In more than a decade of presiding over this state, Mike Huckabee produced a legacy like few other Republican governors in the South, surprising even liberal Democrats with his willingness to upend some of Arkansas’s more parochial traditions.
A review of his record as governor shows that, beginning in 1996, he drove through a series of changes that transformed education and health insurance in Arkansas, achievements that were never tried by most of his predecessors, including Bill Clinton.
But he is also remembered in the state for a style of governing that tended to freeze out anyone of any party who disagreed with his plans. He did not, for example, seek Mr. Clinton’s conciliatory middle, or try to court skeptical state lawmakers. Though he was considered as persuasive a speechmaker as he had been a pastor, Mr. Huckabee largely kept his own counsel — in politics, ethics and a singular clemency policy that continues to haunt him.
Against the political advice of his party and his aides, he pardoned or commuted the sentences of hundreds of convicts, including murderers, sometimes over the heated objections of prosecutors and victims. He was cited five times by the state ethics commission for financial improprieties, and unapologetically accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothes and other gifts while he was governor.
Republicans in Arkansas, a beleaguered minority, gleefully greeted his ascendancy but wound up embittered, in many cases, over a governor who “sided with liberal Democrats,” as one put it.
Mr. Huckabee is a son of small-town Arkansas, yet he deeply angered many in his rural constituency, touching the third rail of the state’s politics by shutting down money-draining, redundant school districts in the hinterlands. Protesters rallied at the state Capitol, fearful of losing schools, football teams, and age-old identities, but the governor insisted his way was the best and the schools were closed.
He proclaimed himself a fiscal conservative, but startled legislators with his proposals to raise taxes — for roads, in 1999, and for schools, prisons and other services three years later. He sought the electoral defeat of Republicans who opposed him, according to some in the party.
A constant throughout was his presence at the microphone, the former television preacher delivering his word from the pulpit though hardly mingling in the Capitol’s marble halls.
“He would go out and stump and do his shtick and tell his jokes and charm you,” said State Senator Jimmy Jeffress, a Democrat and critic of the former governor. “He has the gift of gab. He’s the only person I know, other than Bill Clinton, who can pick up a rock and give you a 10-minute talk on it.”
At the same time he was not known to buy pizza for the legislators, as Mr. Clinton had done.
“Huckabee didn’t build bridges,” said State Senator Jim Argue Jr., a Democrat and leader in the schools overhaul effort. “If you didn’t agree with him, he attacked you.”
Charmaine Yoest, a senior adviser to the Huckabee campaign, said it was important to keep in mind that Mr. Huckabee was a Republican governor in one of the most Democratic states in the country.
“Yet here’s a man who managed to fix the roads, improve education and actually govern with the Democrats,” Ms. Yoest said. “People say he was intolerant, but how does that square with him being able to build coalitions and be re-elected numerous times?”
Confounding the Capitol
Mr. Huckabee was derided by Democrats as the “accidental governor” when he took office in July 1996, stepping up from the lieutenant governor’s job when the incumbent governor, Jim Guy Tucker, was forced to resign after a conviction in the Whitewater affair. Mr. Huckabee had not sought the post, having trained his sights instead on the United States Senate, and several legislators recalled a fumbling start.
It was not helped by what Mr. Huckabee later recalled as a hostile reception to himself and his family, as Republicans of humble background, when they moved into the governor’s mansion in a prestigious neighborhood in Little Rock.
“Dozens of hate-filled letters,” he wrote in his memoir, “From Hope to Higher Ground” (Center Street, 2007), “proclaimed that we lacked the ‘class’ to live in such a fine and stately home.” Mr. Huckabee’s touchiness over perceived slights was to become a byword in succeeding years, as the governor spoke out angrily when reporters and others questioned the startling stream of gifts that flowed in from supporters and friends.
Still, the novice governor found the sea legs in 1997 to help enact, with overwhelming support in the heavily Democratic Legislature, a major expansion of health insurance for children of the working poor whose families did not qualify for Medicaid. It was one of the first such expansions in the nation, coming before the federal government authorized them, and it baffled some Republicans in the Legislature.
“None of us understood what he was trying to do,” said Peggy Jeffries, then a Republican state senator and now executive director of the Arkansas affiliate of the Eagle Forum, a national group of conservatives.
Easily elected to a full term in 1998, Mr. Huckabee was emerging as something of an unquantifiable presence in the state capital, sometimes exerting leadership, other times not, and often floating above the details and minutia of governing.
But he confounded Republicans again when he pushed for a fuel tax increase to finance an ambitious road-building program, and eventually won support for what historians say was the largest highway bond program in Arkansas history.
Persuasive, intimidating style
Meanwhile, a style of leadership was developing that frustrated Republicans and Democrats alike.
Jake Files, a former Republican state representative, recalled that the governor would call lawmakers into his office and state his plans.
“Kind of like getting called to the principal’s office,” Mr. Files said. “If you don’t line up with him, Katie bar the door.”
Still, this style — equal parts persuasion and intimidation — would prove to be of great value when Mr. Huckabee took on the biggest fight of his tenure, school reform.
In November 2002, the Arkansas Supreme Court presented the newly re-elected governor with the biggest challenge of his tenure, ruling that Arkansas’s system of financing public schools was inequitable. The court ordered change. More money had to be found, quickly.
Mr. Huckabee immediately adopted the path of greatest resistance, to the shock of many in the Legislature: he called for the closing of dozens of wasteful, tiny school districts. Some had fewer than 150 students. It was a volatile step, one that Mr. Clinton as governor had avoided, even though reformers had agreed for decades that it was an essential one.
“We certainly didn’t want to get too close to it,” recalled one of Mr. Clinton’s legislative aides in the 1980s, Bobby Roberts.
The governor’s plan aroused intense opposition all over the state, particularly as he proposed whittling down the 310 school districts by well over half.
“People don’t want to lose their schools,” said a veteran legislator, State Senator John Paul Capps, a Democrat. “They think it just ruins the community.”
Mr. Huckabee did not back down.
“The governor treated me as if I didn’t exist,” said Jimmy Cunningham, then president of the Arkansas Rural Education Association. “He had no compassion for me.”
The fight went on for over a year, and Mr. Huckabee’s staunchest allies proved to be the most liberal Democrats in the Legislature.
“He set a real high bar,” said Senator Argue, a Little Rock Democrat who describes himself as the preacher-governor’s “philosophical adversary,” but who joined forces with him on the issue. “I just give him credit for having the courage and determination to lead,” Mr. Argue said.
In the end, the Legislature whittled Mr. Huckabee’s school-district closing plan by nearly two-thirds. Disgusted, the governor refused to sign the bill, and it became law without him.
Clemency and consequences
Nothing was more controversial about Mr. Huckabee’s governorship than his use of clemency to grant pardons and commute prison sentences. His clemency decisions produced the first big crisis of his administration, dogged him through a tough re-election campaign and provoked a series of bitter public protests, some still simmering on Jan. 9, 2007, the day he left office.
In all, Mr. Huckabee cut prison sentences or granted pardons for more than 1,000 criminals, far more than either his immediate predecessors or governors in neighboring states.
This did not happen by chance.
Driven by a religious belief in redemption and questions about the state’s legal system, Mr. Huckabee paid close attention to clemency petitions, former aides said. He insisted on reviewing every single application, though they came in by the hundreds most months.
“He would take these files home with him to the governor’s mansion,” recalled Rex Nelson, Mr. Huckabee’s communications director for nine years. “He would read them, study them. He took it very seriously, the political consequences be damned.”
Most of Mr. Huckabee’s clemency decisions were unremarkable; in the vast majority of cases he simply followed the recommendation of the Arkansas Parole Board. But in a small though significant number of cases, he commuted prison sentences for murderers and other violent criminals over the pleas of victims’ families, prosecutors and judges. And as his reputation for granting clemency spread, applications surged.
“We had tons of them,” said Cory Cox, who worked for several years as Mr. Huckabee’s aide in charge of clemency matters. “People, they’d call and say, ‘Please, let the governor look at this. We don’t know who the next governor is going to be.’”
Religious beliefs influence decisions
By every account, Mr. Huckabee’s approach to clemency was heavily influenced by his religious beliefs. As John Wesley Hall, a Little Rock defense lawyer who filed numerous clemency petitions with the Huckabee administration, put it, “He’s a Baptist preacher who believes in redemption and second chances.”
But it also reflected Mr. Huckabee’s broader concerns about the criminal justice system in Arkansas, one of the few states where juries rather than judges impose sentences, which defense lawyers say can produce arbitrary results.
Dana Reece, another defense lawyer, told of one client who received a life sentence for selling six grams of crack cocaine. “He’d still be in prison today if it weren’t for Governor Huckabee,” Ms. Reece said. How many politicians, she asked, would stick their necks out for a crack dealer?
“This was a political hot potato, and he knew it,” Mr. Cox said of his former boss. “But he had a conviction that people could better themselves, and he was open-minded to the idea that a poor black man from east Arkansas convicted by an all-white jury just may have been a victim of injustice.”
Many Arkansans faulted him, however, for refusing to give public explanations for pardons and sentence commutations, and for responding harshly to those who criticized his choices.
“He just doesn’t want to talk to victims’ families,” Elaine Colclasure, co-leader of the Central Arkansas chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, a victims’ advocacy group, said in an interview last week. “He doesn’t want anyone questioning anything he does. And when you do, he bristles. His compassion is for the murderer and any criminal who says he has found Jesus.”
Dee McManus Engle, another member of the group, recalled accompanying a murder victim’s widow to a scheduled meeting at the governor’s office. “We stayed there half the day trying to talk with Huckabee,” Ms. Engle said, adding, “It was the most important thing in her life, and she was in tears because she could not get to the governor.”
Former aides said that while Mr. Huckabee rarely met with victims or their families, he was never dismissive of their concerns. “I can tell you we listened to victims,” Mr. Cox said. “I mean, it was a no-win situation. The victims, if you granted clemency, it didn’t matter how long you listened to them. It just tore them up.”
As for Mr. Huckabee’s refusal to detail his reasons for granting clemency, Mr. Cox said that was intended to prevent other petitioners from mimicking successful arguments.
A dangerous gullibility?
Some Arkansas prosecutors argue that Mr. Huckabee’s clemency record reveals a dangerous gullibility about human nature, particularly when it comes to claims of religious conversion. It raises, they say, the basic question of judgment, the precise question one of Mr. Huckabee’s rivals for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney, has raised anew in his Iowa campaign.
Exhibit A in this critique is the case of Wayne Dumond, a rapist who had been implicated in other violent crimes, including a murder and another rape, when Mr. Huckabee took office in 1996. Mr. Dumond said he found God in prison, and his case was championed by evangelicals and conservative opponents of Bill Clinton, who was a distant relative of one of the rape victims and who refused to grant clemency to Mr. Dumond.
Months after being sworn in, Mr. Huckabee announced his intention to cut Mr. Dumond’s prison sentence, prompting furious public protests from Mr. Dumond’s victim and from prosecutors around the state.
“We told the governor that Wayne Dumond had a history of rape and murder,” Henry Morgan, then president of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association, recalled. “So the governor knew, or any reasonable person should have known, that releasing him was dangerous.”
Mr. Huckabee was not persuaded. “He thought the man should be released,” Mr. Nelson, his former communications director, recalled.
As it turned out, Mr. Huckabee did not grant clemency to Mr. Dumond; the state Parole Board released him instead, and several former members of the board have since told reporters that they acted under pressure from Mr. Huckabee, a charge he has repeatedly denied.
Even so, Mr. Nelson recalled the moment in 2001 when he and Mr. Huckabee first heard the news that the newly freed Mr. Dumond had been charged with raping and murdering a woman in Missouri. “Everybody realized at that point that that would be something used against him politically in the 2002 campaign,” he said — a prediction that turned out to be correct when the issue contributed to a tight re-election race.
There were several other cases of convicts who won clemency from Mr. Huckabee and then went on to commit more crimes, including Wade Stewart, whose life sentence for murder was commuted in 2004. Mr. Stewart was arrested this year, charged with carrying a concealed revolver. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found that nearly one in 10 who received clemency from Governor Huckabee were later sentenced to prison.
Mr. Huckabee eventually did bend, if slightly, to criticism and scrutiny. He proved less willing to grant clemency in his second term, especially for violent offenses. He also agreed to give slightly more information about his reasoning. Yet some prosecutors say that victims’ families are now skeptical about life sentences.
“They say, ‘You can’t guarantee that he’ll stay in prison for the rest of his life because the governor can let him out,’” said Larry Jegley, Little Rock’s longtime prosecuting attorney. “People are aware the governor has this power and it has been exercised to let murderers, rapists and home invaders loose, and that’s a problem.”
Gifts and critics
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Huckabee reacted with outrage and scorn when questions arose over the stream of gifts that flowed his way. He pugnaciously fought back against state ethics commission investigations. The governor appeared to find no conflict between occupying the highest office in the state, and receiving tribute; critics, on the other hand, said the two were directly related, in a way that was unseemly at best.
Early in his first term, he was questioned, and eventually sued, for using a state fund meant to operate the governor’s mansion for personal family expenses like pantyhose and meals at Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The suit was eventually dropped, but spending out of the fund was curtailed.
Meanwhile, other methods emerged to supplement the governor’s salary, which was $68,448 in 1999. That year, he reported getting $112,366 in gifts, including thousands in clothing from Jennings Osborne, a wealthy businessman in Little Rock who befriended the family. Mr. Osborne also made regular gifts of pastries and flowers to the governor’s mansion. There were also gift certificates to department stores, ties and other items.
The gift-taking tailed off in subsequent years — there was $5,000 worth in 2003 — but Mr. Huckabee’s tangles with the state ethics commission fill a thick binder with documents spanning much of his time as governor. Mr. Nelson, the governor’s former aide, described these episodes as “penny ante,” and it is true that the commission did not uphold roughly two-thirds of the complaints against the governor. But it did find violations in five, including Mr. Huckabee’s acceptance of a $500 canoe from Coca-Cola and a $200 stadium blanket, though a court later threw out the finding on the canoe.
As the governor left office, new questions arose over wedding registries set up decades after his marriage began at department stores, including Target, so friends could help furnish the Huckabees’s new home in Little Rock. The governor attacked reporters for raising the issue — “I feel you’ve done a real disservice to the people of this state” — but others saw a pattern, in the gift-taking and the defensiveness. Both hark back to his past as a member of the clergy, critics said.
Throughout his tenure, allies and enemies alike were struck by a governor adept at giving the word, if not at receiving it. And in his writings, Mr. Huckabee attributes his moral compass to God, not to himself.
“If integrity and character are divorced from God, they don’t make sense,” he writes in his book, with John Perry, “Character Makes a Difference” (B&H Publishing Group, 2007). “Integrity, left to define itself, becomes evil because everyone ends up choosing his own standards.”