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Huckabee the designing governor 

No one's saying so openly, but the Huckabee family's resistance to being told how the Governor's Mansion's public rooms should look is apparently responsible for a bill to add three new members to the Governor's Mansion Commission.

The bill, approved by the House and awaiting Senate action at press time, would allow the governor to appoint three members, raising the number of commissioners from five to eight. The bill would also make the director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage a non-voting member.

State Rep. Myra Jones of Little Rock spoke against the bill, sponsored by Rep. Ed Thicksten of Alma, on the House floor, saying the five-member system was a non-partisan one that had worked well for 20 years.

The "gut of the problem," Jones acknowledged, was a difference of opinion on how the first floor rooms--the living room, dining room and library--should be used. Past governors have complied with the custom that the ground floor rooms are the public's first and the family's second, Jones noted. President Clinton as governor "wanted Klipsch speakers" in the living room, she said, but put them instead in a refurbished basement room at the commission's insistence. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, who wanted an office, went along with the commission's decision instead to place a desk and a chair in a corner of the library for him. He didn't get a requested dog run for his poodle, either. The occupying family has freedom to decorate their private living quarters and the Huckabee family has had an extensive redo since moving into the Mansion in July. But the public rooms are another matter.

"Not every first family coming in is going to appreciate or desire a Georgian decor in those rooms, but we have felt in the past that it was important to put our best foot forward," and maintain a style in keeping with the home's architecture, Jones said.

Neither Jones nor anyone associated with the commission would say so publicly, but the Huckabees' changes to the grounds and the public rooms have created a minor stir. Mansion administrator Kamala Williams' decision last fall to prune budding azaleas, and her subsequent firing of protesting mansion gardener Becky Thompson, was met with dismay from persons long associated with the mansion, including Huckabee supporters. Indoors, the Huckabees have removed expensive draperies, bought with private funds raised by the non-profit Mansion Commission Association, from the dining room and rearranged and added furnishings to the living room.

Commission members' terms are staggered so that the governor may appoint a new member each year. If Rep. Thicksten's bill is approved, Huckabee would be able to appoint half the commission this year and new members each succeeding year of his term, besides having his Cabinet appointee, Jane Rogers of the Heritage Department, serve. One of those appointments could be made as early as this week, as the term of Pat Cooper of Bella Vista, the member serving from Thicksten's congressional district, expires.

The bill to up the members suggests to Jones that Huckabee would rather control the commission than work with current members to reach accord on use of the rooms.

Huckabee spokesman Rex Nelson said the bill would "give the governor and the first lady some input, having people on the commission they are comfortable with."

Commission chairman Wayne Cranford, who under the bill's current configuration would keep the chairmanship, said he wasn't opposed to "a few commissioners being added. The more the merrier."

The commission was created in 1973 to oversee mansion operations, from plumbing to the grounds. A nonprofit Mansion Association has raised thousands of dollars in private money to update the Quapaw Quarter house.

Pat Torvestad, chair of the association and marketing director at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said the conflict was perhaps to be expected. "Anytime you have change, you're going to have to have a lot of adjustments," she said. "We're working through all of our concerns pretty collegially [even though] sometimes we don't precisely agree."

"Some of the issues are emotional and some of the volunteers have been in that mansion for years and years," Torvestad added, saying she hoped the mansion administration and the association would find a way "to meet the needs of the governor and the needs of the mansion and the people, who love to come there and enjoy it."

Print headline: "The designing governor: Interior decor prompts Mansion bill." April 4, 1997.

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