This was an unusual session, and realistically, there was a lot to be negative about. The specter of Obamacare loomed large over the state. It was the defining issue of the previous election campaign and the defining issue of the session. And most Republicans blinked. The deceptively-named “private option” is nothing more than Obamacare in a hat and sunglasses, no matter how hard they try to spin it. What also won’t fly are attempts to redirect attention to other “accomplishments”. Twenty bills about flag-waiving, or abortion bans that will most likely never be implemented, or back-loaded tax cuts which will be overwhelmed by new spending mandated by Obamacare, don’t cancel out the tremendous blunder to implement the program in this state.
But that being said, not every legislator succumbed to the intense pressure to break their word to the people who elected them. Not every legislator rationalized and spun their way out of their campaign promises. When there is an environment where the tendency is to go bad, it is just that much more impressive that many remained true. Among these worthy statesmen and stateswomen, we present to you our bi-annual Hall of Heroes, the Ten Best Legislators in the State of Arkansas…..
#1 Senator Bart Hester of Cave Springs.
We knew that Hester had a lot of grit when he came out of nowhere to upset the establishment pick for this state senate seat, but even knowing that he exceeded expectations. Hester not only stood strong against the public option with his vote, but with his voice. One of the many failings of the party system of candidate selection is that when the majority of one’s own chums start spinning, even the non-spinners feel pressure to defend them, or at least fall silent on an issue. Not Hester. He was a straight-shooter in a blizzard of spin. He voted against Obamacare, he tried to convince others in his party to do the same, and when they did it anyway he told the truth about what they did. He even loudly and publicly pointed out what we had been saying about the back-loaded tax cuts. Time will tell, but from what we have seen so far, the people of Benton County have elected a treasure in Bart Hester.
#2 Senator Bryan King of Green Forest
Bryan King is a repeat member of our Hall of Heroes. He checked in at number two on the 2011 list as well, but this year there was an even stronger group of legislators that he was being compared against. While he is often quiet and does the right thing without having a lot of ego about it, he can also be passionate when the situation calls for it.
He successfully got the Church Concealed Carry bill through- taking the decision of whether or not people can conceal carry in Church away from the state and placing it the hands of the church where it belongs. We even like his vote against a “tort reform” bill that would have made it too hard too seek significant damages against corporate malfeasance. We are people-first limited-government conservatives, not corporate tool conservatives, and it appears that so is Bryan King. One weak spot was killing a voter-turnout bill in committee, but his overall performance was so strong we almost feel embarrassed mentioning it.
#3 Representative Justin Harris of West Fork.
Justin Harris is also a repeat member of our Hall of Heroes, and he actually moved up from the #7 spot in 2011 despite the stiffer competition. He just got that much stronger, and has been described as having “a humble servant attitude while still refusing to be intimidated.” Like Hester, he not only voted against the deceptively-named “Private Option”, but he refused to be a cog in the spin machine his colleagues were building to sell it. Justin Harris sponsored some good bills, and voted mostly right. He didn’t get them all right. He had a temporary lapse in judgement on the “Big River Steel” bill- a lapse that he owned up to and attempted to correct. In these days of spin, just telling us the truth is worth a lot. That candor, and humility and honesty, which ought to be so common in public servants but is in fact so valuable and rare, is enough to combine with his solid record and surprising grit to earn him the #3 spot on our “Best” list.
#4 Senator Alan Clark of Lonsdale.
Alan Clark not only proposed a lot of solid bills, he got an impressive number of them passed. A lot of them had to do with cleaning up election law to keep a political party which shall remain nameless from gaming the system. Even though our panel was selected on a regional basis, Clark got a lot of respect even from panelists outside his region, despite the fact he is not as prone to media-seeking behavior as are some. Somehow, they knew about Clark and his production. And of course, Clark was staunchly against Obamacare-by-another-name, even when his party and the hospital and insurance lobbies were for it.
#5 Representative Bob Ballinger of Hindsville.
Bob Ballinger is an attorney, and we think he knows more than his critics when it comes to some of the more controversial bills he sponsored. For example, the bill which would exempt all firearms made and sold only in the state from federal gun laws. It’s based on sound logic, Kansas, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Montana currently have similar laws, and at some point we are going to have to confront the federal government’s abuse of the commerce clause to end-run the Bill of Rights. Ballinger was willing to take the heat on that and other solid pro-freedom causes, and of course he voted against the Obamacare Private Option. He communicated well with the grass-roots too. If there was one concern it would be that he did not continue to call the party leadership out for what they did with the same frankness of those ranked a bit higher on the list. Some of us feel that the fight is not over, and the time to let by-gones be by-gones is after some of them are gone!
#6 Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs.
Bruce Westerman is another repeat to the “Ten Best” list, and like Justin Harris, he actually moved up in a strong field. This was despite the fact that at first he was sucked into the spin over the mis-named “Private Option.” One important difference between Westerman and the rest-o-them is that he kept an open mind, looked at the facts, and had the humility and honesty to do an about-face and fight hard against the travesty that is the “Private” Option. A politician would have retreated into tribalism and the political consultant’s handbook which says you never admit to a mistake. Westerman reacted like a statesman. A rare principle-over party guy. The rest of his record was sterling as well.
#7 Representative David Meeks of Conway.
David Meeks is another repeat on our “Ten Best Legislators” list, and if anyone here ought to be ranked higher it should be Meeks. This writer for one should have listened to him on at least one occasion I can think of. Meeks was among the pioneers in the use of social media to stay in touch with the grassroots in this state. Since then, some others have closed the gap with him on it, but none do it better. All of that staying in touch with the grassroots results in an excellent voting record. He took on a very tough job of being a sort of intermediary between the bulk of his party and the grassroots. While he did not waiver in his vote, this role may have tempered verbal and written criticism of the Obamacare bill at a time when having one foot on one side and one on the other was a difficult position. Sometimes this is a place where humility and tact are not always appreciated as much as they should be. Still, Meeks is an exemplary legislator, and fully worthy of another top-ten finish.
#8 Representative Richard Womack of Arkadelphia.
Richard Womack made a strong splash as a freshman legislator. He sponsored the right bills, he voted the right way, and he resisted tremendous inducements to switch his vote to support Obamacare. To give you some idea, we have it on good authority that he was promised $30,000 to his re-election campaign if he would change his vote. That is more money than most state reps raise for their races over an entire two-year cycle. He refused, now that $30,000 is liable to wind up in the campaign coffers of some puppet the offended lobbies will recruit to run against him. They were not trying to get his vote based on policy, or principle, but a straight-up purchase. I guess they thought they could get Womack to follow the dollars instead of keep his campaign promises. They figured wrong.
#9 Representative Jim Dotson of Bentonville.
Jim Dotson was another fantastic freshman legislator who hit the ground running. Dotson ran on the SIMPLE plan, which included opposition to implementing Obamacare (no matter what they call it), and he stuck with the platform he was elected on. That was harder than it seemed in a lot of places because many key people of a prominent grassroots group in his county got “turned” and became defacto supporters of the mis-named “Private Option” model of Obamacare. He wasn’t quiet in his opposition either. He was more like an amen corner to Bart Hester. While we can’t vouch for all of the many bills he sponsored, he is who he claims to be, he is generally on the right track, and like Justin Harris and some of the other top performers, he is accessible and manages to radiate a nice-guy attitude while actually being strong as an oak.
#10 Representative Debra Hobbs of Rogers.
Debra Hobbs made the “Ten Best” last time too, one of only five legislators to make the list twice and the only female to ever do so. She showed great adaptability. In previous sessions when their were few Republican legislators with the sand to file far-reaching conservative bills, she filed them. This session, there were quite a few who were willing to file such bills, and she switched to quietly helping others get those bills passed while she worked on passing an array of smaller measures. It is amazing what people can accomplish when they don’t care who gets the credit, but we are watching and we choose to give her credit anyway. Of course, she voted against Obamacare, even when it was deceptively called the “Private Option”. I don’t even think she got much pressure on it because the wolves know who they can prey on and who it is a waste of time to try to flip. It’s a waste of time trying to flip Debra Hobbs on something like that.
There were far more than ten legislators who deserved honor and praise for their service. The “Honorable Mention” category is for all the legislators who accumulated at least five points from our panel of activists.
Rep. Kim Hammer of Benton – good candidate for “most improved.”
Rep. Lane Jean of Magnolia – a beautiful town gets some strong representation.
Rep. Terry Rice of Waldron – I regret that this man was not the Speaker of the House
Rep. Charlene Fite of Van Buren – appears to be another Debra Hobbs type.
Rep. John Payton of Wilburn – for a guy from Wilburn, he got noticed a lot.
Rep. Bruce Cozart of Hot Springs – a solid performer who deserves more recognition.
Rep. Joe Farrer of Austin – No, not that Austin. The Lonoke County one.
Rep. Bill Gossage of Ozark- A pleasant surprise. Stronger than we expected.
Rep. Jane English of North Little Rock – if there was one legislator who deserved to be on the top ten list but did not quite make it, it would be the hard-working and high performing Senator Jane English.