With his eye on a possible Republican bid for president in 2024, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he has not gone on a farewell tour of the state as his eight-year tenure as governor moves closer to the end.
"I've intentionally kept a forward-looking agenda," the governor said Thursday in an interview in his office.
"When I am going out in my speeches, there is always something that we need to make our case on what we are doing."
Hutchinson, 72, acknowledged he has "sort of blended in this last year our state message with some comments on our national issues.
"I just think it is important to always be looking at the future. I am not ending my public life necessarily," he said.
Hutchinson said he will make a decision early next year about whether he's running for his party's presidential nomination in 2024.
Nearly a month ago, former President Donald Trump announced his own candidacy for the GOP nomination for president in 2024.
"While my legacy is important here as governor, I try to reemphasize what we have done and I want history to reflect that," Hutchinson said.
"It has been a very special eight years."
Hutchinson has served as governor since 2015.
His successor, Republican Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is scheduled to be sworn in Jan. 10. Sanders, 40, is the daughter of former GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee and a former White House press secretary for Trump.
Hutchinson is a former federal Homeland Security undersecretary, federal Drug Enforcement Administration director, 3rd District congressman and U.S. attorney.
He won his second bid for governor in 2014 by defeating former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross after he lost his first attempt at governor in 2006 to then-Democratic Attorney General Mike Beebe. He previously lost races for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and attorney general in 1990.
In 2018, Hutchinson handily won reelection over Democratic candidate Jared Henderson, a former executive director in Arkansas for the nonprofit Teach for America.
He said many things happen during a governor's tenure in office that a governor might get credit for, but a governor may or may not have had much to do with these things.
"What I think is important is where your leadership made a difference," he said. "You look at things I've had to really get out there and lead on. That's what I hope to be remembered for."
Hutchinson said that includes expanding computer science education in the public schools, income tax cuts, a highway improvement plan, reorganizing state government's executive branch agencies, and guiding the state through the covid-19 pandemic.
Hutchinson said he believes his leadership made a difference to enacting state income tax cuts in Arkansas because "there was a lot of opposition [saying] that 'we don't do this, we can't do this, we are going to be like Kansas', and we had to manage that in a way that did not disrupt services but still accomplished the goal of lowering our tax rates.
"We did that. But that took leadership."
Taxpayers will save approximately $750 million every year as a result of income tax cuts implemented under Hutchinson, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance and Administration.
The state's top individual income tax rate has been cut from 7% to 4.9% under Hutchinson's administration. Proponents of the income tax rate cuts said they make the state more competitive with other states and put more money in taxpayers' pocketbooks, while opponents counter that upper-income earners reaped a majority of the tax cuts and the money would be better spent on state services.
Hutchinson said his highway plan wouldn't have been enacted without his leadership.
"I put my political capital at risk," he said. "I was on TV promoting [a proposed constitutional amendment to permanently extend the state's half-cent sales tax for highways and roads]. I had to bring the plan through the Legislature, and that was leadership."
In 2019, the Legislature enacted legislation raising $95 million a year for highways by imposing a whole sales tax on gas and diesel, raising registration fees for electric and hybrid vehicles and reallocating a minimum of $35 million a year in state funds, including casino tax revenue.
Lawmakers also referred to voters in the 2020 general election a proposed constitutional amendment to permanently extend the 0.5% sales tax for highways that was originally approved in 2012 for a 10-year period. State officials projected it would raise about $205 million a year for highways and $44 million a year apiece for cities and counties. Voters approved the proposed constitutional amendment as Amendment 101 to the Arkansas Constitution.
Hutchinson said he spent more than a year to prepare for reorganizing 42 executive branch agencies into 15 departments, made it part of his 2018 reelection campaign and held town hall meetings to sell the reorganization to the public, and "that built momentum to get it through the Legislature."
The reorganization represented the most significant reorganization of state government since then-Democratic Gov. Dale Bumpers led an effort to reduce the number of agencies from 60 to 13 in 1972.
Hutchinson said the covid-19 pandemic "is not something that you prepare for, but you had to step up to the plate.
"I led in a different way, which was very transparent, bringing the public along, having my daily briefings on it," he said.
"While people can agree and disagree on particular points, the fact is I led for over two years in one of the most difficult challenges our nation has ever faced," Hutchinson said.
He noted Charles Brough was Arkansas governor during the Spanish flu and "there is absolutely no mention of the Spanish flu and the pandemic during his time as governor" in the Governors of Arkansas' history book.
"Now, I don't think I am going to be quite that fortunate," he said. "I do think it will be part of history. ... Part of it is I played a greater leadership role. I didn't just let the Department of Health manage it. I actually led the effort myself in response to it. It doesn't worry me, because I think we did a good job doing that and made good decisions by and large."
Hutchinson said there were some difficult town hall meetings at which he promoted the covid-19 vaccine.
"That went against the grain of what some other governors did," he said. "I think we had the right balance between providing good health information to people and not imposing overly restrictive mandates."
Asked about his regrets as governor, Hutchinson said "in terms of regrets, it is really a management of time."
Marketing Arkansas was important to him, he said.
"We went internationally," he said. "I wish the first two years I would have spent more time in Japan and Korea versus China. I don't know if that's an error. But it is certainly something that in hindsight I would like to change just because I didn't know that there was going to be a trade war and the opportunities were not going to be able to pay off."
Hutchinson has described himself as the jobs governor.
In October, there were 122,500 more people employed in Arkansas than when Hutchinson took office in January 2015, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's report in November. There were 1,324,900 employed in Arkansas in October of this year, compared with 1,202,400 in January 2015.
Since January 2015, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission said it has signed incentive agreements with 506 new and expanding companies with 26,784 new jobs for Arkansans with an average hourly wage of $21.04. These companies are expected to invest $14.1 billion in capital in the state.
Hutchinson said leaving the governor's office is a challenge because "we have to move items from the mansion [and] my office and put everything in archives, and my archives are at the University of Arkansas, so there is a lot involved with that.
"I intend to continue to work in the private sector, which I have done for 25 years of my life," after departing the governor's office, he said.
"I am not going to practice law, but I hope to do some other things that are of interest to me -- might write a book, might make some speeches -- so I am going to be busy and of course I am looking at the national 2024 election as well, so it is going to be a busy time."
Hutchinson said he will return to his home in Rogers, where he lives in the same neighborhood as Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman.
He said he doesn't have any advice for Sanders.
"I intentionally don't give advice to my successors," he said. "I think she is going to do terrific. She has really worked hard during the transition. It's a very cooperative spirit.
"Her concentration on education and reading is just right on target, so I think she is going to be a very pro-growth governor, and that's what I would like to see follow after [him], so I am excited about her leadership."
Hutchinson said he has hosted Huckabee for lunch at the governor's mansion and he and Sanders have worked closely together, and he's pleased with the relationship.
"In terms of the party, there is a different storyline today," Hutchinson said. "There is an ardent Trump wing of the party and then there are those that are looking for options out there in the future and that's a dividing point in the party."
Sanders said that Friday that "The Governor and his staff have been accommodating, helpful, and supportive throughout the transition.
"He and I met the day after the election, committing to a seamless transition, and we have spoken by phone several times since," she said in a written statement. "Governor Hutchinson put us on a great path of reducing taxes and growing our economy, and as governor I look forward to continuing to responsibly phase out the state income tax and improve opportunity for every Arkansan."
Mike Huckabee said Friday in a text message "The old trope about 'Huckabee vs. Hutchinson' was always a source of laughter between us.
"Asa was party chair when I first ran for the [U.S.] Senate in 92; he encouraged me to run for Lt. Gov. in 93; his brother Tim has continued to be a close friend and we worked together in campaigns and on government issues. I never saw us as 'wings' of the party, but if we were, it took both for the plane to fly!"
Huckabee, who served as governor from July 1996 until 2007 and made unsuccessful presidential bids in 2008 and 2016, said "Asa has been a great governor and especially effective in managing through the pandemic and recruiting business and industry to the state."
OTHER VIEWS ON HIS LEGACY
Heather Yates, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas, said governors' legacies are subject to many fluid variables.
Unlike presidents who enjoy opportunities to preserve their curated public legacy through a library, gubernatorial legacies are subject to how their successors govern and what the political distance does to the public's collective memory, she said.
"In Governor Hutchinson's case, as he's teasing out a run for president, he's actively curating his public image based on accomplishments he wants to be remembered for, notably his fiscal conservatism, tax cuts and reduction of government spending while also expanding health care coverage through Arkansas Works (with the support of Federal assistance)," Yates said in a written statement.
Hutchinson also is touting his efforts to modernize the state's digital infrastructure and labor force through enhanced training programs such as the coding academies, she said.
"However, these legacies are subject to what his successor does in her administration," Yates said.
The other variable at work is whether Hutchinson makes a bid for president, she said.
"It's reasonable to think he is building a platform and message for a national office," Yates said. "Time will tell how he will be received by this particular GOP. Hutchinson has tried to fashion himself after the Reagan fiscal conservatives, but given how the GOP is evolving and shifting, it is not clear how that will work in the 2024 landscape in a crowded presidential primary. If Hutchinson does run for president and however his platform plays out on a national stage, it will likely influence the public's memory of his administration."
Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said Hutchinson will be remembered for his covid-19 response, among other things.
"While many national figures used a global crisis as an excuse to burrow deeper into their ideologically-pure boxes, governors had to govern," she said in a written statement. "Asa Hutchinson was among the very best examples of this. His briefings were regular, informative, and pragmatic and they drew upon the expertise of medical professionals. In terms of executive actions, he appeared to weigh the public health benefits of masks, vaccines, and closures against the costs to children and families, the economy, and our frayed social fabric, and -- in light of all of that -- chart a course that was workable for Arkansas. And he did that, remarkably, without hyperbolic pronouncements."
Parry said Hutchinson also did not engage in the culture wars that win votes but don't solve problems.
"Examples include vetoing the ban on transgender affirmative care, keeping 'bathroom bills' off the legislative agenda, and suggesting that if we're going to ban legal abortion in Arkansas over and over again, it might also make sense to offer more support to pregnant women, including exceptions to the ban in certain circumstances," she said. "Hotter heads sometimes prevailed, but history should note that cheap points didn't interest him."
Parry said Hutchinson is clearly serious about a presidential bid.
"Indeed he was out of the gate early as an alternative to a brand of Republicanism he found troubling," she said. "And he appears to have found some traction. To be frank, I hope he stays in the hunt. It's easy to rib him for being so low-key, so pragmatic, so averse to embellishment. But, really, in the midst of all these loud pops and whistles, who couldn't use more of that?"