Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
No one ever said that Arkansas politics was predictable. But even by this state’s standards, the storyline of the 2006 governor’s race already has taken some unusual twists and turns.
A year ago, with Arkansas anticipating its first open-seat gubernatorial contest since 1978, the script was written. After 10 years of Republican rule, the Democrats had coalesced around Attorney General Mike Beebe, who had two decades of state government experience and no challenger for his party’s nomination.
On the other hand, an exciting primary was in store for the Republicans, with two of its biggest names — former congressman Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller — preparing to compete for the chance to face Beebe.
However, Rockefeller in July dropped out of the governor’s race to seek treatment for a serious blood cancer. Hutchinson suddenly had a clear path to the Republican nomination.
The next six months were relatively quiet, with Beebe and Hutchinson seemingly poised for a confrontation in the general election. Then, in the middle of January, Bill Halter did what few actually expected him to do. He announced he would challenge Beebe in the Democratic primary. And he quickly put $1 million on the table to back up his bet.
Conventional wisdom — that is, the thinking of most politicians and pundits — holds that Halter’s decision to run was foolhardy.
Yes, he had formed an exploratory committee in early October and by the time he entered the race had raised over $1 million in primary and general election funds. But Beebe was much better known. Most of the Democratic Party establishment was already behind Beebe. Most of Halter’s campaign contributions had come from out of state, and Halter only recently had moved back to Arkansas, even though he maintained his residency here throughout his absence.
“I’m a fourth-generation Arkansan, I grew up here, and I have been registered to vote in-state my entire adult life,” Halter said in an interview.
Born and raised in North Little Rock, Halter went to Stanford University in California after graduating as valedictorian from Little Rock Catholic High School. He majored in economics and political science in college and won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.
His first job after graduate school was with McKinsey and Co. as a management consultant. But after a couple of years he went to Washington, where he became the chief economist for the Senate Finance Committee. Bill Clinton’s arrival at the White House in 1993 opened up an opportunity for Halter to join the administration in the Office of Management and Budget. Then, in 1999, he was nominated and confirmed as the deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration and he ended up serving as the acting commissioner of the agency in the final months of Clinton’s presidency.
When the Republicans took control of the executive branch in 2001, Halter re-entered the private sector by joining the boards of several technology and bio-tech companies with names like Akamai Technologies, webMethods, InterMune, Threshold Pharmaceuticals and Xenogen. (He is not a lobbyist. He said he will resign those board appointments if elected governor.) He also was a trustee at Stanford from 1996 to 2003.
With such strong academic and professional credentials, it is not surprising to hear Halter’s current and former colleagues speak with admiration for his intelligence and abilities.
Paul Sagan, the president and CEO of Akamai, said Halter is a “very smart practical person about business” and “the kind of person we want to have in public service.” James Roosevelt, the grandson of President Franklin Roosevelt who worked with Halter at the Social Security Administration, called Halter “a very dynamic individual … something that is all too rare among people who run for chief executive on the state level.”
That view is seconded by Ken Apfel, the Social Security commissioner to whom Halter was deputy. Apfel said Halter was the chief operating officer for the agency, which had about 65,000 employees.
“The way that we had set up our arrangement, I did more of the external relations,” said Apfel, who is now a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “That means as chief operating officer, he was running something very big. I was enormously impressed with his executive skills and ability to get things done.”
Besides testifying to his ability to manage Arkansas state government (which has about 25,000 employees), Halter hopes that his association with Social Security will help him appeal to primary voters.
“Social Security is a vitally important program for Arkansas,” Halter said. “One out of five Arkansans receive a Social Security check each month. I fought against President Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security, not only because his proposal is flawed for America, but particularly for Arkansas. Social Security privatization would ultimately result in Arkansas receiving $1 billion less per year than we currently do.”
Similarly, he claims his business background can be useful.
“I hope that my relationships with venture capitalists and businessmen and scientists who have contributed to the campaign because they know me or like what the campaign stands for would, in the future, be more willing to help bring jobs or bring research into the state of Arkansas,” Halter said.
Sagan, Roosevelt and Apfel don’t follow Arkansas politics closely and they decided to support Halter without knowing his chances. However, Sagan said, “I felt he would bring fresh thinking from the outside. I know who his opponent is, and I think you have an interesting contrast between a lifetime elected official who is part of the way things work and someone who has a fresh face and a lot of practical experience who is not wedded to the way things have run before.”
The flip side of being a fresh face is that Halter’s retail political skills are unknown. He has never run for office before, and his most recent campaign work, for Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential bid, apparently ended on uncomfortable terms. Last October, after Halter formed his exploratory committee and cited his experience with Clinton and Clark, a spokesman for Clark, Erick Mullen, said, “It’s a clever tactic for Bill Halter to confuse the situation, but let’s be clear: Neither President Clinton nor General Clark care to see Bill Halter in this race. It’s not his time right now, it’s Attorney General Beebe’s. It also seems to me that the more Mr. Halter brags about his relationships with Clinton and Clark, the worse those relationships will get.”
With the odds stacked against him in some ways, it’s natural to wonder why Halter, 45, would take on such a challenge, especially at a time when he was making a considerable amount of money in his corporate endeavors.
“This is a very important election,” Halter said. “This is the first time in a very long time there is not an incumbent in office, which provides the opportunity to make the race more about the future of the state and ideas rather than just how well the incumbent is doing. In addition, it is very important to me that we focus on and really highlight for voters how we’re going to move the state forward in a dramatic way. I think what campaigns ought to be about is ideas and our campaign will present specific ideas to improve the educational system in the state and improve schools and provide higher-paying jobs for Arkansans.”
Halter thinks his educational background and business experience qualify him for governor.
“I’ve been very involved in education in different ways for years, and educational opportunities have provided the real difference for me and I want to see that all Arkansas children get those opportunities to have the best possible futures for them and also for the state,” he said. “In addition, I think my background in business is very relevant. My service providing strategic planning for business and serving on boards of directors for technology and biotech companies provides a set of experiences that are relevant to improving the business climate in Arkansas and helping to build better job opportunities here and recruit companies to locate here.”
Beebe has sounded a similar theme, crediting his public school and public university experiences for his rise from the son of a waitress and single mother in the small town of Amagon to his current position.
In fact, Beebe seemed to agree with many of the proposals Halter introduced in his campaign announcement speech, which included a lottery to benefit public education, increasing the minimum wage and outlawing payday lending.
But Halter maintains there are important differences between his and Beebe’s approaches to the issues.
“I’m glad that he agrees with the positions where he agrees with them, but on some of these things he didn’t seem to have identified them early or led in those areas,” Halter said. “For example, I’ve said that I’m for an education lottery and if elected will push for one. If I understand his position correctly, he will vote for one but doesn’t want to lead to get one enacted.”
[At a press conference after Halter announced, Beebe said, “As long as it’s done right, it’s something I can favor. I’m not out pushing for a lottery. There are a lot of downsides to a lottery, particularly with people who get hooked. But if it’s done right and the people have the opportunity to vote on it and the bulk of the money goes to major services such as education or human services, I can be supportive of it. But I’m not out pushing it. I have no plans to push it.”]
For his part, Beebe said Halter’s entrance in the race has not changed anything about his campaign, including the timing of his policy prescriptions.
“The substantive ideas and proposals were going to be the same with or without a primary opponent,” Beebe said. “They were planned for the relatively near future, and they will be coming forth in the relatively near future.”
This raises the question of whether Halter should have joined the competition earlier. He raised $500,000 only 10 days after filing his exploratory papers, then waited another three months before saying he was a candidate for governor.
“I personally think that, unfortunately, we have set of circumstances now where campaigns are beginning far too early,” Halter said. “I think voters can judge whether or not I waited too long, but I think that continual campaigning can result in too much focus on politics and positioning and not enough focus on advancing good policies and effectively governing. … I think the exploratory phase of the campaign was designed to first determine whether voters were receptive to our particular message, what friends, family and supporters thought about pursuing the race, and also a careful weighing of what a candidacy would mean for my new wife and me. And also an assessment of the feasibility of running and winning.”
Does that mean he commissioned some polls?
“It means talking to people,” Halter responded. “But yes, I’ve done polling.”
Halter would not share the results of his polls, but publicly released samplings by others show a significant advantage for Beebe. Three days after Halter’s Jan. 21 entrance into the race, KTHV reported that a SurveyUSA poll showed Beebe’s support at 64 percent and Halter with 12 percent, with the remaining 24 percent divided among “other” or “undecided.”
A three-month campaign
Halter is not discouraged by those with a pessimistic assessment of his chances (see sidebar). He believes he can make the race competitive by the May 23 primary.
“Elections are for voters to decide,” he said. “We’re part of the process now where the candidates are just now beginning to put out their policy prescriptions for the state.”
Halter’s late entry surprised the Democratic Party. Its chairman, Jason Willett, only recently removed a Beebe bumper sticker from his car. That doesn’t trouble Halter, even if it suggests a cold shoulder toward him from the party establishment.
“The Democratic Party that I’m a member of doesn’t believe in coronations or anointments,” Halter said. “I’m putting policy positions out there and alternatives. There should not be this presumption that any candidate is entitled either to the office or their party’s nomination. … The Democratic Party is far more than just the chairman and paid employees. It consists more broadly of people who support the Democratic candidates. It’s broader than just a small group of people. I’ll leave it for others to judge the approach that particular folks have taken.”
Beebe says that he has had several conversations with Halter and expects their competition will not include negative campaign tactics.
“I certainly can’t anticipate where he is going to go except to the extent that I have had a couple of conversations with him that have been constructive, and have really been, I have to say, relatively pleasant,” Beebe said.
Both men promise they will unveil more detailed agendas in the coming weeks. There has been little action between them since their exchange on the day Halter entered the race — partly because Halter married Shanti Patching at Stanford exactly a week later.
At a Jan. 27 appearance in front of the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus, Beebe called for phasing out the state sales tax on groceries, a position that Halter also supports as a concept.
The primary race also recently has been overshadowed by Republican allegations that Beebe and his staff at the attorney general’s office improperly used state property for campaign-related work. As a result, Beebe’s chief of staff, Ruth Whitney, resigned her government position to join one of his campaign’s consultant firms, and he faces an investigation by the Arkansas Ethics Commission of an employee’s use of a state office computer to edit a campaign speech.
Halter would not comment on Beebe’s predicament, but his staff has raised ethical issues in complaining about the attendance of Beebe supporters, with video cameras, at Halter’s speeches.
With the strong likelihood that the candidates will continue to agree on most policy positions, there is a possibility that the race will turn on personal backgrounds as well as political counter-punching.
Where Halter can distinguish himself from Beebe as a fresh face removed from the lobbying culture of the State Capitol, Beebe can contrast his uninterrupted presence in Arkansas with Halter’s years away.
For instance, Halter said, “Right off the bat with the launching of the campaign, I outlined several changes that I would like to see in our ethics laws, including restricting lobbyists from paying for trips and restricting campaign contributions from lobbyists and their [political action committees].”
Responding more directly to that point than he did when Halter first raised the issue, Beebe said, “I think that reasonable restrictions and increasing those restrictions is something we can look at. I’m totally open to that.” He added, “I don’t take gifts now and wouldn’t take gifts [if elected governor], categorically.”
Beebe brought up “personality” in the context of a discussion about his match-up with Halter.
“Over and above the substance of what the problems are and what the potential solutions are, then you have the other equation which is how does the personality of that candidate actually translate into effective leadership for governing down the road. … Not personality from the standpoint of how we normally think about personality. I’m talking about personality from the standpoint of your individual ability to lead the folks that have to be led, whether it’s a legislature, whether it’s various constituency groups, professional groups, or whether it’s the ability to connect with or communicate with people.”
For his part, Halter said at one point, “I do think there are differences in our life experiences,” citing his work in business and his various roles in the Clinton administration.
Also, in discussing Halter’s campaign financing, Beebe said, “I’m not overly critical of raising money out of state, because I think everyone does that and we will too. I think the operative issue there, though, is what the respective percentages are. … I’m proud of the fact that roughly 96 percent of our contributions are from Arkansas and I think that reflects a broad-base commitment by Arkansans.”
Halter calls his out-of-state support “heartwarming, because many of these folks don’t personally want anything out of it besides good government in the state of Arkansas. I would say that this is a good first indicator of what I would like to do as governor, which is bring in resources from outside the state.”
During his exploratory phase, Halter formed a “steering committee” consisting of several prominent Arkansas Democrats, including former state Democratic Party chairman Ron Oliver, former U.S. Senate candidate Nate Coulter and some former officials from Clinton’s gubernatorial administration. One of his current campaign advisors is Harold Gist, who coordinated African-American outreach in Arkansas for then-Gov. Bill Clinton and did similar work nationally for the Democratic National Committee during the Clinton administration.
Beebe is more impressed with Halter’s campaign treasury than with the composition of Halter’s Arkansas supporters and staff. The most recent reports show Halter with $1.4 million compared with Beebe’s $2.39 million.
“I think the biggest change [resulting from Halter’s entrance in the race] is a realization and recognition that the campaign is much more expensive,” Beebe said. “I think that’s the most significant factor. By that I mean he’s well financed.”
But Beebe sees a silver lining to the new dynamic.
“There is a major upside to this,” he said. “And the upside to it is that it gives us the opportunity to get a message out, debate the issues, it tells you where your strengths are and where perhaps your weaknesses are earlier, and it gives the people an earlier opportunity to be able to see you engaged in the issues.”
Ultimately, the question for Democratic primary voters may boil down to who has the best chance to win the general election.
Beebe said of Halter, “I don’t believe he’d be a stronger candidate and I think there is some objective evidence that suggests that.”
Halter rejects that outlook and with it the implication that his primary challenge could damage Beebe by making him more vulnerable against a Republican opponent. In short, and in spite of what the experts think, he thinks he can win the primary.
“My belief is that, provided we have a good substantive exchange on policy and my campaign is appropriately financed, that I do feel good about the ultimate outcome,” Halter said. “I think Asa Hutchinson has been a formidable political candidate, but I feel confident that after winning the Democratic primary, that I would win a general election against Asa Hutchinson based on a comparison of vision, experience and voters’ understanding of which candidate is on their side. My hope and confidence is that overall, Arkansas voters, when presented with alternatives, get it right.”