Favorite

The Right-Hand Man 

Asa Hutchinson wants voters to keep politics and religion apart in his campaign for the Senate. Will we? Should We?

click to enlarge ASA HUTCHINSON: At 35 image
  • John McDermott
  • ASA HUTCHINSON: At 35.

For a first-time political candidate, there probably isn't anything that can match Announcement Day, that morning when the inchoate leader strides to a bank of microphones and tosses his or her Stetson — 0r, as a Fayetteville rip-and-misread radio newsman once called it, stepson — into the ring. Nothing will be quite that fine again. Campaign schedules will get fouled up; reporters' questions will get tougher; contributors will scale down their pledges or renege on them entirely; the candidate will endure the humiliation of having a handshake spurned by some steely-eyed, snuff dipping old gaffer in overalls and a gimme cap for reasons that might have to do with political philosophy or might be dictated by nothing more significant than the cut of the candidate's suit, or the length of his hair.

But not on Announcement Day. Announcement Day belongs to the candidate. The polls haven't solidified; the fatigue hasn't set in. The audience is vociferously and unanimously supportive, unless the candidate has been so unwise as to offend Say McIntosh at some point in the past, and reporters who ask hard questions can be assured in all honesty that "those issues will be addressed in detail as the campaign develops." Announcement Day is the reward we give our candidates for all the bad food, bad coffee, bad advice, and bad company they'll have to put up with for the next few months. It is a day — perhaps the only day — during which the candidate won't wonder if it is all worth it.

Asa Hutchinson had his Announcement Day on January 13, a Monday, and from all indications, it was a successful one. There was no element of surprise, but political announcements aren't meant to be surprises any more; they're ceremonies that confirm what everyone has known for months, and aside from giving the candidate a trouble-free day in the sun, they serve mainly to allow headline writers to use Stock Head Number 564: "(Name of Candidate] Makes it Official; To Run for (Name of Office)."

First in his hometown of Bentonville; then in Fort Smith, where he had cracked the statewide media as a federal prosecutor; then in the rotunda of the state Capitol at Little Rock; and at airport press conferences in Jonesboro and Texarkana — Asa Hutchinson announced that he would run for the United States Senate, as a Republican, against the incumbent Democrat Dale Bumpers, a man who had himself come out of relative obscurity more than fifteen years ago to make a name for himself in Arkansas politics.

The rite had all the required trappings: Tim Hutchinson, the candidate's brother and a Republican state representative, spoke, as did Ed Bethune, his sailboat tan only slightly yellowed by the Arkansas winter. The family — a smiling, attractive wife and four of the cleanest children in Arkansas — were attired in outfits featuring plenty of Razorback red.

Hutchinson himself wore touches of scarlet — his tie was of red silk, tied in a military knot, and two peaks of a carefully folded red handkerchief peeped from the breast pocket of his suit coat. The remainder of his ensemble was almost funereal: dark blue suit, black wing-tip perforated bals, white broadcloth dress shirt. A wristwatch and a wedding band were his only ornamentations. The outfit, together with his youthful visage, gave Hutchinson the appearance of a high school senior delivering a valedictory address wearing the practical, serviceable suit his parents had insisted upon, but asserting his own taste with the gaudy accessories of a timid but hopeful young blade.

In his prepared announcement, Hutchinson followed what has become the traditional line for Republicans running in a state where a lot of voters still have a hard time voting for a Republican even when they agree with him. He barely mentioned the Republican Party, instead emphasizing his allegiance to "conservative policies," "traditional values," "a strong defense," and his opposition to "excessive taxes and government controls."

"I'm not going to go around the state talking about Republicanism," he said a little later in response to a reporter's question on why his chosen political party had got such short shrift. "I'm going to be talking about responsible government and representing the people of Arkansas."

His supporters in the audience, a diverse group that ranged from loyal Republican moderates from the Winthrop Rockefeller days to zealous members of the Family, Life, America, God organization, cheered with genuine enthusiasm. The press obligingly refrained from throwing any knucklers, although the Little Rock contingent did get a little bumptious when the candidate tried to put off their question-and-answer session for a few minutes in order to shake some hands. In all, it was a fine Announcement Day.

***

Real life — real political life — began to intrude the next day, with the newspaper accounts of Hutchinson's appearances. On the night before, the radio and television accounts had pretty much confined themselves to the candidate's prepared statements; the print people went into much more detail. The newspaper accounts noted that Hutchinson's four children were enrolled in a private, sectarian school in Fort Smith; that he had attended Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist college with an unsavory reputation for racism and the dogmatic, ultraconservative politics of its founder and eponym; that his audience of supporters at Little Rock included not only members of FLAG and pro-life groups, but relatives of Justice Jim Johnson, whose political career had been forged early on in the fires of racial hatred. Hutchinson's brief appearance a few days later at a pro-life rally at the state Capitol got a lot of play in the papers, too. Hutchinson couldn't have been too surprised at the coverage, but it was no doubt a matter of concern to a man who was describing himself as a moderate, a "forward-looking conservative who is not afraid of change."

On a less ideological note, the Hutchinson camp hardly had time to fully savor the unanimous cheers of the Announcement Day crowds before it faced the prospect of a party primary battle against a surprising and formidable fee. In the space of three days, Little Rock financier Jack Stephens became the best known mystery man in the state — everybody knew his name; nobody knew much about him except that he had three more dollars than Oliver Warbucks and was supremely ticked off at Dale Bumpers.

As Stephens played Howard Hughes with the press — certainly a novelty in Arkansas politics but not all that unusual for a man who's used to manipulating a financial empire from behind boardroom doors — Hutchinson's stock as a viable candidate dropped, or seemed to, which is probably the same thing. He had been considered an underdog against Bumpers from the beginning, of course; he had acknowledged as much, and even seemed to relish the role. Now, though, nobody was talking about him very much at all. The talk was of a Bumpers-Stephens race, and if there is anything worse for a politician than being vilified, it is being ignored. There was little consolation in the fact that Stephens had nothing but good things to say about Hutchinson; it seemed only that he regarded him as so small an obstacle to the Republican nomination that he could afford to be charitable. For his part, Hutchinson couldn't afford to say much about Stephens, either, as long as there was a chance that he might reconsider and back out of the race. N0 sense in baiting the bear.

A Little Rock reporter was pondering these developments as he drove to meet Hutchinson for an interview about a week after Announcement Day. The reporter had made one call to Hutchinson's campaign headquarters to request the interview and had been a little surprised when the candidate had called back himself to set the thing up. He would be in Little Rock a couple of days hence, Hutchinson said over the telephone, and while he had a busy schedule, he could spare an early-morning hour over breakfast at the Legacy Hotel, where he was staying. The slow-starting reporter stumbled into the lobby a few minutes early, one shoe untied and his necktie still slung over the rearview mirror of his car out in the parking lot. Hutchinson came downstairs on the dot of seven-thirty, dressed once again in dark suit, white shirt, red tie and hankie. After ordering and eating a Junior Samples-sized breakfast — "I didn't get a chance to eat any supper last night"— Hutchinson leaned back in his chair and began to answer questions.

After more than twenty years of interviewing political candidates, the reporter had learned that there is very little chance of getting any true insight into a politician during a face-to-face interview. A lot of reporters pride themselves on their ability to ask probing questions, and a few of them really do, but the reporter had long since conceded to himself that he wasn't one of them, and that, if the truth were known, there were very few questions that any candidate worth his filing fee hasn't already anticipated, and prepared for. Most of the interview bore out the reporter's experience, with Hutchinson reasonably but predictably stating that yes, his religious faith was important to him, but he was running his campaign on political issues, not moral or spiritual ones, and that Jack Stephens' possible candidacy was "exciting" and yet another manifestation of the general discontent over the record of Dale Bumpers.

But there was one moment that was different, a moment that ran against the low-key, almost tentative Announcement Day delivery. It came in response to a meatball, Barbara Walters-type question about what the candidate perceived to be his greatest strengths and weaknesses while serving as United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. Hutchinson related his perceived strengths in a predictable way: tenacity, organizational ability, a "knack for getting to the heart of a criminal case." Then he considered his weaknesses, and his pale blue eyes narrowed as he leaned across the ruins of his breakfast.

"As for a weakness," he said, "there seems to be something in the way I meet people for the first time that makes them underestimate me."

It was not the answer that startled the reporter so much as the manner in which it was delivered. Hutchinson's somewhat tentative oratorical style at the announcement had reminded the reporter of a high school student thanking the local Legion post for sending him to Boys' State, and the reporter had wondered how in the world the new senatorial candidate had ever got all those crooks thrown in the can. Now he knew, or at least he suspected that he knew: there was an edge in Asa Hutchinson's voice that said a lot more than his words. Jack Stephens isn't doodly-squat, it said, and if I have to whip him to get to Dale Bumpers, then that's exactly what I'll do.

***

Hutchinson is a native of Gravette, in the heart of northwest Arkansas's chickenland. His parents, Mr. and Mrs. John Hutchinson, raised poultry and kids: there are six Hutchinson children; Asa, at thirty-five, is the youngest. The children are widely spaced in years, and the youngest Hutchinson spent most of his childhood time with his brother Tim, the state representative, who is a year older.

"We did just about everything together," Hutchinson said of himself and his brother, "a lot of it in friendly competition—running, wrestling, playing backyard football, that kind of thing. Tim was usually the leader, and he was the leader in getting interested in politics. I can remember us both getting excited about Goldwater."

That would have been in 1964, when Asa Hutchinson was about fourteen.

Hutchinson attended grade school at Gravette, but the family moved to Springdale when he was young, and he attended high school there, sacking groceries after school and playing football for the Bulldogs, though not, he says, with much distinction.

"We had some great teams when I played," Hutchinson recalled, "but I wasn't one of the reasons. I guess my greatest claim to fame is that I played behind some real good football players."

Partly because of his religious background and partly because "it had a good accounting department," Hutchinson went to college at Bob Jones University, a church school in Greenville, South Carolina. Even in 1968, when Hutchinson enrolled, the school had a national reputation for religious fundamentalism, political conservatism, and social puritanism. School officials at Bob Jones have never seemed too interested in refuting those charges, but they've tried, without much success, to refute claims of another institutional ism: racism. Hutchinson says now that he did not agree with the school policy that prohibited interracial dating, but that as a respecter of authority and a recipient of the college's educational benefits, he abided by the rules.

Hutchinson didn't know he wanted to be a lawyer when he enrolled at Bob Jones University; he wasn't even sure he wanted to be an accountant: "I sometimes tell people I chose accounting as a major because when you look through the college catalogs, it's always near the top of the list."

But he became involved in formal debate activities while an undergraduate, and the hours spent in research in the school library preparing for debates fascinated him. Before his senior year was up, he had decided to go to law school. He enrolled in the University of Arkansas Law School at Fayetteville upon earning his diploma from Bob Jones University in 1972, and upon receiving his law degree in 1975, he went into private practice in Bentonville.

He also entered politics, as a Republican, serving first on the county GOP committee and later as its chairman. He served as Bentonville's city attorney, a part-time, nonpartisan post, and ran unsuccessfully for prosecuting attorney on the Republican ticket. He also founded a radio station, KBCV-FM. It is a religious-format station, the only one in the area, and while Hutchinson says that "you don't get rich with a religious format station in a small market," he also says that it's in the black.

When the post of United States attorney for the Western District of Arkansas came open late in 1981, Hutchinson decided to try for it. Several lawyers applied to Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt for the patronage position, but Hutchinson's labors in the party vineyards stood him in good stead.

"I was able to muster a great deal of support for my appointment," Hutchinson said, "and in December of 'Eighty-one, I think it was, Congressman Hammerschmidt told me he was going to submit my name to the President."

In March, 1982, President Reagan named Hutchinson to the post. At thirty-one, he was the youngest United States attorney in the country.

***

Lawyers in the Western District differ over some aspects of Hutchinson's tenure as U.S. attorney, but they all seem to agree that he hit the ground running.

"I don't think there's any doubt that he increased the caseload," one lawyer said.

"He really cranked up the machinery." Hutchinson got in on the ongoing prosecution of a goodly number of Arkansas's county judges, who were accused of taking kickbacks from purveyors of sewer pipe and hot-mix asphalt and such. His office went out after Searcy County Sheriff Loren Reeves and succeeded where other agencies had failed, nailing the high sheriff on charges of selling marijuana to an undercover agent. In another celebrated drug case, he busted the brother of the governor and extracted a plea from the young man, who then provided evidence against Hot Springs lawyer Sam Anderson, who was subsequently charged with trafficking in cocaine. (Hutchinson got a conviction, but at this writing, the case is on appeal.) In the wake of the Gordon Kahl shootout, it was Hutchinson who successfully prosecuted those accused of harboring the right-wing tax protester. And then there was the case of the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord, with Hutchinson on national television wearing an FBI flak jacket, negotiating with the right-wing zealots and finally taining guilty pleas on a slew of federal weapons charges.

Pretty heady stuff, but Hutchinson was not without his detractors. Some lawyers, admittedly some of them Democrats and admittedly some of them defense attorneys who butted heads with the U. S. attorney's office in court, say that in his zeal to prosecute, Hutchinson sometimes got the traditional priorities of his agency reversed.

"Asa gambled," one Arkansas lawyer said. "He'd get his indictment; then he'd make his case. I don't think that's a very smart way to build a case, but he got away with it a lot of the time."

Another defense lawyer went further: "It's not just risky," he said, "it's wrong. It' s very easy for a prosecutor to get an indictment from a grand jury. The U. S. attorney is in almost complete control of what a grand jury sees and hears. He doesn't have to present a case in chief [including all the evidence]; in effect, just about all he has to do is say, 'Trust me; I think this is a bad guy.' Sometimes it is a bad guy, but sometimes that bad guy isn't guilty of the crime that's presented to the grand jury. Even worse, sometimes it isn't a bad guy. Sometimes the indictment is obtained on wrong information. The defendant is able to prove that in his trial, but by that time, he's already been put through the humiliation and expense of indictment and trial; there's a stigma there that can't be erased."

Hutchinson's critics cite some of his more celebrated cases to bolster their contention. The Sam Anderson case, for one: Roger Clinton was hauled in and indicted, and with the prospect of a conviction staring him in the face, he pleaded guilty and testified against Anderson. "Anderson's case is on appeal right now," one lawyer commented, "and the fact that the Court of Appeals has set him free while the appeal is pending tells me that they think he has a good chance of winning."

"That CSA thing was nothing but a fishing expedition," says another lawyer. "What did he have as his authority to go in there in the first place? One fugitive warrant?"

(Hutchinson has said much the same thing in recounting the CSA episode to appreciative audiences on the campaign trail: "I remember thinking, 'What if we go in and don't find anything?' ")

Even Hutchinson's admirers concede there is something to the detractors' arguments, but they deny that justice was ill served by the way Hutchinson went about his business. Ron Fields is the prosecuting attorney in Fort Smith — the state prosecuting attorney — and while he takes great pains as an elected official to emphasize that he's speaking of Asa Hutchinson only as a federal prosecutor, not as a potential United States senator, it's clear he likes the cut of Hutchinson's prosecutorial jib.

"Okay," Fields said, "I'll admit that at the federal level, it's been traditional for the FBI to handle the investigation, and then hand the complete case over to the U. S. attorney, who then presents it to the grand jury. But as a practical matter, there are times when the law enforcement agency doesn't know everything that a prosecutor needs to make his case. Just because an arrest is made doesn't mean that you quit building your case. Asa ran his office more like we do at the state level; that is, there were times when he used his office as an investigative agency. If it puts criminals behind bars, I don't see anything wrong with that."

It isn't known how the federal law enforcement people — the FBI; the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms division of the Treasury Department; the Drug Enforcement Administration — felt privately about Hutchinson's methods, but after the fugitive warrant was served on CSA leader James Ellison, and after thirteen CSA members copped pleas on federal weapons charges, the young prosecutor received a citation from the FBI and the Director's Award from Treasury. Although there is disagreement on whether his conviction rate matched that of his predecessor, there was no doubt that Hutchinson kept things jumping.

Says Fields: "He flat revolutionized the role of the U. S. attorney in the Western District."

***

As Asa Hutchinson tells it, the more he read the papers, the more he felt that things were out of whack. There was Ronald Reagan, who had got the strong support of Arkansas's electorate in two presidential elections, going about the process of setting the country right, and he kept reading in the Washington Post about "the liberal senator from Arkansas, Dale Bumpers."

"It just didn't make sense," Hutchinson said. "Here were the people of Arkansas, overwhelmingly supporting the policies of President Reagan, while their senior senator voted with Teddy Kennedy 84 per cent of the time."

Find six things wrong with this picture and win a Swell New Air Rifle.

Hutchinson concluded that Dale Bumpers needed to be unseated, that he could be unseated, and that Asa Hutchinson was the man who could kick the legs out from under the chair.

There was one thing wrong with that scenario — or there was at least one thing wrong — and it was that Congressman Ed Bethune of Searcy had tried the exact same strategy two years before against David Pryor and had been trounced like a yard dog for his trouble.

Not the same thing, says Hutchinson, and he has a point. Pryor is the quintessential candidate, a man who sometimes seems as though he would rather run than serve. Although Bumpers is a tireless and skillful campaigner — one of the few public servants who can walk into a room full of hostile Kiwanians and leave having won, if not the hearts and minds of his entire audience, at least a grudging respect for his point of view, and maybe a convert or two — Pryor is possessed of a gift that simply makes most people like him a whole lot. Hutchinson is betting that a lot of people don't like Dale Bumpers nearly as much.

***

The Jack Stephens factor took care of itself on Saint Valentine's Day, when the industrialist news-released his intention to stay out of the race. Hutchinson could breathe a little easier — Stephens had looked to be his only GOP primary opponent, and none other has emerged as of this writing — and he also could look forward to the financial largess of his one-time potential opponent. There is no law that says Stephens has to contribute to Asa Hutchinson's campaign, of course, but he already has committed himself to knocking off Dale Bumpers, and as April Fool's Day approaches, Hutchinson seems to be the only other dog in the hunt.

There is going to be another factor in this race, too, and it will be interesting, if painful, to see it develop. It is, simply, the fact that Hutchinson is of, if not officially running as, a bona fide member of the religious right, and it is hard to figure out just how much this will count for or against him. It is doubtful that Bumpers, always in the past a high-minded campaigner, will openly make an issue of this, but then, he won't have to; it is already out there on the record: the fundamentalist religious affiliation; the Bob Jones connection; the children in the church school; the support of the Johnson clan; the anti-abortion, pro-school prayer stance; and a propensity during his tenure as U. S. attorney to couch his law-enforcement efforts as a holy crusade to a degree that startled and alarmed even the law-and-order-minded federal agents who worked with him.

For his part, Hutchinson is fighting the image as strongly as he can. In his favor is the prosecution of the far-right CSA. He brings it up in every speech, and reminds his listeners that the CSA was a group that "would tread on the rights of minority groups through intimidation and violence." He studiously avoids religious references in his speeches. In a February appearance before law students in Little Rock, he made an offhand reference to an illegal alien apprehended 0n the Mexican border with no possessions save "a little red Bible" and then seemed consciously to haul himself up, assuring the students that "my only point is that she came into this country with virtually nothing but the promise of a better life." To a man with religious convictions as deep as Hutchinson's it must seem ironic, if not downright unfair, to have to be so careful about references to the deity.

"Yes," he said in an interview, "my religious faith is the most important thing in the world to me. It affects everything I do, and it should. But I do not ask anyone to share my religious beliefs. My campaign will stand on the governmental and political issues. It will appeal to a broad range of voters." (Indeed, there are a few surprises, though not many, as Hutchinson answers questions about potential issues. For example, despite the orthodoxy of the right, and despite the fact that his children attend a secular private school, Hutchinson says he is opposed to tuition tax credits for private education. "I'm against it both philosophically and on the basis of economics," he said. "I am firmly committed to public education. As a parent, I simply wanted my children to have a Christian education, and I think I have that right. I am running on basic political issues, not theology.")

Others, of course, don't agree. "Sure, he'll talk about defense and the deficit," one political observer said, "but he'll be running on abortion and busing."

Put another way — maybe a fairer way, maybe not — Hutchinson won't have to mention abortion, or busing, or school prayer, at least not too much. He's already got the vote of every rightwinger t0 the left of the CSA, and he's already lost the votes of everyone even slightly to the left of the old Win Rockefeller Republicans. What he hopes to salvage now are the votes of those on the cusp of conservatism, the voters who don't like Dale Bumpers' voting record, but who are put off by what they see as the religiosity of the evangelistic right. Those are the people who are going to have to ask themselves some hard questions in the voting booth. The certified lefties will be able to vote against Asa Hutchinson with a clear conscience — his strictly political positions will dictate that — but there are some thoughtful conservatives who are going to have to grapple with the possibility that they may be voting against Hutchinson because they don't agree with his religious beliefs.

No one likes to think of himself or herself as intolerant, and Hutchinson has crafted his campagin so as to put people on the defensive as they argue with themselves. Although the religious right has pushed itself into the political arena and thereby made itself fair game for political debate in the eyes of a lot of people, there are others who still feel uneasy about questioning someone's faith. Hutchinson is in a good position to exploit this uneasiness. He mentions his religion only when asked about it; any other discussion comes from the media, not from him or from his campaign organization. Since he already has the votes of the religious right in his pocket, he need make no more appeals in that direction. Instead, he can concentrate on those less-than-liberal voters who still try to separate religion from politics.

The big question is whether there are enough of them to make a difference, and whether Hutchinson can bring them into his camp if there are.

Favorite

From the ArkTimes store

Speaking of...

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • The ballad of Fred and Yoko

    How one of the world's foremost Beatles collectors died homeless on the streets of Little Rock.
    • Mar 31, 2016
  • 2016 Best of Arkansas editors' picks

    A few of our favorite things.
    • Jul 28, 2016
  • Visionary Arkansans 2016

    They make an impact.
    • Sep 15, 2016

Most Shared

  • ASU to reap $3.69 million from estate of Jim and Wanda Lee Vaughn

    Arkansas State University announced today plans for spending an expected $3.69 million gift in the final distribution of the estate of Jim and Wanda Lee Vaughn, who died in 2013 and 2015 respectively.
  • Bad health care bill, again

    Wait! Postpone tax reform and everything else for a while longer because the Senate is going to try to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act one more time before September ends and while it can do it with the votes of only 50 senators.
  • Sex on campus

    Look, the Great Campus Rape Crisis was mainly hype all along. What Vice President Joe Biden described as an epidemic of sexual violence sweeping American college campuses in 2011 was vastly overstated.
  • The inadequate legacy of Brown

    LRSD continues to abdicate its responsibility to educate poor black students.

Latest in Cover Stories

Event Calendar

« »

September

S M T W T F S
  1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30

Most Viewed

Most Recent Comments

 

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation