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.

Most came in 1999, the year after Huckabee won election in his own right — individual items totaling just more than $92,000, according to the records. That included a $23,000 "inaugural wardrobe" for first lady Janet Huckabee, courtesy of the inaugural committee; the gowns were later donated to a state museum, a tradition in Arkansas.

Other gifts included clothes, football tickets, dental care, jewelry, gift cards and air transportation to Republican events in Arkansas and other states.

In succeeding years, Huckabee declared a series of gifts ranging from $2,495 to $9,185.52 per year. Such gifts are legal in Arkansas as long as they are disclosed and are not payment for a specific action.

Gifts were at the heart of 20 proceedings before the Arkansas Ethics Commission covering Huckabee's years as lieutenant governor and governor. It found violations of various degrees in six cases, including failure to declare income stemming from use of a Cessna airplane and the donation of a stadium blanket to Janet Huckabee.

As he left office, Huckabee and his wife set up a wedding registry at two local department stores for gifts at their house. Huckabee told reporters that his wife's friends "wanted to do something for her," and that they set up a wedding registry because there was no category for housewarming gifts.

Gift acceptances declined in recent years, after rule changes by the ethics commission. Huckabee attorney Kevin Crass said the governor complied with the law, and "once the rules changed, his approach changed."

•Pardons and commutations. Gov. Huckabee recommended more than 1,000 pardons and commutations of prison sentences, according to a review of governor's records.

The most infamous involved Wayne DuMond, a convicted rapist who killed a woman in Missouri after his release on parole. Huckabee supported his release, and the matter became an issue against him during his 2002 bid for re-election. Having carried 60% of the vote in 1998, Huckabee won more narrowly four years later with 53%.

Keith Emis, a Republican businessman near Fayetteville, has posted a video on the DuMond case to a website called "A man who makes that kind of judgment as governor is not someone I want as president," he said.

Huckabee reviewed each parole request carefully, former aide Rex Nelson said. The "easy political thing for any governor to do would be to say, 'No, no, no,' " Nelson said.

Sanders devoted a recent column to the case of Eugene Fields, who received a commutation for a DUI sentence in April 2004. The previous summer, his wife made a pair of $5,000 contributions to the Republican Party of Arkansas. Huckabee's campaign said there was no connection.