Patience and Pragmatism Dominate Asa Hutchinson’s First 100 Days

For the first time in more than a century, Arkansas is completely controlled by Republicans. But the new governor has slowly and deliberately built bipartisanship in the legislature.
by | April 2015

The distinguishing feature of Asa Hutchinson’s speech pattern is the way he’ll pause. The governor of Arkansas speaks fluidly, often in complete sentences, but he frequently stops and waits for a beat or two, or more, while he gathers his thoughts. This desire to take his time is reflected not only in the way he speaks, but also in how he has come to approach the options he faces on the job. The most common adjectives people at the capitol use to describe Hutchinson are words like patient, deliberate and methodical. “I don’t remember him ever making a rushed decision about anything,” says Leon Jones Jr., Hutchinson’s labor director.

But no one should think that Hutchinson’s approach is all about going slow. Once he makes up his mind, he can act in a decisive fashion. Hutchinson is the first Republican governor to work with a Republican-controlled legislature in Arkansas in 140 years, and he’s not shy about using the enormous advantages those political circumstances allow him. Upon taking office in January, he was ready to act on a set of issues he’d spent more than a year talking about on the campaign trail, including a sizable income tax cut that he got through the legislature almost immediately. He’s expanded computer education in schools, and sponsored an ambitious prison overhaul package to address overcrowding. “It’s nearly amazing how smoothly it’s gone,” says Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the first time Republicans have had a working majority in government and they’re determined to prove their competence and their ability to govern.”

Still, the governor’s biggest victory -- an extension of the state’s controversial “private option” approach to Medicaid expansion, under which the state accepts federal Medicaid dollars and uses them to underwrite private health coverage -- shows the extent to which he likes to proceed with caution.

Hutchinson had managed to hang back on the issue during the campaign year. He knew the program was controversial. No fewer than 41 freshmen were elected to the 100-member state House last fall. For many of them, the top priority coming in was getting rid of the private option and its federal money. One of the law’s main architects went down to defeat in a primary last year. “I was one of those who said, let’s come up here and kill the private option, let’s get it done,” says Laurie Rushing, a Republican who chairs the freshman caucus in the House.

But Hutchinson recognized that federal Medicaid dollars had become an integral part of the state’s health economy. The percentage of uninsured Arkansans fell by half between 2013 and 2014, from 22.5 percent to 11.4 percent -- the largest percentage point drop in any state, according to Gallup. Letting the private option die would likely reverse those gains.

So Hutchinson brought out a plan that would allow him to have things both ways. The program would be extended for two years, during which time the governor would work with a legislative task force to overhaul the state’s broader health-care system and, he says, eventually to end the private option. The decision to punt was enough to bring practically everyone on board. The measure passed with just a couple of dissenting votes in each chamber. “I made a speech on the House floor that if we want to get rid of the private option, this was the best way,” Rushing says. “I put my trust in the governor and voted yes.”

Hutchinson knows he’s sentenced himself to two years of listening to every argument imaginable about health-care policy, but he doesn’t mind that. “I sharpen my own arguments and positions by listening to the other side -- that’s fundamental to me,” Hutchinson says. “When you listen to the other side, it does shape your feelings. It’s either going to change your mind or it’s going to crystallize your arguments and make you stronger in your own convictions.”

The private option is not the only issue Hutchinson has handed over to a task force. He doesn’t always set up formal mechanisms for hearing out stakeholders, but he’s big on brainstorming with his staff and anyone else who can bring some credibility to the table. “He likes it when all sides on these legislative issues come together beforehand and work out their differences before there’s a big legislative battle,” says Little Rock lobbyist Terry Benham. “A lot of times these fights can be avoided when all parties come together.”

This approach can be seen in the people he’s appointed to his cabinet. They share his conservative philosophy -- there are former campaign aides working for him in the statehouse -- but he’s resisted the impulse to bring in partisan hacks eager to take advantage of the GOP’s sudden dominance of state government. One of his most important picks, Larry Walther as head of finance and administration, has even managed to live down the ignominy of having been appointed to a federal post by that most hated figure in Arkansas politics, President Obama. “I haven’t seen many political appointments or good ol’ boy appointments,” says Bruce Hawkins, a lobbyist and former Democratic legislator.

Hutchinson’s patiently staggered some of his other top picks. He was careful to have his public safety team in place as he came in, so his new administration would be prepared to deal with any potential emergencies right off the bat. Everything else, he said, could wait. Well into the legislative session, big agencies in charge of health and economic development were being run by holdovers. Hutchinson didn’t name a new education commissioner until March. He knew it would be impossible to figure out the inner workings of every agency all at once. Mike Beebe, his Democratic predecessor, had warned that one of the mistakes new governors often make is that they don’t take enough time to evaluate personnel and agencies before making changes. “You look around and see where you have good people running agencies,” Walther says. “That allows you to concentrate on areas that need more attention.”

The governor’s most important pick was his first one. Hutchinson selected Michael Lamoureux, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, as his chief of staff. That not only gave him a top aide who knew the legislative process inside and out, but also indicated immediately after the election that Hutchinson intended to govern in a pragmatic fashion. “He sent a strong signal early when he named Lamoureux,” says Rex Nelson, a columnist and one-time policy director for GOP Gov. Mike Huckabee. “Lamoureux had a reputation of being able to work with business Republicans and more socially conservative Republicans and, more important, Democrats to get things done.” Even though the GOP now holds big majorities after first narrowly winning legislative control in 2012, Democrats still matter, to some extent, because many fiscal bills, like the private option, require 75 percent approval for passage.

But Hutchinson hasn’t always followed his chief of staff’s advice. During the campaign, Lamoureux read training manuals provided by the national and Republican governors associations. Their clear message, he recalls, was that putting together an administration would consume more time and mental energy than even experienced candidates could imagine. He urged Hutchinson to start laying the groundwork for a transition prior to Election Day, but Hutchinson refused. He thought it would be presumptuous and a distraction. “It was discussed several times during the campaign,” says Jones, who was the Hutchinson campaign’s minority outreach coordinator, “and each time, Gov. Hutchinson said, ‘We’ve still got a race to run.’” Lamoureux had to wait until 7 o’clock in the morning, the day after the election, to convene the first transition meeting.

Once Hutchinson was sworn in, though, he seemed to have pondered the important issues long enough to know what he wanted to do. He introduced his tax and health measures during his first couple of weeks in office. The “historic pattern,” Hutchinson notes, was for new Arkansas governors to wait until the end of their first legislative sessions to bring up their big-ticket items. Hutchinson, deliberate as he was in his personal style, thought it would be smart to seize the momentum from his election victory to put some points on the board right away. Events quickly proved him right. Legislators didn’t want to wait long to  turn their attention to more contentious matters involving guns, gay rights and abortion, but Hutchinson managed to get his most important proposals through before those rancorous social issue debates heated up. “He took advantage of that era of good feeling, rather than letting them wear themselves out figuring out what they want to pass,” says longtime lobbyist Ark Monroe, a former state official.

 Hutchinson himself credits Lamoureux for helping to fashion his legislative strategy. Some people wondered whether the governor hadn’t handicapped himself by removing Lamoureux from his position in the legislature, but Hutchinson has enjoyed remarkable cooperation thus far from Jonathan Dismang, the new Senate leader, and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam. The latter two grew up together -- Arkansas politics is a close-knit business, with Hutchinson boasting two nephews and a brother-in-law in the legislature -- and the chamber leaders have consistently sung from the same page as the governor. “We knew we could do this a different way from what had been done in the past,” Gillam says.

When Bill Clinton was first elected governor of Arkansas, in 1978, one of his pals from Oxford teased him: “I hear you’ve been elected king of some place with three men and a dog.” The comment was not just belittling, but inaccurate. Arkansas may be small -- home to 3 million people, not three -- but it’s enjoyed a run of successful governors who have punched above their weight in national politics, either as presidential candidates (Clinton and Huckabee) or senators (Dale Bumpers and David Pryor). Beebe was not as well-known outside Arkansas, but he left office as one of the most popular governors in the country, having deftly steered the state through the recession.

For a long time, it looked as if Hutchinson was destined never to join their ranks. His 2006 loss to Beebe was his third unsuccessful attempt at statewide office. Hutchinson picked up plenty of government experience elsewhere, however. He served a couple of terms in the U.S. House, where he was perhaps best known for his role as a prosecutor in Clinton’s impeachment trial. Hutchinson gave up his seat in Congress to run the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, then went on to serve as the second-ranking official at the Department of Homeland Security. Managing an entity the size of state government is not something that’s foreign to him. Hutchinson may have had no prior career in state government, but his executive experience and his sense of how legislators need to be brought along are serving him well. Just as he avoids “ums” and “you knows” and other verbal stumbles, even Democrats say he has yet to make a noticeable bobble administratively. “I do understand leading large programs, and that’s what government is,” Hutchinson says.

Term limits in the Arkansas House and Senate gave Hutchinson an opportunity to hire ex-members of the legislature who had reached the ceiling on years of service there. He’s brought several former legislators on board, drawing from the pool of former Huckabee administration officials as well. “In the key leadership positions, the people who are senior advisers to him are pros,” says Democratic state Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, who served as state budget director under Clinton. “They know what they’re doing. They’ve done it before.”

The new governor is more of a pragmatist than some of the Republicans in the legislature. (Hard-right conservatives are still sometimes referred to locally as “Shiites,” in a parlance coined by Huckabee.) In February, for instance, Hutchinson allowed a bill banning local governments from enacting gay rights ordinances to become law, but chose not to sign it. Having to work with Democrats because of supermajority vote requirements is just “as it should be,” Hutchinson says. But unlike some GOP governors in other states, Hutchinson has found that the more militant conservative legislators are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

They were willing to trust Hutchinson not only on the private option vote, but on taxes as well. His revenue proposal included not only an income tax cut that was targeted mostly at middle-income earners, but also an increase in capital gains taxes. That made it the type of redistributive change that President Obama can only talk about. Hutchinson doesn’t work the capitol building like someone still running for office, the way Beebe did, but he’s spent a good chunk of his time as governor thus far making himself available to any legislator who wants to visit with a question or complaint.

Like many people around the Arkansas capitol these days, Hutchinson displays a framed photograph of Ronald Reagan in his office, in his case showing Hutchinson as a young U.S. attorney walking alongside the conservative hero outside the White House. Hutchinson reinforced his conservative reputation more recently when, after the Sandy Hook shootings, the National Rifle Association tapped him to lead an effort aimed at arming and training school personnel. “He is never going to be seen as a RINO” -- a Republican in name only -- says political scientist Jay Barth of Hendrix College, “both because of the Clinton stuff, and because he was state party chair when Republicans were in pretty dire straits. He proved his credentials as a Republican in Arkansas at a time when it wasn’t cool.”

Clinton campaigned actively against him last year, but Hutchinson called the ex-president shortly after the election in hopes he’d let bygones be bygones, aware that Clinton, his library and his foundation are all important assets for the state. Clinton may be willing to work with him on some initiatives, Hutchinson says. This is in keeping with an old-fashioned dynamic still prevailing in Arkansas politics. There’s generally a desire to root for new governors. Once an election’s over, partisan politics don’t fade away entirely, but there’s still a widely held belief that a governor’s success means the state itself is getting ahead. “Party is much more important here than it’s ever been before,” says Barth, who has run for office as a Democrat, “but I don’t think it’s as important as in some other places.”

Hutchinson’s honeymoon has been built on a combination of good will from a generally conservative state and enthusiasm among Republicans who find themselves in complete control of state government for the first time in anyone’s lifetime. Hutchinson might have preferred serving as governor at an earlier age; at age 64, it’s likely to be his last stop on the political carousel. But he intends to make the most of it.

Like many another governor, he recognizes that he can’t do everything himself and he certainly can’t do everything at once. Some goals, such as straightening out the state’s highway funding problems, are going to have to wait for another day. But Hutchinson is always willing to take his time to figure out the best approach. Patience, he says, can pay off. “You have three or four top priorities now,” he says, “but that’s a revolving list.”