Pragmatism has paid off for Huckabee

During Mike Huckabee's decade as governor, Arkansas got new roads, a revamped state school system, a children's health care program and other items forged with a Democratic-dominated Legislature.

It's a record that earned the Baptist preacher-turned-Republican governor a reputation as a pragmatist, as well as criticism from conservatives who balked at more taxes and government programs.

The Huckabee years also saw controversy over gifts to the governor, rebukes from the Arkansas Ethics Commission, and criminal pardons that have become fodder for his opponents.

Huckabee's rise to contender for the GOP presidential nomination has led to scrutiny of his record in Arkansas, generating ammunition for both supporters and opponents less than a month before the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3.

A former lieutenant governor who took the top state office after Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a Democrat, was convicted of fraud and forced to resign, Huckabee reached across party lines and got things done, said Gilbert Baker, a Republican state senator. "That's what the next president is going to have to do," Baker said.

However, some politicians who crossed Huckabee say that the governor with a penchant for one-liners had a bit of a mean streak. "He governed in Arkansas with a mentality of, 'This is the way we're going to do it, and if you don't want to play, just take your toys and go home," said former state representative Jake Files, a Fort Smith Republican and a conservative critic.

Huckabee governed with "a deep and abiding pragmatism," said Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas. He mollified social conservatives by opposing abortion and supporting traditional notions of marriage, while working with the Democratic Legislature to "craft a middle path" on jobs, roads, education and health care, she says.

The results included fuel taxes to pay for new roads, as well as a $90 million tax relief package; the consolidation of smaller school districts under an order of the state Supreme Court; and ARKids First, a health insurance program for children of low-income parents and an issue that has divided President Bush and congressional Democrats.


Appearing Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation, Huckabee said he secured the tax-cut package "against the head winds of a Democratic establishment." Huckabee also said that as governor "our job rate went up" and he produced an $850 million budget surplus.

Disagreements with conservatives "started with policy," said David Sanders, a local conservative columnist who worked briefly for Huckabee shortly after he became governor. "Taxes, growth of government, that sort of thing," he said.

Brenda Turner, chief of staff throughout Huckabee's tenure, says some conservative critics "just didn't think he moved far enough, fast enough."

The Huckabee years, from 1996 to 2007, had their share of controversy, some of which have been picked up by rival campaigns in the presidential race.

Among the criticisms:

•Gifts. Huckabee accepted at least $133,000 worth of gifts since 1999, according to a review of statements of financial interest filed with the Arkansas secretary of State.

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