Website says Benton is America’s 10th best city for conservatives

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Benton is one of America’s “10 Best Cities for Conservatives” because of its conservative voting record, its lifestyle habits and because its House member is Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark.,, according to the website

The website recently listed the 10 best cities for liberals, conservatives and centrists. Benton was the only Arkansas city to make any of the lists.

The website says it used city, county and congressional district data. It also considered election records, a city’s congressional representative’s leanings, and political self-reporting by residents. It also looked at how shopping habits relate to political affiliation.

For Benton, the website noted that Saline County has voted Republican in presidential elections since supporting President Clinton in 1996. Mitt Romney won 70 percent of the vote in 2012. It said Griffin “is a Republican who leans far to the right on most social and financial issues.”

The site said the city’s residents are likely to drive a Buick, read “Good Housekeeping,” watch “The Bachelorette,” shop at Sam’s Club, and dine at Chic-fil-A – which is ironic because the closet Chic-fil-A is in the city’s neighbor and high school football rival, Bryant.

While Benton may be conservative, it’s shown itself to be willing to tax itself for various community projects in recent years. Mayor David Mattingly said that when he came into office in 2010, Benton’s 1.5 percent sales tax was the lowest of the state’s 50 largest communities. In November 2011, voters approved a bond issue financed by the city’s 1.5 percent advertising and promotion tax to build the Benton Event Center. In its first 13 months, the center has attracted 71,000 visitors, Mattingly said.

Then last November, Benton voters agreed by wide margins to continue the city’s 1.5 percent sales tax while adding a half-cent sales tax to pay for public safety improvements and another half cent to build the Riverside Park community center.

“I have spoken with and built consensus on a whole series of subjects with Republicans, Democrats and Tea Party people in the room together and individually, and my approach has always been, if you give someone a place at the table, even though you might not agree, they can’t say you never, ever gave them a place at the table,” Mattingly said.

Seven of the top 10 conservative cities were in SEC country, with the other three in Texas, Oklahoma and Utah. Alabaster, Ala., topped the list. None were big cities.

The best cities for liberals were more familiar. Berkeley, Calif., was number one, while Boulder, Colo., was number four. Spokane Valley, Wash., was the best city for centrists.

Here’s a link to the site.

Libertarian LaFrance pledges to limit own term, donate part of salary

By Steve Brawner

Nathan LaFrance of Bella Vista, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate in Arkansas, today announced a “Leading by Example” pledge stating that he would serve no more than two terms if elected and would donate all after-tax income earned above his 2014 income to chaNathan LaFrance Candidate photorities serving Arkansans.

LaFrance, an employee of the Walmart corporate offices’s Energy Department, said in a press release that he is promising “to live the changes he will fight for in Washington, D.C.” He supports term limits in Congress, including two terms for senators, and he proposes “the phase out and elimination of all federal income redistribution programs, to be replaced by private charitable organizations.”

As part of the pledge, LaFrance also promises that his office “will be available to all Arkansans on a first come, first serve basis.  … A corporate CEO will wait their turn in line behind a dairy farmer; a millionaire will wait their turn in line behind a working parent struggling to put food on the table.”

LaFrance received 2.5 percent support in a poll released this week by Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College.

Voter ID: Good experiment, bad law

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

When a law punishes more than 1,000 innocent people but doesn’t catch any guilty people, there’s something wrong with the law.

Such is the case with the voter ID requirement that was struck down unanimously by the Arkansas Supreme Court last week. Four justices said it illegally added to the state Constitution’s requirement that a voter be an American citizen, an Arkansas resident above age 18, and lawfully registered to cast a ballot. Three justices based their ruling on the fact that the law wasn’t passed with the necessary two-thirds majority. So now you don’t have to bring your driver’s license when you vote this year.

I supported this law when it was passed, though with reservations. Maintaining ballot integrity is a vital function of our democracy, and requiring voters to present a photo ID seems not overly burdensome.

On the other hand, not everybody has a photo ID – particularly people already marginalized because they are poor. Proponents never demonstrated that voter impersonation is a serious problem or, if it is, that this would solve it. Voter fraud already is illegal, and enforcement mechanisms already are in place: poll workers checking off names, and average citizens who surely would complain if informed they mysteriously had already voted. If someone wants to commit wholesale voter fraud, there are much more efficient ways of doing that than having people impersonate voters one by one.

Regardless of what you think about voter ID laws, they cannot be separated from electoral politics. Supposedly, they result in lower turnout among the poor and disadvantaged who are less likely to have a photo ID and more likely to vote for Democrats. Human nature being what it is, the laws unsurprisingly are often supported by Republicans and often opposed by Democrats.

Thankfully, it’s called “political science” for a reason: Because sometimes the effects of an action can be observed, like an experiment. Such was the case with the primary elections earlier this year. More than 1,000 ballots weren’t counted, many because absentee voters had failed to mail a copy of their photo ID. In fact, the law did not require those voters even to be notified their ballots were thrown out. Meanwhile, not a single person has been charged with any kind of actual voter fraud as a result of the law. Maybe the law deterred potential voter fraudsters, but that can’t be proven.

So somewhere around 1,000 law-abiding citizens did not have their votes counted because of a technicality, while no lawbreaking citizens were brought to justice. The law’s stated intentions – stopping voter fraud – might have been good, but its only demonstrable effects have been bad. The findings from this experiment are clear: This was not a good law.

The law’s flaws might have been overcome were it not for the constitutional problems. Maybe an exception could have been made for absentee voters. Maybe future absentee voters could have been given better information about the necessity of mailing a copy of their photo ID.

But the fact that the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the measure on constitutional grounds raises the bar high for any kind of fix. It probably would take a constitutional amendment now, which means it would have to get through the Legislature and then past the voters.

So for now, and probably for a while, no photo ID will be required. We voters simply must be American citizens, Arkansas residents above age 18, and lawfully registered.

The Constitution doesn’t require us to be informed about our choices, either, though we should choose to do that on our own. There’s probably not enough voter impersonation to matter, but voter apathy and indifference – you don’t have to have a license for those.

The chasm-bridger vs. the true believer

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Which of these two paragraphs makes the most sense to you?

The problem with Congress is that nobody goes to Washington and fights for what’s right. America needs elected officials who will stand on principle. We got into this mess because too many politicians go along to get along.

The problem with Congress is that there aren’t enough members who’ll work with both parties. We can’t get out of this mess unless members of Congress will work with each other, compromise a little, and get something done for the American people

If you’re like me, you might think both paragraphs are true, even though it’s hard for one person to exhibit both qualities. Who do we want: Someone who’ll stand on principle, or someone who will work with others as part of a democratic government with diverse constituencies?

And that’s your Senate race.

Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican, is paragraph 1. No one can question his willingness to stand on principle as a person or a policymaker. He voted against Hurricane Sandy relief because the package contained too much waste and not enough relief. The other members of Arkansas’ delegation decided they could live with the package’s flaws. He voted against the farm bill because he believes the government is spending too much on food stamps and because he believes food stamps and farm payments should be separate issues. But the reason they are paired is, to pass the bill, historically it’s been necessary to maintain a coalition of rural farm state congressmen and urban representatives with food stamp-receiving constituents. The rest of the state’s delegation voted yes.

Sen. Mark Pryor, the Democrat, is paragraph 2. He’s somewhat of a centrist in a party that has moved left while he represents a state that is voting to the right. He’s inclined to compromise, sometimes joining with other middle ground-seeking senators to try to bridge the chasm between the two sides. When the government shut down last year, he was one of 14 senators, Republican and Democrat, who produced a compromise that ended the impasse and reopened the government. But he’s not one who will lead the charge for a world-changing idea.

Seeing the glass as half empty in this race, either Arkansas’ next senator will stand for too much, or its next senator will not stand for enough. The glass-half-full side is, if there were no chasm-bridgers like Pryor in Congress, nothing would ever get done, and if there were no true believers like Cotton, nothing great would ever get done.

What works best in a democracy is “principled compromise” – the ability to stand on rock-solid principles and then work with others to enact polices that move the country in the best direction, often one small step at a time. Effective elected officials compromise not only because they must, but also because they see the value in another person’s perspective. For a senator to govern as if he cannot be wrong – that’s a dangerous quality to have. But we also know what happens when someone compromises too much. As country singer Aaron Tippin described it, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”

Let’s not forget the two other candidates in the race. Libertarian Nathan LaFrance wants less government than Pryor or even Cotton. Green Party nominee Mark Swaney is generally for more government on issues such as health care and the environment. They’re both paragraph 1 candidates campaigning on principle.

The candidate who wins the election hopefully will practice principled compromise in the Senate over the next six years – standing for what’s right while working with others, and compromising on policies without compromising his values. That’s a difficult tightrope for any of the 100 senators to walk, which is why, these past few years, we haven’t seen enough of them even try.

Passing health care reform – and a kidney stone

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

It was Saturday morning, March 29, and the pain in my lower back was growing more intense. I knew what was happening. It was not my first kidney stone.

If you’ve ever had one, you know the drill: the writhing, the fruitless shifting of positions hoping to find relief, the heaving. When I could take the pain no more, I shakily told my wife to wake the kids and drive me to the emergency room. When we arrived, I begged the admittance clerk to hurry. I underwent a CT scan and was given drugs that, blessedly, took away most of the pain. Surgery removed the stone a week later.

I’m grateful for modern health care, but no consumer product is free. The total out-of-pocket cost for that episode so far is nearing $6,000, including a big hospital bill that recently arrived – six months after the surgery. I’m hoping there will be no more surprises. My insurance company was billed more than $12,000 for the surgery alone and paid about $10,000 of that.

Ask me about health care reform, and I’ll generally say the system doesn’t function enough like a free market. Patients don’t act like consumers, and medical providers don’t act like a business. We must encourage patients to be more price-conscious so they’ll shop around and refuse unnecessary care. That kind of behavior will force medical providers to become more efficient and cheaper.

That’s Steve the political philosopher talking, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. But what did Steve the kidney stone patient do? Certainly not call the various emergency rooms at 6 a.m. on a Saturday looking for the best combo deal. I went to the only one in my hometown. There I was at the provider’s mercy not only as a patient but also as a consumer. I would have bought whatever service the hospital was selling in order to take away that pain.

Over the course of a week, my kidney was scanned numerous times, including the day before the surgery and the day of. At the hospital, already wearing my gown, I finally asked if it was really necessary to do it again. I was told the doctor liked to see if the stone had moved overnight. What would you do – refuse the scan? Of course I did what the doctor, who is also the seller, told me to do. I had no buying power in that situation.

Health care reform – that’s a hard one. Try as one might, it doesn’t fit neatly into any political ideology, including my fuzzy one. The mandate by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that all Americans must have insurance, which conservatives argue is an unconstitutional edict – it once was a conservative idea. A major issue in this year’s legislative races is the private option, which uses federal dollars to buy private insurance for poor people who make too much money for Medicaid. It was created by Republican legislators and Democrat Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration and now provides insurance to 200,000 people. Other Republicans say it’s just Obamacare by another name.

OK, it is more government, at least on the front end. But uninsured people generally wait until they are very sick to seek care, and then they go to the emergency room, and they can’t afford to pay for their care, so the rest of us pick up the tab. So what’s the easy answer on that one?

No matter how health care is reformed, there will be winners and losers. During Monday’s AETN debate, Sen. Mark Pryor described a church meeting with a diabetic constituent thanking him for voting for the Affordable Care Act. Because it made it illegal for insurance companies to reject his pre-existing condition, the diabetic has coverage for the first time in 15 years. On the other hand, Pryor’s opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, had his own story: a dentist and his wife lost their insurance because it didn’t comply with all of the act’s mandates. Libertarian Nathan LaFrance said doctors are telling him their attention is now focused on entering computer codes instead of caring for patients.

Take the words “Obama” and “Obamacare” out of the picture. Whose story is more compelling? The diabetic’s, the dentist’s, or the doctors’?

Aren’t they all? Health care reform – that’s a hard one. I don’t know the right answer, but anyone who tells you there’s an easy one is probably wrong.

Is Asa the private option’s better option?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Want the private option to go away? Maybe you should root for the candidate for governor who seems most supportive of it. Want it to survive? Maybe you should root for the candidate who seems most on the fence.

Let’s review the backstory before explaining.

The private option came about because of two provisions in the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. First, it required states to expand their Medicaid rolls to serve more poor people. Second, because it was doing that, it cut government reimbursements to medical providers for giving uncompensated care to people who don’t have insurance and don’t pay. The thinking was there would be less uncompensated care because more people would have Medicaid.

When the Supreme Court ruled Obamacare constitutional, it also said states didn’t have to expand Medicaid, and many Republican-led states did not. Arkansas legislators – Republicans, actually – along with Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration instead created the private option, which serves the same population by using government dollars to buy private insurance instead of enrolling them in Medicaid.

As a result, about 200,000 Arkansans are benefitting – most through the private option, and the rest because they were routed into Medicaid while trying to enroll in the private option. The federal government is paying for almost all of the private option now; the state will begin kicking in a small share in 2017, eventually paying 10 percent under the program’s current terms.

Supporters say it’s is a rational mechanism for funding health care for 200,000 people. We’ll end up paying for health care for them anyway – often in the emergency room if they don’t have insurance. Smaller hospitals have closed in states that turned down the money. The private option’s mechanisms encourage recipients to behave like health care consumers and be more picky and choosy with their decisions, in theory reducing the cost. So far, it seems to be doing much of what it was intended to do.

Opponents say it’s just Obamacare by another name, inevitably resulting in more government and more debt. Doing business with the federal government is a risky deal, they say. That 10 percent will amount to real money, and at this point, we don’t even know how much it will cost.

The funding mechanism must pass the Legislature with a three-fourths majority every year. Democrats are all for it; Republicans, who likely again will have majorities in both the House and the Senate next year, are split between “yeses,” “no’s,” and “heck no’s.” It barely passed earlier this year, and there will be even more legislative opponents after this year’s elections.

Which brings us to this year’s campaign for governor. Democrat Mike Ross is totally for it. Republican Asa Hutchinson, knowing his party is split, has hedged throughout the campaign. In Tuesday’s televised debate, he referred to its successes but says Arkansas must know the costs before deciding whether or how it should continue.

If he’s really against it, he’d say so.

Let’s not ignore the other candidates: Green Party nominee Joshua Drake supports the private option, while Libertarian Frank Gilbert is opposed.

When the Legislature convenes in January, the new governor will have an agenda (along with all 135 legislators), but everything will hinge on the private option. It’s that big and that controversial, and Hutchinson probably gives it a better chance of continuing in some form.

That’s because Hutchinson, the Republican, would have much more pull with the Republican “no’s” than Ross. (No one will flip the “heck no’s.”) Every legislator in Ross’ minority party is already for it. He could use his veto if the Legislature left out the private option, but the Legislature could override that with a simple majority – the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place.

So Ross perhaps would be more eager to fight for the private option, but Hutchinson, the outwardly more reluctant warrior, would have more weapons.

Hutchinson would have his own motivations for saving it. He has plans, including cutting taxes by $100 million during his first year in office – a difficult prospect anyway and an impossible one without the private option’s federal dollars. He does not want to spend his first term reneging on his campaign promise, plugging budget holes, and trying to save endangered hospitals.

The private option may survive, albeit with changes, regardless of who wins. It may die either way. But it probably has a better chance of surviving with help from the candidate for governor who won’t say he supports it.

Obama, Obama, Obama and Bloomberg

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

This being a nonpresidential election, President Obama is not on the ballot, but you wouldn’t know it from this year’s campaign.

Obama and his “job-killing agenda” apparently are running for U.S. Senate, along with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Obama is running for Congress. He’s running for lieutenant governor. He’s probably running for your local offices too.

There’s a reason why Arkansas Republicans continue to tie Democrats to the unpopular president: It works politically. For decades, the state GOP scratched its head as Democrats continued to dominate Arkansas while much of the rest of the South became Republican. Then in 2010 Arkansans changed allegiances. President Obama and Obamacare were like a light switch that flipped the state from Democrat to Republican.

It’s fair game for Republicans to point out that President Obama is a Democrat in a state where Obama is unpopular. Democrats in Congress will certainly be more supportive of his policies than Republicans will. It’s a shorthand way to draw a distinction.

But we’ve heard Obama’s name an awful lot since 2008, and frankly, it’s becoming a little much. He’ll be out of office in two years. I mean, the lieutenant governor’s race? Really?

Perhaps the guilt-by-association campaign reached its height, or depth, with a National Rifle Association radio ad supporting Rep. Tom Cotton in his race against Sen. Mark Pryor. In the accusatory tone to which we’ve all grown sadly accustomed, a voice says Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, sleeps behind armed guards but wants to take away our guns, so vote for Cotton.

The ad is ridiculous on so many levels. While Bloomberg is an aggressive pro-gun control activist with a lot of money, he’s no longer an elected official, and when he was, it was in New York City. His main connection to Arkansas is a clumsy ad buy he made earlier this campaign cycle against Cotton’s opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, because he thought PRYOR was too pro-gun. A conservative and pro-gun family member of mine was so insulted by the implication that we Arkies can’t tell Bloomberg from Pryor that he declared the other day that Cotton had lost his vote.

The modern campaign is a far cry from the Illinois Senate election of 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas faced off in a series of debates where one spoke for 60 minutes, the other spoke for 90 minutes, and the first spoke for 30 minutes. Surely with that much time at the podium, the two were forced to offer more than just denunciations of President Buchanan. Somehow, the voters in the audience were able to pay attention and grasp the issues despite not having grown up with broadband internet access – or maybe that was the reason they could.

Campaigns are supposed to be job interviews between employers (the voters) and potential employees (the candidates). If you were looking for someone to represent your company, would you hire him or her if they spent the entire interview criticizing the other prospect waiting on a metal folding chair in the hallway?

Voters, more so than candidates, are responsible for lifting the campaign’s tone. A prospective employee will do what is necessary to get the job, and if the employer is only swayed by nastiness and innuendo, well, soon word will spread through the employment line.

So maybe Arkansas voters could follow the examples set by Lincoln, Douglas and the state of Illinois. AETN will televise a series of debates Oct. 13-17 for the major offices and include all the candidates, including the Libertarian and Green Party nominees. (Full disclosure: I’m a questioner in two of those debates.) A televised Senate debate is planned for the state’s ABC affiliates Oct. 14.

Political elites believe most of us are not very engaged. They think we can be manipulated. Let’s prove them wrong. There’s a month left until the election. Let’s conduct our own job interviews and hire who we think are the best candidates based on who they are, the policies they support, and whether they are competent enough to do the job.

That’s what we would do with any employee that matters. Don’t these?

The United States, or these United States?

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The federal government will not reform itself. We’re past the point of electing different politicians or enacting different policies. Instead, the government’s underlying structure must be changed through a constitutional amendment process never before used in American history.

That was the message of Michael Farris, head of the Convention of States Project, during testimony before the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees Wednesday.

The Constitution has been amended 27 times using one process – Congress proposes a change, and three-fourths of the states ratify it. But Article V of the Constitution also includes another provision where two-thirds of state legislatures, or 34, would call for a convention. Delegates would consider constitutional amendments, each state having one vote. Proposed amendments would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states – 38, in other words.

That method has never been used successfully, but Farris says it’s the only hope to fix a broken system. His group is asking states to pass resolutions for a convention that would consider how to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its powers and jurisdiction, and impose term limits on members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.

So far, Alaska, Georgia and Florida have passed nearly identical resolutions to that effect, and Farris’ group plans a hard push in about 20 states, including Arkansas, this upcoming year. Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindville, said he or someone else will introduce the resolution in 2015 if it has enough support.

Farris assured legislators that Article V’s high standards for ratification – 34 states to call a convention and 38 states to ratify – mean only amendments with broad popular support would have a chance of being ratified.

That being the case, the movement must expand beyond its current base and way of thinking. Its leaders and supporters appear to be almost exclusively very conservative individuals. During a presentation to a home-schooling group Wednesday, Farris suggested one change would involve clarifying the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause so that, “If the states can spend money on it, the federal government can’t.”

That would give a lot more power and responsibility to the states, but it also would mean ending Medicare and Social Security as we know it at the federal level. Such a change would be impossible to sell politically in a lot more than 13 states.

Legislators had varying reactions to Farris’ testimony. Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, a well-known civil rights advocate, said the same states’ rights argument was made on behalf of slaveholders and segregationists. Farris said that wouldn’t happen again and that legislators could instruct their delegates not to repeal the Constitution’s civil rights amendments. Later in the session, Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, and Rep. Jim Nickels, D-North Little Rock, said delegates could ignore whatever instructions legislators gave them. To that, Farris replied, “We’re really dealing in international law here is what this is is because it’s a meeting of sovereign states, and there are recognized principles of international law that govern, and there are no … exceptions in international law or in American law.”

Sovereign states being governed by international law? Such thinking would be a huge leap for a lot of people. Prior to the Civil War, the United States was a plural entity, as in “these United States.” Afterwards, it became a singular: “The United States.” The emerging national identity enabled the country to become the world’s greatest economic and military power. But it’s also led to a bloated, irresponsible, and unresponsive federal government. No state manages its business as badly as the federal government does, and many, including Arkansas, do it much, much better.

A rebalancing of power is needed, though not to the extent that Farris supports. An Article V convention may the best hope of doing that because, as he argued, the government will not reform itself. And with only 13 states required to kill any measure, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen? A bunch of people gather in one place and argue forever without accomplishing anything?

We already have that. It’s called Congress. So if this just turns out to be a big waste of time, we can live with that. What we can’t live with is not trying. Thanks to Article V’s parameters, a convention probably can’t hurt, and it might do some good. I’m for it – a convention, at least, and then let’s see what amendments are proposed.

Everyone’s an extra, even in Congress

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

I’m not the good guy. Neither are you. And neither are Mark Pryor nor Tom Cotton.

I bring that up because we’re in the middle of a campaign season where television ads, and many news providers, treat what should be a statewide job interview instead like a TV show.

And boy, there are a lot of those ads. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the candidates, the parties and independent groups had broadcast 40,576 of them in Arkansas during the 2014 campaign in the Senate race alone as of Sept. 22.

From the time we are born, Americans are fed a steady diet of fiction. Movies, books, TV shows – including sitcoms – often feature three elements: a protagonist who is the hero (along with sidekicks and love interests), an antagonist who is the villain, and extras.

Except in rare cases, whoever spends the most time on camera is the hero, even if the antagonist is more worthy of admiration. For example, in “Rocky,” Rocky Balboa may have had a heart of gold, but he had been a lifetime underachiever and a loan shark’s debt collector, while Apollo Creed was an undefeated champion, smart businessman, and devoted husband and father. We cheer for Rocky.

In our lives, we’re the protagonist, so we believe we’re the hero, which means there must be villains somewhere. Our flaws are merely the personal challenges all heroes must overcome, while the villains never change and have only evil intentions. That’s how a story works.

This is not a healthy thing for any of us. It leads to pride and narrow-mindedness and a lack of grace toward others. It’s particularly problematic in politics. There are many reasons why today’s Congress is dysfunctional, but could one be that its members, raised on television like the rest of us, have bought into the fiction?

For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve watched Cotton and Pryor try to destroy each other on television. Other races with less money at their disposal are behaving in a similar fashion, especially now that the election is nearing. The gloves have really come off in the 2nd Congressional District race between French Hill and Patrick Henry Hays.

I’ve been around enough of these campaigns to know that few of the candidates believe they are at fault. Both sides believe their opponent started it all by lying and slinging mud, so everything they do now is justifiable. In the battle between good and evil, the stakes are too high to worry about fair play.

The next time you’re tempted to put your faith in a politician, or even, for 700 words, a columnist, google “Voyager” and “Pale Blue Dot.” You’ll see a photo of Earth taken by Voyager I from four billion miles away. The planet is tiny. On that little blue dot are billions of smaller dots, all of us running around thinking we are the center of the universe – or at least, the hero of the story.

The truth is, we’re all extras. Every last one of us.

It’s not that either Cotton or Pryor are villains. In fact, they’re both good people – good extras. But when 535 extras journey to Congress, all believing they’re the hero and all looking for dragons to slay, well, then you get the train wreck that Washington has become.

There’s a reason the Constitution’s defining principle is a limitation of power. Our government is designed to prevent the rise of even the most benevolent of dictators for fear of where that could lead.

Under the Constitution, compromise and cooperation are required to accomplish even basic governance, despite the fact that it’s bad TV. For us to think constitutionally requires us to overcome a lifetime of fictional programming, where you don’t compromise or cooperate with the villain. You defeat him, and then you get the girl.

But that’s TV, not real life. I’m not sure if today’s candidates always know the difference. I’m not sure if we voters do, either.

“That girl” makes good money as a welder

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If you were asked to describe a welder, it probably wouldn’t be much like Tori Huggins.

The 29-year-old graduated Hendrix College in 2007 an All-American in basketball with a degree in theatre and kinesiology – and $40,000 in debt she couldn’t repay.

“I was that girl that went back to my parents’ house, living in the basement,” she said.

Many years earlier, Huggins had been singed by a spark while her dad was welding and refused to go anywhere near the activity again. But during college summer breaks, she’d done some basic welding in a boat factory in her hometown of Clinton, and she continued working there after college.

After a tornado destroyed the factory, she decided to get serious about welding and discovered she loved it. Soon she was traveling the country working in nuclear power plants and earning enough to pay off her debt in three years. She bought a car and a house in Conway.

Today, she teaches welding at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center in Little Rock, a state-funded program where 12 students learn a skill that in 18 weeks will take many of them from minimum wage backgrounds to $18 an hour. She tries to encourage more women to follow her example. Classes are free and also available in Fort Smith and El Dorado. The school’s phone number is 501-562-4482.

Huggins this past Tuesday shared her story during a panel discussion at Jobs Now, a summit sponsored by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Before an audience of 500, she wore a smart business suit and spoke confidently alongside her fellow big shots on stage.

The conference’s purpose was to consider ways to match unemployed and underemployed Arkansas workers, like Huggins once was, with the tens of thousands of skilled trade jobs that are remaining unfilled and those that will be available as older workers retire. Steve Williams, CEO of Maverick Transportation, said he had parked 100 18-wheelers because he couldn’t find reliable drivers. That job starts at $52,000.

Two common mentalities clearly need to go by the wayside.

One is that learning a trade is somehow inferior to going to college. Too often, young people are encouraged to make good grades so they can get a scholarship – and if they don’t go to college, well, maybe they can get a job in construction or something. Skilled tradesmen often earn higher salaries than college graduates, and their jobs require no less brainwork.

“We don’t put in nuclear powerhouses by being a bunch of idiots,” Huggins told me. “You’ve got to know offsets, you’ve got to do fractions and multiplication and all this stuff, and at times even a little bit of calculus here and there.”

The other outdated attitude is that “getting an education” means leaving home for four years after high school. Colleges and universities should be oriented toward nimbly moving students of all ages to employability in an ever-shifting economy. Moreover, as Dr. Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South Community College, said during the panel discussion with Huggins, all students should graduate high school with a job skill, not just a diploma.

Some of this is already happening – the state-funded Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center being an example. At Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, some students, instead of earning credit hours, obtain certificates that move them straight into jobs with Walmart and its suppliers. Many high school students take concurrent credit classes that shorten their college careers. At Maumelle High School, students declare a “pathway” and leave school with a marketable skill.

How do we get more of this? Joe Quinn, Walmart’s senior director of pubic affairs and government relations, said in the panel discussion that the next governor should make workforce development a signature issue.

Both Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have shared ideas on the campaign trail. Hutchinson favors economic development plans tying together high schools and two-year-colleges based on regional opportunities. Ross has called for sending reports home with eighth and 11th grade students projecting common careers and salaries when they enter the workforce. “Too many people today are going to college and getting degrees in what makes them feel good rather than where the jobs are,” Ross told school board members this summer.

That’s sort of what happened to Huggins, but in a good way. She got a degree that made her feel good, and now she has a career that makes her feel good.