Arkansans of the year

arkansasFlagBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Time magazine names a “Person of the Year.” Sports Illustrated has a “Sportsperson of the Year.” Who are the Arkansans of the year?

In politics, it’s not even close. On issue after issue, Gov. Asa Hutchinson either achieved his objectives or appointed a study commission to buy time to achieve his objectives. He wants to continue but change the private option, the controversial program that uses Medicaid dollars to buy insurance for lower-income Arkansans, so he asked the Legislature to fund it two years while a replacement can be found. That’s what’s happened – so far. He and the State Board of Education butted heads over the Common Core-related PARCC exam. He wanted to replace it; the Board wanted to keep it. It’s gone. In the debate over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Hutchinson was perhaps the only elected official who pleased (too strong a word?) both sides. His signature education issue, requiring high schools to teach computer coding, has resulted in 4,000 students taking a class. The only downside to Hutchinson’s year is that next year can’t be this good.

Honorable mention: Baker Kurrus, superintendent, Little Rock School District. A non-educator in one of the state’s most high-profile education jobs, he’s trying to smooth ruffled feathers while telling hard truths. Does the Little Rock school superintendent belong in the “politics” category? He certainly does at the moment.

In business, I’m going with Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods. He and his company were questioned last year when Tyson bought Hillshire Brands for $7.7 billion. That was a lot of money, but buying the makers of Jimmy Dean Sausage and Ball Park Franks expanded Tyson’s already considerable reach. Tyson’s operating income rose 37 percent this year to $2.25 billion, and its sales of $40.6 billion are an increase of 9 percent over last year. That’s not chicken feed.

Honorable mention: George Gleason, CEO of Bank of the Ozarks. The $800 million purchase of Georgia-based Community & Southern Bank was the largest bank buy in Arkansas history and made Bank of the Ozarks an instant major player in Georgia. Full disclosure: I own a journalist-sized amount of stock in the company – meaning, not much.

In health care, I’m making New Hampshirite John Stephen an honorary Arkansan. Hired by the Health Reform Legislative Task Force to consult on reforming Medicaid, he and his firm, The Stephen Group, have offered information, insight and solutions, and as a result have much influence over Arkansas policymakers. They’ve argued the state shouldn’t completely ditch the private option while also shining a light on Medicaid’s problems. When he speaks, lawmakers listen, and he’s been speaking a lot.

Honorable mention: Hospital CEOs Troy Wells (Baptist Health), Dan Rahn (UAMS) and Chad Aduddell (CHI St. Vincent) are leading three of the state’s big institutions in a consolidating industry. You know how other areas of the economy such as banking and retail are increasingly dominated by a few players? It’s happening in health care, too.

In sports, it’s Brandon Allen, Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback. Has an athlete ever made such a quick turnaround from supposed “choker” to “clutch”? After missing late-game passes early in the season, he’s become one of the SEC’s most reliable quarterbacks and was one of the main reasons the Razorbacks won five of their last six games.

Honorable mention: Bret Bielema, Razorbacks football coach. He stuck with Allen and never lost faith in the team even when some were losing faith in his coaching ability. The Hogs have improved every year since he was hired.

In charities and nonprofits, The CALL and Project Zero are finding foster and adoptive homes for kids who really need them. The issue attracted attention this year when a report detailed problems with the state’s foster care system, and when Hutchinson spotlighted those children’s needs at his faith-based summit. Since 2007, The Call has brought 758 foster and adoptive families into the system, its website says, with more on the way. Project Zero, meanwhile, raises awareness through its Heart Gallery photos of waiting children.

Honorable mention: Too many great ones to name.

So who is the Arkansan of the year? There’s no way for me to know. What seems noteworthy today will be forgotten tomorrow, while seemingly minor events will have lasting consequences. (“Baby born in manger” probably didn’t make many headlines.) Maybe the names I’ve listed were important, or maybe they were just important to me.

At any rate, that’s my list. What’s yours?

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