Lite Gov., heavy race 

Bill Halter and Jim Holt go at it for the second-banana chair.

HEAD TO HEAD: But not heart to heart.
  • HEAD TO HEAD: But not heart to heart.

Talk to enough politicians at election time, and you might come to the conclusion that running for public office is not exactly something that normal people do.

In Arkansas, the long road to higher office might find a candidate partaking of barbecued ’coon, or swathed head to toe in camouflage, or goaded into professing his undying love for Jesus Christ, Ronald Reagan and Smith and Wesson on the same statewide television broadcast. Small town parade, fair and festival duty is a given.

Given that, you’ve got to ask yourself why anyone would go through all that misery and pain to become lieutenant governor — a largely ceremonial position that has been vacant for more than a year now if you count the late Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller’s long medical treatment in Washington before his death in Little Rock.

While the race to watch is usually for the governor’s seat, it has been a slow trot of a thing, between two technically proficient guys who don’t seem to differ much.

With that, and closer results in polling, a strange thing has happened in Election 2006: the usually dull-as-dishwater contest for lieutenant governor somehow became a title fight — a brutal, sometimes nasty slugfest between two men who couldn’t be much more different.

On the Republican side, you have Jim Holt, a state senator from Springdale with nine kids, a Christian fundamentalist background, and a reputation as the most radical right-winger in the Arkansas Republican Party.

On the Democratic side, you have Bill Halter, the North Little Rock kid who worked his way up from bagging groceries to the Big Chair at the Social Security Administration. He spent 25 years outside the state working in the corporate sector and in the Clinton administration — first with the Office of Management and Budget and later as deputy director and director of Social Security — before jetting back home with an eye toward a seat at or near the top of Arkansas government.

While Holt and Halter have just about zip in common, the race between them has been one of the most contentious in recent memory, with the two lobbing shots over each other’s bows since the primary. Holt, Halter says, is the odd man out, a man too far to the right for even his own party to love. Halter, Holt says, is a liberal tax-and-spender who only came back to the state when he saw an opportunity to win the governor’s seat — though he’s agreed to settle for No. 2.

While neither one is completely right, it sure makes for some good politicking.

In this corner…

Though parking in downtown Little Rock on a weekday might be as close to hell as any of us are going to get while clinging to this mortal plane, Bill Halter somehow arrives early for our interview at Iriana’s Pizza. He’s early enough, anyway, that we miss each other in separate elevators, him going up to the offices of the Arkansas Times, me going down to the pizza joint below. Given his resume (see sidebar), there’s a good chance that Halter has been showing up early his whole life: for class, for exams, for work.

Though Halter will turn 46 in November, he looks almost boyish, thanks mostly to his eyes, which seem as hungry as a newborn’s, and a shock of gray-peppered black hair that hangs over his forehead. Like every politician you ever heard of other than Bill Clinton, he isn’t as tall as he looks on television. During his first debate with opponent Jim Holt, held before a small crowd at the Clinton School of Public Service, Halter’s people insisted on a six-inch riser to square him up with Holt, even though the TV cameras were all at the governor’s debate.

Halter shows up alone and almost immediately, he gets down to business. He’s friendly, but too much of a newbie yet to have learned the politician’s art of faking warmth. He does take a minute to talk excitedly of his soon-to-arrive daughter, his first child. Married in January, Halter’s wife, Shanti, is due on Nov. 6, the day before the election — a fact which might provide Halter the best excuse ever for a politician missing his own victory party or concession speech.

After seeing how well he did in the debates held a month before our interview and how good some of his ideas sound — about education, about teacher pay, about bringing big businesses to the state — it’s easy to forget that Halter is in the midst of his first political campaign. As a kid, Halter said he never imagined that he might someday run for office.

“In college, I started out as an engineer. I certainly never had an expectation that I’d wind up working in the White House. Certainly had no expectation that I’d wind up leading the Social Security Administration,” he said. “You just do the best you can do at the time and not worry so much about what the next step is. Because if you worry too much about the next step, you get cautious and you miss the opportunity to do the best job you can do where you are.”

Though he is something of a campaign trail virgin, Holt said his position at Social Security prepared him well for politics. As deputy commissioner, he said, he’d often have to go to Social Security offices around the country to motivate the troops. “Those days were inevitably jam-packed because you want to do as many things possible when you’re in that particular town,” he said. “There were some days when I’d have 13 events. It was a lot like campaigning. You’re just moving from one thing to the next.”

Bill Halter’s choice to run for office has itself has been something of a rub. Virtually since the day he threw his hat into the ring for public office, his opponents have questioned his motives; particularly whether his August 2004 move back to Arkansas was made solely with the idea of running for governor in mind. The matter was legally decided in May, when the state Supreme Court struck down a challenge to his eligibility, ruling that Halter was a resident who did indeed have the right to run. Still, his opponent, Jim Holt, has repeatedly hacked at Halter’s Arkansas roots, painting his opponent as something of a carpetbagger, two decades gone from the state and only returned when he saw an opportunity to win the governor’s office. Halter has heard it enough now that he doesn’t bristle at the charge.

“My deal in this is to look for an opportunity,” he said. “I’ve had some wonderful opportunities for leadership experience in the public and the private circuit in companies and in government and I’ve already successfully led an organization larger than the entire state government of Arkansas. I think the important thing is putting forth a plan, an agenda to move the state forward. And that’s what our campaign has done: put forward a very specific set of ideas, that — if implemented — I believe will help us move forward.”

Unlike Holt, who seems to have more of a loose collection of things he dislikes (gun control, illegal immigration, abortion, taxes) than any kind of concrete plans, Halter has proposed programs: $5,000 raises for teachers, universally available pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, a state lottery to help fund education, and going after Arkansas’s fair share of federal research dollars.

As for the office, Halter sees it as continuing to operate in the mold set by Rockefeller — as a kind of economic ambassadorship for the state, helping to bring big business and investment to Arkansas. Halter said that in that regard, his experience in the world of business and the federal government sets him apart from his opponent. “You should look to the business experience of the candidates and say OK, who can, if necessary, go out and meet with a CEO, or meet with a board of directors of a company that’s thinking about locating a facility in Arkansas?” he said. “Who can go out and credibly make the case that Arkansas’s the place for that company to locate?”

Before we can get there, however, Halter says we’re going to have to fix education. The centerpiece of his campaign, his slate of ideas about reforming education is intriguing, if not exactly economically feasible. Given that the state’s voters have rejected a lottery time and again (although the idea has always been hooked to the more unpopular notion of casino gambling), it’s questionable whether the cash-generating engine at the heart of Halter’s bright little gearbox of ideas about education is ever going to fire.

Throughout our meal, Halter sticks to the issues, refusing the opportunity to turn on Jim Holt even when I damn near force a knife into his hand. In a race in which his opponent has been willing to go for the quick and bloody hit, Halter repeatedly takes the high road. Before we part, I ask him what the worst moment of the campaign has been for him personally. While Halter usually seems more schooled than passionate when he talks about his ideas for the state, this time he doesn’t hesitate. “You know, the worst part has been having the background or experience distorted or outright lied about,” he said. “That’s been the worst.” He lets the sentence hang in the air for a second, and in that moment, you can see the real Bill Halter: not the polished veneer of a candidate, or the reams of facts and figures he seems to be able to access at will — the man inside.

“The best experiences are getting out, talking to folks, and discussing with them ideas that I believe will help,” he said. “The support of my friends, colleagues, and people from all parts of my life have been really amazing in terms of — these folks are pulling our their checkbooks, supporting me financially and supporting me with their time and their effort and enthusiasm and their good words. You know, that is amazingly gratifying to have that happen.”

And, in this corner…

Given some of his more radical notions about education, social programs, government spending, taxes and pretty much everything else, the scariest thing about Jim Holt could just be that if he ever does get elected to statewide office, we might never get rid of him.

Though Bill Halter may have a more focused and progressive vision for Arkansas, Holt has long since mastered the backslapping and baby-kissing that’s crucial to face-to-face campaigning in the South, the skills his opponent either hasn’t learned or avoids for the sake of seeming too cornball. He’s personable, wholesome, able to talk at length to anyone about the only three things that matter in the hinterlands — the Razorbacks, where to get a good plate lunch, and Jesus. He garnered 44 percent of the vote when he made a run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Blanche Lincoln in 2004, and — depending on which poll you believe — has locked in a solid 35 to 40 percent of the vote for lieutenant governor since the primary. That’s not surprising until you realize that, while Halter has spent upwards of a million bucks on his campaign so far, Holt’s entire swell is based almost entirely on bumper stickers and shoe leather: appearances at fish frys, church suppers, parades and the Lepanto Terrapin Festival.

What with his success on a tiny budget, if the voters ever give Holt an office that might get his mug beamed out on a regular basis to the state’s dozing multitudes of wetback haters, gun nuts, anti-government freaks, Christian fundies and any fence-sitters who lean far enough right to be infected by his undeniable charisma, we might be looking at an ultra-conservative Huey Long.

Don Elkins is the anchor of KNWA news in Fayetteville. He moderated the Holt-Halter debate at the Clinton School for Public Service in September. He has known Holt for six years, with the two striking up a jovial friendship. Elkins said he’s seen Holt evolve during his time in office, ramping up the religious, anti-immigrant and anti-gay rhetoric. Because Holt has been largely frozen out by his own party for being too radical, Elkins said the Republican has changed from a “self-destructively honest” John Q. Public-type into someone who actively seeks to stimulate a base that some might describe as xenophobic or even racist, along with those who vote based mostly on their own religious convictions.

“He’s not a dumb guy, he’s a smart guy,” Elkins said. “But I don’t know why he mutated from what I’m pretty sure he was to what he is now. I get the feeling that he realizes that he’s not going to get any support from his own party, financial or otherwise. They don’t like him. He’s got this hardcore base that’s Constitutional Party and Jim Dobson followers, and they don’t watch TV anyway. He’s really found a way to motivate them and stir them up.”

A recent Friday afternoon found Holt walking around the edge of a field in Bentonville, watching as supporters set up tables and chairs for the “Jim and Jim Jamboree,” a catfish and barbecue fundraiser to benefit the campaigns of Holt and Republican secretary of state candidate Jim Lagrone. As the 5:30 start time grew closer, Holt looked genuinely frazzled. He is, Elkins told me, “a nerve case” when it comes to things like this, prone to chewing his fingernails down to the quick (before the second debate between Holt and Halter, held at AETN studios in Conway in mid-October, Holt stood at his lectern and gnawed away at his nails until virtually the moment that television cameras were switched on). Dressed in a blindingly white button-up shirt like a man about to be either baptized or hanged, Holt paced back and forth between the parking area and the entrance of the fund-raiser, personally heading out to greet almost everyone who showed up even remotely early. Finally, as the sun crept closer to the horizon, the trickle of cars turned into a stream, kicking up a cloud of dust on the dirt road that edged the field. There had been, we soon learned, a wreck on the freeway that had backed up traffic into Bentonville for miles.

The core of about 75 people who eventually arrived might well be called Jim Holt’s true believers: women in long skirts with hair draped down their backs; men with the haircut and shiny/happy look that hardcore Christian males seem to sport; battalions of kids — even the prodigious Duggar clan. At the gate, a sign on a card table suggested a $10 entry fee. Below that: “Big Families: $50.”

I stopped Holt at the corner of the event grounds, near the herd of Igloo coolers that held the drinks — 50 cents each. Maybe it says something about the shoestring budget of Holt’s campaign that, as we chatted, people kept coming up and pressing quarters into his hand before going diving in the ice chests for a soda or bottled water.

Though I had expected Holt to be a cross between Jimmy Swaggart and Rush Limbaugh, he isn’t as nearly as Jesus-y in person as you might think. Though his ideas about how to govern are pretty much as radical as a person can get without living in a Unabomber shack somewhere, Holt has a complete and thorough argument for everything he believes, buttressed by copious facts, figures, and verbatim quotes by everyone from Churchill to Jefferson to John the Baptist. Still, for Holt, everything begins and ends with the Lord, though he doesn’t always point that fact out. Even when he’s talking about tax policy or political philosophy, his voice has a tinge of Sunday morning in it.

Holt said that as a kid, bounced around from home to home after his father died, his life was changed when he found God. “That love changed my life.” Holt said. “Why is it wrong to say that somebody changed your life? I can’t do that. I can’t say no, I’m not going to talk about Jesus. When people ask me, yeah, I talk about him … it‘s only fair to let people know where you‘re coming from.”

It’s one thing to love Jesus, it’s another thing to have him make an appearance on your campaign signage. Holt found that out the hard way during the primaries, when he started putting the “Jesus fish” — a symbol for Christianity — on his campaign signs. He said it got him in trouble with his Christian base, with some going so far as to say they wouldn’t vote for him if it didn’t disappear. “When I did that, I had no political strategist,” Holt said. “I just thought, ‘I want people to know where I stand.’ So I put it on there and boy! I’ve probably taken more heat from the Christians than anybody else.” Soon after, he said, he took the fish off his signs, though you can occasionally still see one around.

While his commitment to Jesus might be ironclad, even members of his own party have questioned Holt’s compassion and racial tolerance over his stand against illegal immigration — a stand that includes such warm and fuzzy ideas as denying free prenatal care to pregnant illegal immigrant women, even though their babies will be American citizens. As to the feasibility of removing 11 million illegal immigrants from the country, Holt said that if the government would only “get tough” with enforcement, we’d see a lot of “self-removal” as job opportunities for undocumented workers dry up.

The moral problem with illegal immigration, Holt said, is that it creates a kind of slave labor force, a group of “third-class citizens” who can’t work legally, and who are therefore at the mercy of anyone who wants to hire them. From a legal standpoint, Holt says that his stand against illegal immigration is about “property rights on a national scale” — the same as if someone kicked in your door, sat down on your couch, and demanded to be fed.

“I’ve said this until I’m blue in the face. It’s about a commitment to a country,” Holt said. “We want people to be Americans. There’s no, ‘I’m a Mexican-American.’ There’s no half American. You’re either American or you’re not. It doesn’t matter about color. It never has for me. I want that for people, but I want them to do it legally.”

People used to vanilla-flavored Republicanism might be surprised at Holt’s notion that government turns a blind eye to the problem. “Why? Because big business wants that profit margin to be bigger. They pay [illegals] a substandard wage, it suppresses everybody else in America’s wage, and then we’re going to say, ‘Yeah let’s keep them there for big business because the big businesses line politicians’ pockets with campaign contributions.’ ”

His stand against the corporate bottom line makes sense only when you look at the rest of Holt’s track record. Love him or hate him, Holt has made a name for himself in the state Senate for bucking the will of the state Republican Party, often lodging the only nay vote on some popular bills — including, as his opponent likes to point out, the sole senatorial vote against raising the minimum wage. He said he takes pride in a nickname his colleagues bestowed on him: Dr. No. To his credit, he’s also against some of the legislative darlings of the Bush administration: the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind.

After you talk to Jim Holt for a while it kind of dawns on you that, in a nutshell, every stance he takes on any issue can be traced back to his near-total opposition to any shape, form or fashion of governmental regulation. This extends from social programs like welfare and food stamps (“If I give to you personally because I love you and I want to help you, that’s charity. But if the government does it, that’s not love, it’s a government job, it’s an entitlement.”) to the pre-kindergarten programs his opponent touts (Soviet-style socialism, Holt famously called the programs) to the aftermath of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans (“People are thinking that the government is supposed to be taking care of them so much that they didn’t have enough sense to get away from Katrina. They stood around saying, ‘Where’s my government check?’ ”)

With Holt’s conviction that big government is the root of every ill, his cure is to starve the beast by cutting taxes. While there’s a question of how much leverage he or anyone else might have as lieutenant governor when it comes to the state’s tax policy, Holt is firm in his belief that drastically lowering taxes — even at the cost of state services — will woo big business and economic prosperity to Arkansas.

“The politicians are trying to help, but I’m submitting that they’re not helping, they’re hurting,” Holt said. “How we do that is we lower the tax burden, we shut down a lot of the government programs, and then we bring in the high paying jobs, the ones that pay 15, 20 bucks an hour. Then [the people] have hope. The best hope is a high-paying job. People say it’s education. Sure, education helps. But if you put all your money into education — and we’ve been doing that for years in Arkansas — when the kids get educated, where do they go? They don’t stay here, because the high-paying jobs aren’t here.”


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