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OPINION | REX NELSON: Thank you, Governor

by Rex Nelson | January 9, 2022 at 2:08 a.m.

I met Asa Hutchinson in 1984 when he was a 33-year-old U.S. attorney. I was a 24-year-old political operative working for Judy Petty, the GOP nominee in Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District.

Petty lost that fall to Tommy Robinson, the Democratic sheriff of Pulaski County. Robinson ended up switching to the Republican Party in late 1989 and lost the following May to Sheffield Nelson in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Hutchinson kept plugging along in the GOP, hanging in there as others flamed out.

It was inevitable that I would meet Hutchinson since there were so few of us who identified ourselves as Republicans. We were all on a first-name basis. Hutchinson was what I call "the good party man," willing to run losing races at home between stints serving Republican presidential administrations.

Hutchinson was raised in rural northwest Arkansas and earned a bachelor's degree from Bob Jones University in South Carolina, a fact that caused people to believe that he was much further to the right politically than he actually is. After obtaining his law degree from the University of Arkansas in 1975, Hutchinson began practicing law at Fort Smith.

At age 31, Hutchinson became the youngest U.S. attorney in the country. President Ronald Reagan appointed him in 1982 to serve the Western District of Arkansas. National media attention ensued when a three-day armed standoff with a white supremacist organization known as the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord saw Hutchinson put on a bulletproof vest, walk in and negotiate a peaceful conclusion to the crisis.

In 1986, Hutchinson played that role of "good party man" and took on Democratic U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. The incumbent won easily.

Four years later, Hutchinson was the "good party man" yet again, losing to Democrat Winston Bryant in a race for attorney general. After the campaign, Hutchinson became co-chairman of the party with Nelson and later was the sole chairman. It was Asa's brother Tim who went off to Congress in January 1993, replacing Republican U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, who had retired.

Asa's time to win a race came in 1996 when Tim chose to run for the U.S. Senate seat that was open due to the retirement of Democrat David Pryor. Mike Huckabee had been the favorite to win that race, but that was the year that the political dominoes began falling in Arkansas.

Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, caught up in Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation, was convicted of felony charges in federal court in May 1996 and announced that he would resign by July 15 of that year. Huckabee, the Republican lieutenant governor, moved up to governor. Huckabee chose to drop out of the Senate race to finish the final two and a half years of Tucker's term.

Tim Hutchinson won the Senate seat, defeating Bryant. Asa Hutchinson sought his brother's seat in the 3rd Congressional District and won with 55 percent of the vote. Tim served just one term in the Senate, losing his re-election bid to Pryor's son Mark. It was Asa's star that continued to rise.

Asa was re-elected to Congress in 1998 and 2000. He received national attention during the 1998-99 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, serving as one of the House prosecutors.

Hutchinson left Congress in 2001 when he was appointed by President George W. Bush to head the Drug Enforcement Administration. Following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, and Bush chose Hutchinson to lead the border and transportation arm of DHS.

Hutchinson returned to Arkansas to run for governor in 2006, playing the role of "good party man" one last time in his loss to Democrat Mike Beebe.

The transformation of Arkansas from a Democratic state to a Republican state began in earnest with the 2010 election cycle. By 2014, it was clear that Arkansans would elect a Republican as governor. Hutchinson defeated a Tea Party candidate named Curtis Coleman in the GOP primary and then got 55 percent of the vote against former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Ross in November.

I only had a couple of doubts about Hutchinson when he took office. Given his years in Washington, I feared he might bring the divisive brand of Washington politics to the state level rather than practicing the pragmatic style of predecessors such as Beebe and Huckabee. I also feared that having come from a far corner of northwest Arkansas, he might not be attuned to the needs of the Delta and south Arkansas.

I need not have worried. Since the election of Republican Winthrop Rockefeller in 1966, we've been blessed with a string of pragmatists in the governor's office. These men refused to bring Washington-style partisanship to the state Capitol. Five of those governors (Bumpers, Pryor, Clinton, Tucker and Beebe) were Democrats. Four (Rockefeller, Frank White, Huckabee and Hutchinson) were Republicans. None were on the ideological fringe.

Sure, Clinton talked further left on the national stage than he governed in Arkansas, just as Huckabee talked further right on the big stage than he governed. Hutchinson also has governed from the middle. That's particularly fortunate at a time when GOP extremists, emboldened by the nuttiness and vulgarity of the Trump administration, have tried to hijack the legislative branch.

Hutchinson has begun his final year as governor. We've been blessed to have him at this point in our state's history. He has stood up to legislators in his party that I call the Know Nothings when the easier thing to do would have been to look the other way. If only more legislative Republicans (the large group I term the Cowards) had the courage to take on these clownish characters.

It's not always easy to tell at the start of a legislative term who might become a Know Nothing. It's a paradox of Arkansas politics that the best member of the Legislature (thoughtful House Speaker Matthew Shepherd) and the worst legislator (the vacuous fabulist Trent Garner in the Senate) hail from the same area of the state.

While dealing with various factions in the Legislature, Hutchinson also has steered the state through the pandemic. He has again sought a middle ground, ignoring those on both extremes who will use a health crisis to score political points. We could have done much worse than having Hutchinson in the governor's office these past few years. Given the circumstances, it's hard to see how we could have done better.

The question facing us now is whether the next governor (Sarah Huckabee Sanders unless the political equivalent of the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes strike) will govern in the style of the previous nine governors. Her campaign so far has been sad and discouraging, filled with tweets intended to divide us while fighting culture wars that have nothing to do with being governor of Arkansas.

I've known Sanders since she was 10. She's intelligent. She comes from a good family, people I consider friends. My hope remains that she was just cynically raising money last year. She is, after all, a political strategist by trade.

Now that the fundraising phase of the campaign has been spectacularly successful, Sanders must be mature enough to realize the time has come to focus on issues that will make life in Arkansas better. She also must be humble enough to admit she's far less prepared to serve in office than were those previous nine governors.

Without tough political competition this year, Sanders has the luxury of using 2022 as a time to build alliances, ask questions, read and study relentlessly in preparation for being governor.

If that happens, we'll know she wants to be remembered by historians not only as our first female governor but also as a great governor. On the other hand, if the political nationalization of the campaign continues, we'll know she doesn't much care about her place in Arkansas history. She cares more about playing on the national stage and making money after leaving office. Arkansas is merely a steppingstone.

As far as Hutchinson is concerned, his place in Arkansas history is secure. It's one of which he can be proud.

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

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