By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Maybe being Arkansas’ governor is not that tough a job.
No offense to governors present and past, but that thought occurred to me after seeing a recent poll by Talk Business, Hendrix College and Impact Management Group. Gov. Asa Hutchinson enjoyed a 52-18 percent approval-disapproval rating, which was similar to former Gov. Mike Beebe’s 54-22 rating in a Public Policy Polling survey last year. No incumbent governor has lost a re-election race since 1982, when Bill Clinton beat Frank White two years after White beat Clinton.
Beebe’s numbers remained high throughout his time in office, and he was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote at a time when some other Arkansas Democrats were being swamped by the Republican red tide. The Talk Business poll even found him leading Sen. John Boozman, who hasn’t offended many people, 45-37 in a hypothetical U.S. Senate race.
That’s a Democrat leading an incumbent Republican in a Southern red state while President Barack Obama is still in office and Hillary Clinton is the likely Democratic presidential nominee. Who could do that besides a popular former governor?
That’s not to discount Beebe and Hutchinson as governors or people. It’s early, but so far Hutchinson has exuded calm, self-controlled leadership. Beebe understood state government as well as anyone, and he’s an excellent communicator who speaks plain Arkansan at the lectern and in person. Both have governed from a practical, consensus-building perspective. For what it’s worth, both know how to work the press. Furthermore, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, both married well.
But maybe they’re both good at a job where it’s not difficult to be merely adequate.
Arkansas is a lower income state that’s had its struggles, so most people – Republicans, Democrats, business and community leaders, and even members of the media – are inclined to want the governor to succeed.
The office itself adds to the governor’s personal aura. He lives in the Governor’s Mansion and is escorted by State Police officers. When he walks in the room, people stand and heads turn. He’s the only state elected official who really has a statewide audience, especially given that the other major positions are part-time (lieutenant governor), a lawyer (attorney general), and a bureaucratic administrator (secretary of state). State legislators come and go without capturing the general public’s attention. They have a lot of power during legislative sessions, but when they go home, the governor is still on the job. When a disaster strikes, it’s the governor who takes the helicopter tour, calls out the National Guard, and asks for federal dollars to make it right.
But while he’s treated like royalty, his powers are limited, which relieves some of the pressure that comes with the big title. The Legislature can override his veto with a simple majority, which is the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place. As a result, there’s not much pressure for the governor to veto many bills. Also, these days the most controversial issues are generally debated at the federal level or in the courts, so the governor usually has an alibi. If the Supreme Court declares Arkansas’ gay marriage ban unconstitutional, nobody will be mad at Hutchinson. If the state eventually has to raise some kind of tax to pay for highways, he can say he had no choice because Congress didn’t provide enough federal money.
Finally, the governor is the state’s chief marketing officer, which has its own benefits. On Hutchinson’s first day on the job, he phoned several companies to brag on Arkansas – important but noncontroversial work. He’s already traveled to Silicon Valley and recently returned from Paris and Germany, all in the name of economic development. He was the one who called legislators into special session to try to land a huge defense contract for Camden, and if the effort is successful, he will be standing at the podium accepting congratulations along with company officials.
Maybe most governors will do fine as long as they avoid political or personal scandal, treat legislators respectfully, work within political realties, and don’t say or do anything stupid. Those aren’t easy, but they’re definitely doable. So it’s a job that comes with a high upside, lots of respect, decent perks and reasonable expectations.
Nice work, if you can get it.