GRAVETTE -- Sen. Jim Hendren says he would be surprised if his uncle -- Gov. Asa Hutchinson -- could find anyone who has talked "harder and straighter to him and disagreed with him more about some of his priorities than me."
But he says their disagreements stay private.
Hendren -- a 55-year-old Republican from Sulphur Springs who owns Hendren Plastics Inc. and is a colonel in the Arkansas Air National Guard -- will formally become the leader of the Arkansas Senate starting Jan. 14, the start of the 92nd General Assembly. He will serve as Senate president pro tempore until early 2021, succeeding Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy. It will be Hendren's highest-profile role in that body, where he has served since 2013.
During the past six years, he has served stints as the Senate Republican majority leader and as a co-chairman of three legislative task forces that recommended changes for public school and state employees' health insurance programs; the Medicaid program; and the tax code.
Jim Hendren is the son of former state Rep. and Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette. His mother, Marylea Hutchinson Hendren, is the governor's sister. Former U.S. Rep. and Sen. Tim Hutchinson is the brother of the governor and Marylea Hendren.
Although his father's time in the House has ended, Jim Hendren won't be the only family member in the Legislature for the next two years. His sister is Rep.-elect Gayla Hendren McKenzie, a Republican from Gravette who was elected in November to succeed their father.
Senate Director Ann Cornwell said she isn't aware of any previous Senate president pro tempore or House speaker who was related to a governor when they served in the posts. Officials in the state House, secretary of state and state archives said they aren't sure whether that's occurred in the past.
"Clearly, that was a concern about me being pro tempore," Hendren said. Senators voted in March to choose him as president pro tempore-elect, after the Senate Republican Caucus voted to nominate him over Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.
"Is it too much power in one family and am I going to just hurt the independence of the Legislature versus the executive branch?
"Clearly most of the Senate didn't agree with that because they know me and I guarantee the governor knows me and the family relationship is very important," Hendren said in a recent interview in his Hendren Plastics office in Gravette.
"But my role and my responsibility as pro tempore of the Senate and the role of the Senate is different than the role of the executive branch, and we will fulfill our role," he said.
Hendren said that in some ways, having the relationship that he has with Hutchinson makes it easier for him to tell the governor "when I think he is doing something not great or when I disagree with him and, believe me, that has occurred many times, but it occurs in private.
"Sometimes, we work it out and sometimes I don't support what he is doing or he won't support something I am doing. But we have the kind of relationship where we laugh about it and we don't take it personal," he said. "I have got some frustration from the governor as well about my stubbornness. But we have tremendous respect for each other, I think."
Asked about Hendren and Hutchinson's relationship, former Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who served as president pro tempore from 2001-03, put it this way in a recent interview: "I think they were philosophically aligned, notwithstanding their relationship."
Beebe described Hendren as levelheaded, objective, pragmatic and pleasant to deal with when Beebe was governor.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said, "I don't make much of it because none of us get to choose our relatives.
"All of us might have chose differently if we were choosing who our mothers and dads may be, so that's part of who [Jim] is. He can't help that. He can't change that," she said.
Brenda Vassaur Taylor of Fayetteville has a different take on Hendren and Hutchinson's relationship. She's a co-founder of the Conduit organizations that have disagreed with Hendren and Hutchinson about Arkansas' version of Medicaid expansion that provides health insurance to about 230,000 low-income Arkansans.
She said Hendren is "military-minded," and "he is used to following the directions of the commander and I believe the governor is the person he takes directions from.
"It's not a personal attack," Vassaur Taylor said.
But Hendren said "Brenda doesn't understand the military mindset," which he said supports the Constitution and accomplishes the mission without violating their oaths as officers.
Vassaur Taylor said she hopes that Hendren is successful at improving the integrity of the Senate. She said she is glad that he persuaded fellow senators to authorize videostreaming meetings of that body and its committees, starting this session.
In August, Hendren's cousin, former Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, was indicted on 12 counts of wire and tax fraud that accused him of misspending campaign funds. Jeremy Hutchinson resigned from the Senate and pleaded innocent to the federal charges.
Over the past two years, five other former lawmakers have been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal charges as a result of federal investigations. Jeremy Hutchinson's resignation came two months after Jim Hendren prodded the Senate into overhauling its ethics rules in the most sweeping changes of those rules in two decades.
Asked about suggestions that Hendren is merely following the governor's lead, Gov. Hutchinson said, "They said the same thing about Sen. Dismang, that he was just carrying my water, so it is just an easy thing to say.
"They've said that about committee chairmen, so that's just really a throw-away line," he said.
"Sometimes, we [disagree]. A good illustration is I presented a four-year plan to phase in the '2-4-5.9' [income tax] plan, and he and his leadership argued to reduce that and have a quicker time frame on it, so if anybody sees his leadership on the [tax overhaul] task force, they understand he leads in his own way and independently," the governor said of his nephew.
In December, the task force said it preferred implementing Hutchinson's tax cut plan over a three-year period rather than the four years in his proposal. In his written ranking of three income tax cut plans, Hendren's top preference was implementing Hutchinson's tax cut plan over two years.
State officials call Hutchinson's proposal to gradually cut the top individual income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5.9 percent the "2-4-5.9" plan because of the rates that ultimately would be charged at different income levels. People with taxable income up to $8,000 would pay a 2 percent rate; those with between $8,001 and $18,000 in income would pay 4 percent; and those making $18,001 and up would pay 5.9 percent.
State officials project the governor's plan would reduce state revenue by nearly $192 million a year after it's fully implemented.
The current top rate of 6.9 percent applies to people making at least $79,300 in 2018 taxable income, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration.
Gov. Hutchinson noted that he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997 through 2001 when his brother Tim Hutchinson served in the U.S. Senate.
Hutchinson said questions about how things will work between him and Hendren could have also been raised about him and his brother.
"You manage it, and you realize how special it is to be able to serve with family," he said. "Jim and I go a long ways back, and I have the highest regards for him. He is an action leader and obviously that comes from his military background being a fighter pilot."
Hutchinson said he, Dismang and Hendren are all conservatives.
"It's natural that we are going to hopefully wind up in the same place and lead in the same direction, so just because there is not daily combat doesn't mean people are not acting independently. It's just we have a common goal," he said in a response to Vassaur Taylor's comments.
As his company's website puts it, Jim Hendren grew up in the foam business with Kim Hendren. The elder Hendren owned and operated two foam plants starting in 1967.
In 1984, Jim Hendren graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and then left Hendren Plastics, which he and his father formed, to serve in the Air Force as an F-15 fighter pilot from 1984 until 1992.
The logo of an F-15 Eagle is placed on each float that the company produces because Hendren said the Eagle is a symbol of the finest airplane ever built. After returning to Hendren Plastics in 1992, he ran the business with his father for several years, and he has been the sole owner since 2000.
He also served stints on the Gravette School Board from 1992-97 and then from 2002-12. Hendren returned to military service through the Missouri Air National Guard in 2003 and then transferred to the Arkansas Air National Guard in December 2017.
Hendren served in the state House of Representatives from 1995-2001 and lost a bid to former U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison to be chairman of the state Republican Party in 2000. He then lost a 2001 special election for the 3rd Congressional District seat to John Boozman, a Republican from Rogers who is now in the U.S. Senate. The congressional seat was vacant because Asa Hutchinson had resigned to become director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under then-President George W. Bush.
Hendren largely self-financed his congressional campaign, which reported that it owes him $450,142.15 as of Sept. 30 from loans that he made to that campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission website. He said he would have to run for federal office to raise money to repay himself and he doesn't plan to do that at this point, but "if I ever run again and I didn't file that report, I couldn't recover that money."
Hendren has "mellowed a little bit" since he served in the Arkansas House and clashed with then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, at times, said Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, who is one of two state senators who served with Hendren in the House.
"As an officer, he expects people to jump when he says jump. We legislators don't work the same," Teague said. "I don't think there will be a problem. There's always a bit of transition to a new leadership. But I think Jim listens. I think that will make a difference.
"Jim tries to do what he thinks is right. It doesn't mean he is always right, but he tries," Teague said. Teague served in the House from 1997-2003.
Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, served in the House from 1999-2003.
Bledsoe said she first met Hendren in 1999 when he was the House Republican leader.
"He was just fantastic. There was no question too dumb, no question off the wall. He was just very patient with us. Not only trying to help us learn the ropes, but he talked to us about issues," she said. "You can trust him."
Hendren said Huckabee became very frustrated with a group of Republicans called the Shiites that included Reps. Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith and Ted Thomas of Little Rock, as well as himself because "we didn't support a lot of his efforts.
"There was definitely some tension, and I have told folks that we were a lot more careless then. We could file whatever legislation we want because we knew the chances of it actually becoming law were not that great in an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature," he said. "It was different times and no question I have matured some since then.
"But I also think my role has changed now, and I told Republicans when we were first elected as majority party [in the 2012 election] that now we own it," Hendren said. "Before that, Democrats owned it. Now, if we end up with a budget crisis or if we end up with a health care crisis or roads falling apart or whatever it is that people get upset about, it is 100 percent owned by the Republican Party."
Huckabee said he thinks Hendren will be a very effective leader in the state Senate.
"His experience as a jet fighter pilot puts him in rare air for understanding leadership and he has a brilliant and analytical mind," Huckabee said in a written statement to this newspaper. "He has the benefit of leading when Republicans hold a solid majority."
Bledsoe said she started trying to persuade Hendren to run for the Senate after she started serving there in 2009.
"I don't like to lose, but having that 10 or 12 years' time with my kids is far more valuable to me than going to Congress would have been, so it worked out," Hendren said.
"I was content with where things were, but then Sen. Bledsoe came and asked me to jump back in the Senate," he said.
"She is probably my longest and best friend through politics and when she asked, it is hard to tell her no. But the compelling part of her case was, we are going to be in the majority. For once, the Republicans are going to be in control and pass policy changes as opposed to kind of being marginalized."
Invariably, political observers wonder whether whoever serves as Senate president pro tempore or House speaker will run for higher office in the future. At least a few of them at the state Capitol have privately asked whether Hendren is interested in running for governor.
"I don't know that any politician can truly say they have never thought about what they are going to run for in the upcoming elections," Hendren said.
"There may be some who say I never want to be anything else but this. But I don't know what I am going to do. That's where I am at right know. But have I thought about running for other offices? Sure, but I have not made any decision and I don't know for certain what I want to do," he said.
"I think depending on what happens with term limits, I could stay in the Senate for a while longer or I can come back and take another hiatus like I did before. That worked out fine, too, so I'll have to discuss it with my wife [Tammy]," Hendren said.
"It is a little easier now because the kids are out of the house, so she's a lot more on board with maybe some other alternatives. But I am not even going to think about that until I get through the session."
Jim Hendren, a colonel in the Arkansas Air National Guard and an Air Force F-15 fighter pilot from 1984 to 1992, speaks at a Veterans Day service Nov. 11 in Gravette.
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Print Headline: For new Arkansas Senate leader, politics is in the blood