CAVE SPRINGS -- Incoming Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester describes himself as "a right-wing Republican that appeals to the country club Republican."
"You can't find votes that aren't right wing," said Hester, who was elected by the Senate in November to serve as its leader for the 94th General Assembly from 2023 until 2025.
"I never supported a tax increase. I don't support fee increases," said the 45-year-old homebuilder and real estate agent who has rental properties.
Hester also called himself "a free market capitalist, borderline Libertarian," adding he supports the military and opposes legalizing recreational marijuana.
"I feel like the solution to most problems is less government, not more," he said in an interview at his home.
"My Christian faith is what I hope dominates every area of my life," said Hester, who attends First Baptist Church Bentonville.
Hester said his wife, Ashley, has a tremendous influence on him. Several years ago, he built a home for his family in Cave Springs and a home next door for her parents, Dale and Beverly Dorsey.
"I share with my colleagues when we are in session and I make a vote that she doesn't agree with, she lets me know," he said. "Without a doubt, she is to the right of me. My colleagues love it when she gets on me about votes."
For example, Hester said his wife has asked him why he voted differently at times than Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and departing state Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, or why Davis voted differently than Ballinger and him.
"I'm like, 'Why do I have to defend myself?' " Hester said. "I love that even though I am away from home that we are engaged, and I care that she cares about what I am doing."
Ashley Hester said she doesn't question her husband about his votes very often, "but I like to keep him on his toes.
"I like to listen to the guys at The Daily Wire, so they are much more aggressive and so I give him a hard time after listening to them and then he has to set me straight," said Ashley Hester, who formerly taught at Providence Classical Christian Academy in Rogers, where three of the couple's children attend school for part of the week and are home schooled the rest of the week.
"I usually always agree with him after he explains it to me," she added.
The Daily Wire is an American conservative news website and media company founded in 2015 by political commentator Ben Shapiro and film director Jeremy Boreing.
As incoming Senate president pro tempore, Hester succeeds Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who has been the Senate's leader for the past two years.
He has been in the state Senate since 2013 and was the Senate Republican leader from 2019-2021. The Senate will include 29 Republicans and six Democrats starting in the regular session.
In his first term in the Senate, Hester said departing Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, suggested he start hanging out with departing Sen. Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs, who has a "great family" and is successful in business and politics.
"From that conversation on, I really did hitch my wagon to Senator Hendren, and learned from him as much as I could," he said. "There at the end, we took some different paths."
In February 2021, Hendren announced his departure from the Republican Party to be an independent, saying the "final straw" was the Jan. 6 riot at the nation's Capitol. He founded the group Common Ground Arkansas with the aim of finding and supporting leaders willing to work together instead of pushing people apart.
Hester said "I understand why Senator Hendren went the direction he went.
"I just don't agree with it totally," he said. "We had two different strategies on how to make the Republican Party work better together."
Hendren, who served as Senate president pro tempore from 2019 until 2021, said Hester will do great as the Senate's leader, saying Hester "has a real ability to build bridges with people who don't see eye to eye with him.
"I have seen him mature so fast in the Legislature," he said.
Hester has sponsored bills that became Act 137 of 2015 to bar local governments from enacting and enforcing their own anti-discrimination statutes, Act 710 of 2017 to prohibit state and local governments from contracting with and investing in companies that boycott Israel, Act 643 of 2017 to prevent cities and counties from enacting a minimum wage higher than the state's minimum wage, and Act 611 of 2021 to require Holocaust education to be taught in all public schools.
Among other things, he's also sponsored bills that became Act 508 of 2017 to allow grocery stores in the state's wet counties to expand their wine sales to include more than just wines from small farms that produce 250,000 gallons or less a year, and Act 822 of 2019 to require Internet retailers with no in-state physical presence to collect Arkansas' sales and use taxes on purchases, phase in a reduction of the state's top corporate income tax rate from 6.5% to 5.9% by Jan. 1, 2022, extend the net operating carry-forward period for corporations; and overhaul the taxation of commercial car washes.
"I want to be where the fight is," Hester said. "If I am sacrificing time from my family and time from my business, I want to be making the maximum impact I can make."
HESTER AND SANDERS
Departing Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said it appears Hester is going to be a close ally of Republican Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The Senate traditionally has been a check and balance on the governor, he said.
"That changed a bit when Governor [Asa] Hutchinson came in for his first term and then it drifted away pretty dramatically into the Senate reasserting itself," Ingram said.
"I think the jury is out," he said of Hester.
Hester said "I think we will align on almost every issue" with Sanders.
"That makes it easy in the Senate," he said.
"I have found that she is very respectful of legislators and their input," Hester said.
"We are more of the same age," he said of Sanders, who is 40.
"We have kids at home. We deal a lot with the same issues at home, so I can identify with her," he said. "She went to Ouachita [Baptist University] and was an EEE in the social club. My daughter [Brooklyn Hester] is at Ouachita as an EEE in the social club."
"I have a tremendous amount of trust in who Governor Sanders is, the direction she is going to lead the state, and how she is going to conduct herself when she leads us through difficult issues," Hester said.
He said "what I think the lessons learned from Governor Hutchinson is we can't be so close that what the governor wants overrides what the Legislature wants.
"We are going to have opinions. I expect those opinions to be heard and to be inputted into the direction we are going," Hester said.
"I can't imagine that there is anything that Governor Sanders wants that we are not going to try to deliver, all the things she has committed to the people," Hester said. "But she understands and I understand how important that there are co-equal branches and that the input of the legislators [is] going to be involved in that."
Sanders said in a written statement, "Senator Hester is a friend who I am excited to work alongside advancing bold reforms to help improve the lives of Arkansans.
"The Senator is a man of faith, loves his family and the state of Arkansas, all of which is evident in our frequent conversations," she said.
"He is going to do a great job leading the entire Senate as pro tempore," said Sanders, whose father Mike Huckabee served as a Republican governor from July 1996 until 2007 when Democrats controlled the state House and state Senate.
Hutchinson said he is optimistic about how Hester will fare as Senate president pro tempore.
"I have worked with him, and he's grown in his role of leadership and he understands that the pro tempore has to get things done, has to manage the Senate, so I think he sees a bigger agenda for the state than simply a legislator representing one district," the governor said.
"I think the big challenge is whether the other members of the Senate will follow his leadership, but I will be watching from afar," Hutchinson said. "I will be pulling for Sen. Hester."
Ingram said there is no way to predict the impact of 13 new senators in the 35-member Senate.
Last year, Hester won election as the Senate president pro tempore over Hickey after losing a similar bid for the post to Hickey in 2020.
In March 2022, the Senate elected Hester as Senate president pro tempore-designate after Senate Republicans selected Hester as their nominee for the post over Sen. Kim Hammer of Benton and Hickey.
Hester said "the vote was very close," in the Senate Republican caucus, but he declined to disclose the margin.
In April 2020, the Senate elected Hickey over Hester as the Senate president pro-tempore designate with the apparent backing of a coalition of Senate Republicans and Democrats after the Senate Republicans selected Hester as their nominee without Hickey seeking the GOP nomination.
Hester said "Senator Hickey called me right after the election [earlier this year] and said that he felt like he didn't receive any support when he won, and he said, 'I will be as helpful to you as I can,' and he has 100% honored that.
"Because of how Hickey has handled this, it's reflecting on our whole body, so our whole body is getting along well," he said.
Hickey said Hester is going to do "fine" as Senate president pro tempore.
"I am going to do whatever I can to make Senator Hester successful," he added.
Asked whether the House and Senate education committees' differences over the timing of teacher pay raises could be symptomatic of multiple differences between the House and Senate in the coming session, Hester said "I think a healthy rub between the House and the Senate is by nature, so it doesn't bother me that we are going to have some rub with the House.
"If we didn't, it wouldn't be healthy," he said.
Hester said he wants teacher pay raises that the state budget can afford for the next 10 years.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said differences between the House and Senate education committees on the timing of teacher pay raises don't necessarily mean there will be larger disagreements between the House and the Senate.
"In the past we have gotten along well, and ultimately on most significant issues we have been able to end up on the same page," he said, referring to Hester.
"My goal is to resolve the issues between the House and Senate and find consensus and do good work for the people of Arkansas," Shepherd said.
Hester acknowledged he's not as detail-oriented as his recent predecessors as Senate president pro tempore.
"I am a macros-perspective [leader]," he said.
"I care about winning on the issue, but how we get there really doesn't bother me at all," Hester said.
"Early on I felt you had to get 100% of what you wanted or nothing, and I have learned that I will take wins," instead of holding out as "a hard liner."
"Every detail isn't critical to me, but the reason I feel good about that is I have got some people around me that really care about the details that I have a lot of trust in," Hester said.
For example, he said he trusts that Hickey has looked at all the details when Hickey speaks on lottery and tax policy, and he trusts Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, has looked at all the details when he speaks on the budget and other issues.
"That's how they are wired," Hester said.
"They care deeply about that. I care more about the involvement of all my colleagues," Hester said. "I think that's just a difference in some leadership style, but there will be a lot of times here where I will assert myself and this is the direction we are going and work really hard to get us there," Hester said.
"I am a home builder," Hester said, "I am not a CPA budget guy, so if we want to talk about how to frame a house or pour the slab, I care about the details. I understand them."
He has been outspoken at times throughout his tenure in the Senate.
Asked whether he shoots from the hip at times in his remarks, he said "early on I might have shot from the hip, but when I say something now I have thought through it and I understand the consequences of it."
Hester said he doesn't make a move without consulting several senators such as Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Davis, Dismang and Hickey.
Dismang said Hester "is an open book."
"If he feels a particular way, you are going to know and, if he still feels strongly about something, he is going to state it," he said. "He doesn't hold back on a whole lot."
Hester said he is passionate about criminal justice issues in part because "when I was a young man, my uncle was murdered by a guy that was on parole for murder.
"Just the injustice of that, I didn't understand it when I was a young man. I don't understand it today," he said. "When you choose to harm somebody, you have chosen that and I have very little empathy for people that have committed violent crimes and sexual assault."
Hester was born in Conway as the youngest of four children and grew up in Bee Branch until third grade, when his family moved to Green Forest. His parents, Russell and Joyce Hester, worked in the public schools. His father was inducted into the Southern Arkansas University Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 for his pitching in 1974 and 1975.
He graduated from Green Forest High School in 1996, where he was the quarterback on the football team, the catcher on the baseball team, the point guard on the basketball team and ran long distance on the track team.
As a walk-on, Hester said he didn't make the baseball team at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville but accepted an offer to be a practicing manager and got to practice for a year.
Then Coach Norm DeBriyn put Hester on the roster for next three years. Hester said he suited up for games and was on the traveling squad, and was the bullpen catcher and would throw batting practice.
"But I got to wear the Hog uniform every day, and I got the SEC championship ring [in 1999]," Hester said.
He earned his bachelor's degree in general business from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 2001 -- the year he married his wife, who earned a bachelor's degree in English and spent four years on the pom squad at the university.
Hester said he sold concrete for Central Ready Mix, owned by businessmen J.B. Hunt and Tim Graham, for handful of years until they sold the company and then he was a property manager for Hunt and Graham for a handful of years.
"We would sit in meetings with politicians," he said, where he saw the impact of their policies on entrepreneurs.
Hester said Crossland Construction was one of his biggest customers when he was selling concrete, and Crossland Construction was one of his biggest contractors for the Hunt family when he was a property manager. Hester said Chris, Curt, Ivan and Benny Crossland indicated they would help him raise money for a bid for the state Senate in 2012.
In the 2012 primary, Hester defeated then-state Rep. Tim Summers, R-Bentonville.
"I committed not to raise taxes and stayed focused on the issues that matter in a Republican primary," Hester said.
Hester is viewed in Republican circles as a potential candidate for Arkansas' 3rd district congressional seat or a U.S. Senate seat.
"The more I have been around, the more I see the cost to your family to be gone a lot," Hester said.
Hester said Arkansas has "some of the best U.S. Senators in the country" in John Boozman of Rogers and Tom Cotton of Little Rock, and he's "very pleased" with U.S. Rep. Steve Womack of Rogers.
"I am home right now raising my kids. I love doing that," he said. "Later on if my kids get grown and Congressman Womack or a senator [doesn't seek re-election], I think I would look at the opportunity at that time."
There would be many potential highly qualified and great candidates for an open seat, Hester said, "so we would just look at that at the time."