologues. Four have been Republicans (Rockefeller, Frank White, Huckabee and Hutchinson). Five have been Democrats (Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe).

Earlier this year I was invited to speak to the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis when it met in Little Rock. I talked about how Arkansas was the state that lost the largest percentage of its population from 1940-60. Asked to explain what turned things around, I didn't hesitate to note that we've had almost 52 years of pragmatism in the governor's office. In a nation that seems to be ruled via Twitter, Hutchinson's most endearing trait is the fact that he hesitates before answering questions. He appears to consider his response for a few seconds and then answers slowly.

There's no reason that Hutchinson can't be both pragmatic and bold in his final term. He can make the biggest impact on Arkansas' future by focusing on higher education with the same type of intensity that Huckabee used in the area of K-12 education from January 2003 until January 2007. The unemployment rate in Arkansas remains near a record low. Business owners tell me that they would love to expand if they could find qualified employees. Most of the jobs they need filled require training after high school. That's why it's time to put the focus on our two-year and four-year institutions of higher education. The percentage of these institutions' budgets provided by the state has been falling for decades. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, that trend must end.

It's fashionable to say we need more plumbers and welders. We do. But we also need more people with bachelor's degrees, master's degree and doctorates. It's time for legislators to realize that we won't increase per capita income in the state until we do that. It's essential that a strong governor like Hutchinson take the lead and help those legislators see the light.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 06/17/2018

Print Headline: The Pragmatist

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