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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Resentment takes its toll

by John Brummett | January 11, 2022 at 3:04 a.m.


State Sen. Keith Ingram of West Memphis, one of the few remaining moderate Democrats holding office in Arkansas, announced Friday that he would not seek re-election this year.

That was a symptom.

Hours later, rampant unrelated rumors, unconfirmed at this writing, began to swirl that state Sen. Trent Garner of El Dorado had told people he would not run again this year. This supposedly was for reasons including that he needed to make more money and had other unspecified interests.

That represented a potential significant reduction in the problem of which Ingram's announced departure was a symptom.

"The whole complexion of this place changes if that's so," a close Senate observer emailed to me in reference to the swirling Garner rumors.

And if it turns out not to be so, I still had a hook for a column about the sorry state of Arkansas legislative politics.

In bowing out for sure, Ingram cited the loss of collegial bipartisan problem-solving in a Legislature that had become more strident and was newly alienated by simple differences of opinion. He said some of his Republican colleagues were his good friends, differing views notwithstanding, in the civil ways of the recent past. But he said others now on the right in the Senate won't tolerate such "camaraderie."

He didn't name the sources of this new animosity. But everyone knew that Garner and Sens. Bob Ballinger of Berryville and maybe Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro--and occasionally Jason Rapert when in Church Lady overdrive--were chief suspects.

Garner and Ballinger are the consistent ringleaders of right-wing resentment politics in the state Senate. They insist on advancing Trump-imitative hostility.

Garner says Asa Hutchinson is so tamely yesterday. He and Ballinger demand votes such as the one on the unconstitutional law saying schools shall not mandate masks no matter the situation or local or executive gubernatorial preference. By their insistence on ideological stridence, they force many Republicans--weak, for sure--to go along for fear of losing GOP primaries on charges of being dirty deep-state liberals down deep.

Democratic senators tell me that, sometimes, Republican colleagues come by and tell them they're sorry they had to vote for whatever they just voted for. The bill saying state and local law enforcement personnel shall not betray supposed Arkansas sovereignty by helping federal officials enforce federal gun laws--that was one.

Rapert wanted to extend the recent special session on income tax cuts to pass a Texas-style anti-abortion law that is under legal challenge and likely to be pre-empted soon by a Mississippi case. On this rare occasion, Republican legislators resisted. They didn't want Rapert forcing them to fuel his candidacy in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor. They perhaps favored or wished not to cross Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. Fear--of something--is often their motivation.

Rapert subsequently took to social media to say no real conservative would pass up a chance to save babies.

The more practical view among reasonable Republicans was that the abortion issue is in national flux and the state Legislature needn't preen and posture on some pointless exercise.

Rapert turned a simple and efficient vote to eschew unnecessary per-diem collection into enlisting for Satan in a Holy War.

That's the kind of place the state Senate has become. The relevant fight emerges exclusively among Republicans. It pits those not relenting on Trump-devoted ideological purity and those believing themselves hostages.

There are only seven Democrats left in the 35-member Senate and there most likely won't be more than six in 2023. They are nearly irrelevant. From time to time they might be able to get an inoffensive good bill passed or a constituent need addressed. Generally, though, their role is to make impassioned speeches and vote "no."

The Democrats' plight will only worsen next year when Sarah Sanders completes the transformation of Arkansas to Trumpistan.

Ingram tired of the ever-growing challenge of trying to attend to constituent needs in such a divisive and politically super-charged environment. In 2023 he'd be having to learn the names of all-new cabinet members, some of them snot-nosed Trumpsters.

For a while Saturday, a website seemed to announce the Republican candidacy in Garner's forthcoming district of his father-in-law, Matt Stone of Camden. It got taken down soon after statewide media discovered it. But legislative insiders were welcoming these hopeful signs of a replacement similarly conservative but older and presumably more mature.

They were speculating that pop-in-law, though a declared fan of his son-in-law, would be less inclined than the youngster to bolt from a gym and barge into the Old Supreme Court chamber in workout clothes to protest upon hearing that Democratic senator Joyce Elliott had stayed behind to hear presentations by progressive types not allowed to testify during an adjourned regular committee meeting.

What the state Senate needs, at least to start, is somebody who'd shrug and stay calmly on the treadmill when told there was an exercise in courtesy and free speech taking place over at the Capitol.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.



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