Arkansas: Third District|
Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R)
Last Updated June 9, 1999
The northwest corner of Arkansas in the late 1990s has become one of America's boom areas, with tourist attractions and retirement developments, major corporate headquarters and dozens of small factories, some of America's richest families and growing numbers of hard-working Hispanic immigrants, the handsome University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and the mountain-bound resort town of Eureka Springs. This would have seemed most unlikely for most of this century, when these rounded green mountains and pleasant wide valleys, farmhouses and small towns seemed left behind. But the friendly atmosphere and strong religious faith of these communities have proved to be assets, not liabilities, conducive to economic creativity and personal serenity. There have also been touches of genius. Sam Walton, who opened his first Wal-Mart on the town square of Bentonville, had the inspiration of building a retail chain in tradition-minded small towns and rural areas using sophisticated computerized management; it made him the richest man in America, though he still drove a pickup truck and on the Wal-Mart headquarters building outside Bentonville some of the metal panels have fallen off. Don Tyson took his family chicken business and made Tyson Foods, in its sparkling headquarters outside Springdale, the nation's leading chicken producer and processor.
The 3d Congressional District covers northwest Arkansas, including Bentonville, Fayetteville and Springdale, plus Fort Smith on the Oklahoma line and several mountain and upcountry counties to the east and south. Some of these mountain counties have been Republican since the Civil War, for there were few slaves here and much suspicion of planters; others started leaning Republican in the 1950s, and a Republican congressman, John Paul Hammerschmidt, was elected here as long ago as 1966. He was strong enough even in Democratic 1974 to beat Bill Clinton, then 28, in his first election, though Clinton did get an impressive 48%. Lately this area has become even more Republican, as Christian conservatives have entered politics and new migrants and millionaires have voted heavily Republican. The 3d voted for Bill Clinton 43%-42% in 1992, but in 1996 it went 45%-44% for Bob Dole. The big companies may work with Democrats--Wal-Mart had Hillary Rodham Clinton on its board and Don Tyson's house counsel put her in the way of making unbelievable profits in commodities trades--but most voters here are staunchly Republican.
The congressman from the 3d District is Asa Hutchinson, a Republican elected in 1996 to replace his brother Tim, who was elected to the Senate. The Hutchinsons grew up on a farm in Gravette, the fifth and sixth children of a couple who started a Christian radio station and the Benton County Christian School. Both went to Bob Jones University, then came back to Arkansas--graduate school for Tim, law school for Asa. Asa entered the University of Arkansas Law School the year Bill Clinton started teaching there--not the first time their careers became intertwined. Hutchinson's first campaign work was for Democrat David Pryor in the 1972 Senate primary, but he soon became a strong Republican, and was Bentonville coordinator for Frank White, the Republican who beat one-term Governor Clinton in 1980. Recommended by Hammerschmidt, Hutchinson became U.S. attorney in western Arkansas in 1981, the youngest U.S. attorney in the country. There he prosecuted a Republican sheriff for marijuana possession and Roger Clinton for cocaine possession; his signal achievement was the prosecution of a paramilitary group called the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. In 1986 he ran for the Senate and lost to Dale Bumpers 62%-38%; in 1990 he ran for attorney general and lost to Democrat Winston Bryant. He practiced law in Fort Smith--taking a lot of civil rights and sex discrimination cases, ''things you wouldn't think of a Republican lawyer doing''--and was state Republican chairman from 1990-95.
In early 1996, Asa Hutchinson wasn't running for Congress; indeed, neither party's ultimate nominees in this district even ran in their respective primaries. But after Governor Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of fraud and announced he would resign, Lieutenant Governor Mike Huckabee withdrew from the Senate race; Tim Hutchinson, after some hesitation, became the Republican candidate for Senate on June 15. That left the 3d District nomination open. Asa Hutchinson had opposition, but at the July 13 convention won 93-65. He seemed the clear favorite to win. But on September 4, the Democratic nominee dropped out, and the Democrats on September 14 nominated Ann Henry, a University of Arkansas business law professor and former Fayetteville councilwoman. She was a close friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton--they held their wedding reception at her house--and put $130,000 into her campaign and spent more than Hutchinson. She campaigned as a champion of the U.S. Department of Education and an opponent of ''the Gingrich agenda.'' But Hutchinson's personal strength and party affiliation gave him a 56%-42% victory--better than Tim Hutchinson's 50%-47% four years before.
In the House, Hutchinson combined a very conservative voting record with an open and pleasant manner to become an important member in a short time. With seats on Transportation and Veterans, he also got a third committee assignment, on Judiciary. He got bipartisan support for a bill holding bounty hunters and bail bondsmen liable for civil rights violations and requiring them to report to law enforcement when they cross state lines. He sought to have the tranquilizer Rohypnol, used by rapists to quiet victims, made a Schedule 1 drug. With his brother, he protested China's human rights violations and ''adopted'' a Chinese ''prisoner of conscience'' and pledged to work for his release. He sought bipartisan agreement on incremental measures on health care finance and, most notably, campaign finance reform.
On that issue, he and freshman Democrat Tom Allen of Maine co-sponsored a so-called ''freshman bill,'' which would ban soft money but not issue advocacy--though it did rouse some protest from Arkansas Right to Life. It would thus, Hutchinson argued, avoid constitutional issues. But most Democrats wanted to pass the Shays-Meehan bill, which did ban issue advocacy ads, within 60 days of an election, and in August 1998 the Hutchinson-Allen bill lost 147-226, with most Republicans voting for it but almost all Democrats voting against or present. Hutchinson responded to the defeat in typically upbeat manner: ''What a great experience. I got an education worth three terms up here in the last six months. There's nothing like participating in debate to sharpen your parliamentary skills. I believe we had the right side. It doesn't get me down when I lose on something I believe in.''
Hutchinson also played a mediating role on impeachment. Early on, as Democrats angrily turned the hearings partisan, he, Lindsey Graham and Ed Pease began meeting with Democrats William Delahunt and Howard Berman to see if they could reach some common ground. Not too much was found. But Hutchinson in his statements on the committee and on television struck a positive, open-minded, even friendly tone that was sharply in contrast with much of the discourse on the issue.
In the 1998 election, Hutchinson's only opponent was Ralph Forbes, former member of the American Nazi Party and the National Socialist White People's Party, who sued Arkansas Public Broadcasting for excluding him from a 1992 debate and, in a well-argued case, lost in the Supreme Court. Hutchinson won with 81% and seems to have a safe seat.
Safe. Hutchinson's role as a House manager during the impeachment trial of President Clinton has put this once low-profile member into the national spotlight and earned him the ire of national and local Democrats. Watch for Democrats to make a lot of noise here but don't expect a turnover, particularly without Clinton on the top of the ticket. What may be more important politically is that this is the fastest growing district in the state and is likely to become geographically smaller after the 2001 redistricting.
- Pop. 1990: 589,523
- 49.4% rural;
16.3% age 65+;
- 95.9% White,
1.2% Amer. Indian,
1.1% Hispanic origin;
62.8% married couple families;
28.5% married couple fams. w. children;
35.7% college educ.;
median household income: $21,903;
per capita income: $10,876;
median gross rent: $248;
median house value: $49,000.
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