The Arkansas Senate on Thursday selected Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, over Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, to be the next Senate president pro tempore from 2021-23, in an election that surprised Hester.
The 35-member Senate elected Hickey as the president pro tempore designate in a secret ballot. Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, announced the result without disclosing the vote count.
Hickey designated Rice to be his vote counter. Hester, nominated by fellow Senate Republicans last week, designated Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, who is a former Senate president pro tempore, to be his vote counter.
That puts Hickey in a position to succeed Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, who has been in the post since 2019 and will serve in that capacity until January 2021.
In 2018, Hickey lost his bid to be the Republican nominee for president pro tempore to Hendren.
"We have some shoes to try to fill that are almost impossible [to fill] because ... Senator Hendren's leadership that we've been through, especially during this critical time in this covid[-19 pandemic], has been extraordinary," Hickey told the Senate before the vote.
"Him and I have not always agreed. But I do mean that," he said.
Both Hickey, 53, and Hester, 42, have served in the Senate since 2013. Hickey is a retired banker who is in the residential rental business. Hester is a contractor.
Hickey is a former co-chairman of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee and is known by his colleagues for digging into the details of legislation, state contracts and other state government business. He's also been a critic of Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson at times. (Hutchinson is Hendren's uncle.)
Hester, now the Senate Republican leader, has been outspoken at times. In February, Hester, who has been a critic of rulings by the Arkansas Supreme Court in recent years, accused the high court of being "a friend of the child rapist."
Last week, the 26-member Senate Republican caucus nominated Hester for president pro tempore in an election in which Hickey didn't participate.
Hickey has said he opted against running in the Senate Republican caucus to be its nominee because he wanted the upper chamber's 35 members to elect him.
The Senate also includes nine Democrats.
"I think it is a surprise any time you go into a deal you feel confident that you've done the work," Hester said in an interview after Hickey was chosen Thursday. "I don't know what happened. I don't even know what the vote was. But clearly the majority of those that voted were for Sen. Hickey."
He acknowledged that he thought he had enough votes lined up.
"I think anytime someone goes into a leadership race they think they have the votes," Hester said.
He later said he is glad that a majority of the Senate Republican caucus voted for him to be the next president pro tempore.
" Sen. Hickey had a good strategy that worked well on his behalf," Hester said.
Asked about his apparent coalition of Democrats and Republicans, Hickey said in an interview, "I think it had to be across the whole body, from what we have seen today."
Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said, "It was very refreshing that the entire Senate had the opportunity to vote on who would represent them rather than [the nominee of] either caucus."
Hickey said, "You never know down here," when asked whether he thought ahead of the election that he had enough votes lined up.
"The truth is, you have to stay humble and ... you are really at the mercy of your colleagues down here and they all have different ideals and different opinions, and that's just the way it is sometimes, so you never know," he said.
Asked about what he would do different as the Senate president pro tempore, Hickey said, "I have to be realistic that we have to work with the House.
"My intentions are, and I would think that the House would want to do this ... where we have kind of consolidated power ... I want to put that back into a larger amount of our members ... and just let the process work, so that's my probably my No. 1 priority," he said.
Asked if he would continue to be a critic of Hutchinson at times, Hickey said, "Gov. Hutchinson is my governor and he is going to be my governor.
"The thing is him and I both know together, I believe, that sometimes we have to work hard at working together," he said. "The truth is that I think that's what this the process is about down here and sometimes easy is not the best route anyway. There is no doubt that we have to work with the executive branch. That goes without saying. My priority will be the Senate body," he said.
Asked about Hickey being a critic of him, Hutchinson said, "I have had a lot of people that have been critics of mine from time to time, so I've never had any challenge in working with that environment.
"I had a great conversation with Sen. Hickey earlier today, congratulated him on the win and also just look forward to doing some great things for Arkansas, so I have no doubt that we'll be able to do some good things together and that's the voice of the Senate and they've spoken and look forward to working with him," Hutchinson said.
Hendren said in an interview that he knew that the race between Hester and Hickey would be close.
"So I'm not necessarily surprised one way or the other," he said.
Asked about Hickey's occasional criticism of Hutchinson, Hendren said, "One thing I have learned as pro tempore is you set the guidelines and try to establish fairness, but you don't always set the policy.
"The majority sets the policy, so I don't see a whole lot of change," he said.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, who is unopposed in his bid to be re-elected to the leadership post for 2021-23, said he looks forward to working with Hickey.
"I think we have a really good relationship. He is somebody that we have worked with on a number of issues in the past and has always been really engaged in the process, so as we move toward the next session, I look forward to the opportunity to work with him more closely," he said.
Metro on 04/17/2020
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