When Huckabee Took On The Arkansas Democrat Majority
Former Governor Mike Huckabee and his wife, Janet, have returned to Arkansas, where their children and grandchildren live. He has come back home but not to retire.
“Asked whether he would continue to host a program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and appear as a Fox News political analyst, Huckabee said: “Yes, plus my podcast, daily newsletter, speaking events, HuckPAC, radio stations, writing books, corporate boards, Learn Our History [a video series for kids], and more.” “I’m NOT retired!”[i]
Because it has been almost 24 years since Huckabee first became governor of Arkansas, many have forgotten (or perhaps never realized) how big a challenge he faced as a Republican in a Democrat dominated state.
Mike Huckabee was first elected to state offices as the Lieutenant Governor. To the surprise of the Democrat establishment Huckabee won a special election to fill a vacancy in the office created when Governor Bill Clinton became President Clinton. Clinton resigned as governor making Lieutenant Governor Jim Guy Tucker the new governor and creating a vacancy in the office of Lieutenant Governor.
Huckabee’s victory in the special election made him the only Republican officeholder among the seven Arkansas constitutional officers of the executive branch. (Those offices are the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer of State, Auditor of State, and Land Commissioner.) He had few allies in the legislature because Republicans were a minority.
How was Huckabee greeted at the State Capitol? His office door was nailed shut leaving him only the entry where a receptionist normally sat. It took nearly two months before he could get access to the rest of this office space.
Much to the dismay of the Democrats, Huckabee was reelected as Lieutenant Governor. His reelection was the Democrats’ worst nightmare when Governor Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of a felony in the Whitewater scandal that had first had Bill and Hillary Clinton as its focus.
In May 1996, Tucker was convicted of felony conspiracy in the Whitewater affair, and he promised to resign by July 15. On July 15, Tucker was scheduled to resign at noon and Huckabee was scheduled be sworn in at 2:00 PM. Minutes before the scheduled swearing in ceremony Tucker announced he would not resign. Tucker said Huckabee would only be “acting Governor” until the court ruled on his appeal. Huckabee went to the floor of the House of Representatives to greet supporters. He announced if Tucker didn’t resign that very day he would, as acting Governor, call a special session of the legislature to consider the impeachment of Tucker. Later in the day Tucker resigned and Huckabee was sworn in as Governor.
Democrats were in the majority in the legislature and all of state government. The Democrats quickly worked to wrestle control from Huckabee in the 1997 legislative session. The Democrats had the votes to control the state budget. That session became known as “Grab Fest” because of the Democrat legislators who used their power to enrich themselves. Some grabbed government jobs and some passed new government programs that would funnel money to themselves and their allies.
Eventually, Grab Fest resulted in some legislators going to jail and inspired at least some ethics reforms. But the Grab Fest session had a lasting effect resulting in more corruption and more legislators going to jail twenty years later
One of the Democrat schemes hatched in the 1997 legislative session was to wrestle control away from the Governor over much of the General Improvement Fund (GIF). They didn’t want Huckabee to get credit for projects funded by the GIF. So, the legislature divided up the GIF into an Executive division and a legislative division and assigned projects to the governor that they did not care as much about. The legislature loved getting credit back home for these projects. Over the next several years legislators gained more and more discretion over how to spend the money. Eventually, some legislators used control of GIF grants in a kickback scheme and were convicted of felonies.[ii]
Despite Democrat efforts to stop Governor Huckabee, he never stopped fighting, and as a result he gained more and more successes as time went on. Governor Huckabee became the third longest serving Governor in Arkansas history, with more than ten years of service. Term limits kept him from serving longer.
Unlike in Huckabee’s day, now state government is dominated by Republican officeholders and only a few legislators saw firsthand the Democrat roadblocks Governor Huckabee had to overcome.
Mike Huckabee had to be a fighter to succeed as Governor. He has remained a fighter all these years. Welcome back Governor!
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Note: The current struggle in state government is not between Republicans and Democrats. It is between 1) Republican officeholders who treat the Republican Platform as a promise to the voters; and 2) Establishment Republicans, aided by Democrats, who dislike the Republican platform because it is contrary to the liberal policies they often pass. The Republicans who follow the platform must be fighters because they are in the minority.
[ii] In 2017, State Senator Jon Woods (R) was convicted of a felony for his kickback scheme in awarding GIF. State Representative Micah Neal (R) also pleaded guilty.