Gov. Mike Beebe (D)
Elected: 2006, term expires Jan. 2011, 1st term.
Born: Dec. 28, 1946, Amagon .
Education: AR St. U., B.A. 1968, U. of AR, J.D. 1972.
Family: Married (Ginger); 3 children.
Military career: Army Reserve, 1968-74.
Elected office: AR Senate, 1982-2002; AR atty. gen., 2002-06.
Professional Career: Practicing atty., 1972-2002.
Democrat Mike Beebe (BEE-bee) was elected governor of Arkansas in 2006. He was born to a single mother in his great-grandmother’s country shack outside of tiny Amagon. As a child he moved frequently—St. Louis, Detroit, Houston, and Alamogordo, N.M. — as his mother worked through a succession of waitressing jobs and marriages. He never met his father and recalls going to five different schools in the fifth grade alone. “It taught me to adapt, to be resilient, and it taught me to make friends fast,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His mother returned to Arkansas in time for him to enroll in high school and to put down roots in the state. Beebe studied political science at Arkansas State University, earned a law degree at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and served in the U.S. Army Reserves. He excelled as a trial lawyer, and he continued to practice during his years in the state Legislature.
|Mike Beebe (D)||430,765||(56%)|
|Asa Hutchinson (R)||315,040||(41%)|
|Mike Beebe (D)||Unopposed|
In 1982, Beebe won election to the state Senate, where he served for two decades and developed a reputation as a consensus builder. He helped write laws setting a uniform property-tax rate for school funding and creating a $300 homestead property-tax exemption. In 2002, Beebe, who had run unopposed in every election, considered running for governor against Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, but he lacked statewide name recognition. So he ran instead for attorney general. Unopposed again, he became attorney general.
Term limits prevented Huckabee from running again in 2006, leaving no incumbent governor on the ballot for the first time since a young Bill Clinton won the office in 1978. The governor’s office was the next logical move for Beebe, who told the Democrat-Gazette that he was unlikely to run for another office if he lost the race. “I’m not running for governor because I want to run for something else. I’m running for governor because that’s what I want to be, nothing else, and for a very good reason: You can do a whole lot to lead your state,” he said. Beebe had no opposition in the Democratic primary. At first it appeared Republicans would have a contested primary between former Rep. Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, the billionaire heir to the Standard Oil fortune. But Rockefeller suffered from a rare blood ailment and dropped out of race in July 2005. He died a year later. Hutchinson, who had run unsuccessfully for Senate and for attorney general, had won three terms in Congress before resigning the seat to head the Drug Enforcement Agency. He later became a Homeland Security undersecretary.
In the general election contest against Hutchinson, Beebe reminded voters of his humble upbringing and campaigned on expanded pre-kindergarten programs, comprehensive health care, a $50 million discretionary fund to help attract business investment and phasing out the state’s 6-cent grocery tax. Hutchinson questioned Beebe’s commitment to tax relief; Beebe suggested Hutchinson chose to run for governor because President Bush had not promoted him to secretary of the Homeland Security Department. The two candidates argued over how best to combat illegal immigration, debated Hutchinson’s record at Homeland Security, and sparred over past gun-control votes. Hutchinson attacked Beebe for standing on the sidelines as attorney general after the state Supreme Court struck down a state rule that prevented gay foster parenting. He also tried to link Beebe to state Sen. Nick Wilson, who went to prison in 1999 for tax evasion and conspiracy. Although Beebe and Wilson had served together in the state Senate, they were in opposing factions and often disagreed. In the last two weeks of the campaign, one Hutchinson television spot featured children describing a politician as a “backslapper” and a “flip-flopper” and saying that politicians “tell voters what they want to hear.” A girl concludes: “Just like Mike Beebe.” Beebe called the ad shameful; Hutchinson maintained it was meant to be lighthearted. Beebe had a big financial advantage: $6.3 million to Hutchinson’s $3.3 million. And Bill Clinton campaigned for Beebe, while Bush stumped for Hutchinson. On Election Day, Beebe won 56%-41% and helped sweep six other Democrats into statewide offices.
With the help of a Democratic Legislature, Beebe moved quickly in his first months to make good on campaign promises and had the good fortune to inherit an estimated $919 million budget surplus. Beebe’s years in the Legislature and his hands-on approach to governing helped him avoid public battles with the lawmakers and allowed him to advance much of his legislative agenda, including a bill that halved the state grocery sales tax, from 6% to 3%. The grocery-tax cut accounted for about $122 million of $197.5 million in total tax relief passed by the Legislature; it also included an increase in the homestead property-tax credit to $350, the elimination of state income tax for people with incomes below the poverty level, and a reduction in the sales-tax rate that manufacturers paid for natural gas and electricity. Legislators also approved $456 million to build and improve public school buildings and gave the governor discretion to spend nearly $188 million on other projects.
Beebe kept a low profile on a Republican proposal banning gays from serving as foster parents, and the proposal died in committee. The Legislature also fell short of passing campaign finance and ethics changes, animal-cruelty legislation and limits on payday lending practices. Lawmakers wrapped up work in 86 days, making for the Legislature’s shortest session since Bill Clinton was governor.
In 2008 and 2009, the state-revenue picture grew bleaker as the effects of the national recession kicked in. Beebe’s agenda became less ambitious, but he managed to win an $86 million increase in the cigarette and tobacco tax, over the objections of some lawmakers and cigarette manufacturers. The proceeds of the tax hike were to pay for Beebe’s plan to expand health care programs, including state-of-the-art improvements in emergency care, an expansion of Medicaid health insurance for children, and community health centers. He also worked with the Legislature to establish a state lottery, which was approved by voters in November and was to be used to fund college scholarships. Beebe also hoped to reduce the grocery sales tax by another 1%, bringing it to 2%. The reduction would cut state revenues by $30 million, but Beebe has long argued that the tax is regressive and unfair to lower income workers.
With the passage of time since his election, Beebe sought to mend relationships with Republicans in the Legislature. Republican State Sen. Gilbert Baker, the influential chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, reached out to Beebe for a meeting. In 2006, Baker had been chairman of the state Republican Party, which had helped pay for the ads trying to connect Beebe to Wilson. The ad said: “Nick Wilson stole millions from Arkansas taxpayers. Mike Beebe let it happen.”