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The controversy over University of Central Arkansas President Lu Hardin's pay and perks has had a ripple effect on local politics.
Conway, home to UCA, will also be home to the hottest local political race in Arkansas this year — a $500,000-plus match between incumbent state Sen. Gilbert Baker, a Republican, and Joe White, a Democrat.
You'd' think that the controversy over the Senate district's most important public institution would play a role in that race. But Republican Baker hopes not because he's a UCA insider, a true-blue FOOL (Friend of Ol' Lu).
When Baker threw a fund-raiser in June, he threw it at the home of Dr. Michael Stanton, a member of the UCA Board of Trustees. Needing a tent for the event, he got one, not from the local U-Rent-It, but from UCA. Needing someone to set up the tent, he got a crew from UCA. Nearly seven weeks later, Baker's campaign sent a check to UCA to cover the cost. This was after the press had begun nosing around this and other reported perks for Hardin pals.
Other perks for pals included deluxe single-family housing at UCA for Senator Baker's kid, Trustee Stanton's kid and Republican big shot Sheffield Nelson's grandkid. All insisted these house are available to all students. That's bull. The houses aren't listed in any housing publication. Even Hardin admitted that knowing him was a help.
Baker must argue that tents are available for all comers. It's his only way around a law that prohibits use of public property in political campaigns. So if YOU need a tent, you know now who to call.
Joe White has raised a still more pressing question. Why has Senator Baker stood silent amid the stream of revelations about bad judgment and worse at UCA? White says Baker's silence demonstrates a lack of leadership. What it more likely indicates is that Baker is in cahoots with the UCA ruling clique. Baker alibis that he doesn't want to interfere with the responsibilities of the UCA Board of Trustees and that he'll demonstrate leadership come January, when the legislature convenes. Until then, silence, please.
This is a dodge. But it will be welcomed by assorted Conway bigwigs — FOOLs all —who've stepped forward to offer endorsements of their buddy Lu in his hour of need. Baker won't get crosswise with them. So it is that Baker, in theory a lawmaker, stands silent although UCA trustees twice violated state law by voting a total of $400,000 in publicly paid bonuses for President Hardin. The lawmaker also stood mute when UCA trustees repeatedly violated state law by improperly convening in secret and by taking secret actions without announcing them in public. We can understand his silence about participation in dishonoring a state law meant to prohibit use of public property in political campaigns.
White's criticism of Baker's inaction sounds like a winning strategy in Little Rock. But it's not that simple. Hardin is popular, the school has grown rapidly under his leadership and the president's favor-currying with the Conway power structure undoubtedly extended beyond loaned tents and special housing. Members of the FOOL Club undoubtedly prefer that White not shake up their little club. The question is how many people are outside the clubhouse windows looking in unhappily. On this head count, the election could turn.