OPINION | REX NELSON: End of an era

Arkansas lost more population per capita than any other state from 1940-1960. At the beginning of that period, this state had seven seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. We're down to four.

Arkansas has been gaining population since the 1960s, however. What led to such a dramatic turnaround?

On the private-sector side, we had amazing business titans--like Sam Walton, John and Don Tyson, William Dillard, Charles Murphy, J.B. Hunt and others--who managed to build some of the nation's top companies in a poor state. And they kept those companies headquartered in Arkansas despite the challenges.

Also on the private-sector side, there were two brothers from Prattsville--Witt and Jack Stephens--who brought Wall Street to Arkansas. They had the ability to latch onto the ideas of the state's entrepreneurs then their companies public, allowing them to grow to the next level. Few small states were blessed with investment bankers like the Stephens brothers.

On the government side of the equation, Arkansas relied on the power of its congressional delegation when the state began turning things around in the 1960s. Arkansas members of Congress were able to bring in the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System (the most expensive public works project in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the time it was completed), various Corps impoundments, and other projects that rescued desperately poor rural areas of the state.

A second thing on the government side was the fact that the state was blessed--beginning with the election of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in 1966--with a long run of moderate, pragmatic chief executives. This was unusual for a Southern state. Five of these governors were Democrats: Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, Jim Guy Tucker and Mike Beebe. Four of the governors were Republicans: Rockefeller, Frank White, Mike Huckabee and Asa Hutchinson.

Though they might sound more partisan on the national stage, back home in Arkansas those men governed from the middle. Their pragmatism helped a state that had once been the nation's stepchild enter a new era. Unfortunately for all of us, that era appears to have ended.

Though my expectations were low based on the hyper-partisan, angry, shallow campaign run last year by Sarah Sanders, I held off writing this column in the hope that our governor--who had never held elected office and never had a job in the private sector outside of political consulting--would mature once in office.

I'm a conservative. I spent 15 years working for Republican candidates and officeholders. I remember a time in the early 1980s when there were so few of us in Arkansas who identified as Republicans that we all knew each other on a first-name basis. In fact, the people who seem the saddest about the tragedy that is the Sanders administration are those Arkansas Republicans I met four decades ago. They no longer recognize their party.

"I just want to cry," one of them told me after calling my house on a Sunday afternoon.

I can't help but think back to 1996 when Mike Huckabee was thrust into the governor's office following Tucker's resignation. Huckabee dropped out of a U.S. Senate race he was going to win, choosing Arkansas over the lure of national politics. He surrounded himself with experienced Arkansans. His senior management team included highly respected former legislators such as Dick Barclay, Jim von Gremp and Joe Yates.

Huckabee also brought to his administration a string of strong women, all native Arkansans with long years of service to the state. There was former legislator Carolyn Pollan of Fort Smith and Judge Betty Dickey of Pine Bluff. Huckabee's chief of staff his entire time in office was Brenda Turner of Texarkana. Turner worked behind the scenes and kept a low profile, but she was a force of nature.

Sanders has surrounded herself with political journeymen who have no concern about the people of Arkansas or this state's future. It's all about the boss' national political standing. These aides will simply move on to other states when they're done here, leaving the rest of us to deal with the damage.

Sanders and her top aides seem intent on bringing the chaos and divisiveness of the comical Trump administration to state government--rushing through a major education overhaul in order to avoid needed debate, avoiding the Arkansas media, relying on national far-right outlets, and putting out mindless tweets about national politics that have nothing to do with Arkansas.

The name-calling from the governor's office is puerile and frankly just plain tired--the sign of people unwilling to debate issues on their merits.

"The left is becoming even more desperate with their lies and false attacks," Sanders said in one tweet.

"We are not messing around in Arkansas," she said in another. "Every kid will have access to a quality education whether the left likes it or not."

The tweets are predictable, unimaginative, and lacking in anything that resembles wit. We've frankly not seen anything like this since Orval Faubus and his minions were branding those who would dare ask questions as Communists.

During their early weeks in office, the governor and her merry band that I call the Traveling Trumpettes issued an edict to state government officials that they couldn't visit with certain members of the media without prior approval. State officials began to call me from their private cell numbers. They were apologetic and embarrassed. I've known these Arkansans for years.

Appointments I had already made were called off. It appears the governor has a Nixon- style enemies list. The irony of being blackballed is that I rarely write about politics. When I do, I always try to make criticism constructive. The appointments I had set up with department and agency heads were for columns that would have had nothing to do with politics. They were about building the Arkansas economy, a consistent theme of this column.

I can never recall a governor's office as paranoid as this one. That paranoia is a byproduct of insecurity. The governor and her aides quickly realized that they don't know what they're doing when it comes to running state government. One would have expected a governor holding elective office for the first time to surround herself with people who have a deep knowledge of state government. Instead, we get political apparatchiks from outside Arkansas.

Officials in the departments tell me they feel handcuffed by the governor's office. If the petty, ham-handed actions of the Trumpettes continue, I expect several of the best and brightest to leave this administration within a year. The folks who do the real work of state government are already disillusioned and disgruntled.

Here's part of an email I received from an agency director: "The order was handed down to us through my immediate supervisor, who indicated to me that he did not know what to make of it or how exhaustively or literally to carry it out. I have not yet received additional guidance on how to honor the administration's order while still being able to converse with all comers. I live in hope, however, of either this happening or the order being effectively, if slowly, walked back."

Perhaps at some point people the governor trusts will have the guts to say something along these lines: "Cut out the angry, divisive approach. Call on your better angels. Let's focus on building Arkansas rather than raising money nationally for a campaign that's more than three years away."

When this administration ends and historians write about it, Sanders will look back and most appreciate those who spoke candidly. The honest ones will be those who truly care about her and care about this state. The political hacks will have long since moved on to other states and other missions of destruction.

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