Mike Huckabee is probably best known nationally for having recently shed more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes. As the governor of Arkansas for the past decade, he has done just as much to reshape government, forcing changes in most important areas of state policy.
Huckabee, who has been testing the 2008 presidential waters, is a true exemplar of the concept of “compassionate conservatism.” He has overseen breakthroughs in health coverage for children, education management and school finance. He also sponsored the largest tax cuts Arkansas has ever seen, as well as the state’s biggest road construction package. And the state this year racked up the largest budget surplus in its history.
It’s an impressive record for someone whose governorship started as something of a fluke. Huckabee (who hails from Bill Clinton’s hometown of Hope) was serving as lieutenant governor but preparing for a U.S. Senate race in 1996 when his predecessor, Jim Guy Tucker, was convicted on conspiracy and mail fraud charges.
Huckabee, 50, is a Republican — still a relatively rare breed in Arkansas — and jousted for a time with the Democrats who control the legislature. Both name-calling and veto overrides were rife early in his tenure. But relations have improved a great deal. This year, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette ran a story headlined “Governor 19-for-21 in Bills He Pushed.”
”We started out as adversaries,” says Jim Argue, the state Senate president pro tempore. But Argue says the task of meeting school finance mandates handed down by the state Supreme Court gave them common ground to stand on. Huckabee not only has seen school funding shoot up as a result but also has taken the opportunity to restructure his education department, modernizing what had been, in his words, “essentially a parking place for retired superintendents and school executives who had nowhere else to go.”
Even his detractors concede that Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, is a masterful salesman. Like many other governors during the late 1990s, Huckabee put forward broad-based tax cuts, an idea that been all but unprecedented in Arkansas. He also succeeded in persuading voters to approve a $1 billion transportation package in 1999 — just four years after a roads referendum Tucker sponsored had received 20 percent of the vote in a special election.
Huckabee’s desire to lead a government-wide reorganization died on the launching pad, but he created a Department of Agriculture to oversee the state’s leading industry, and this year merged the Health and Human Services departments.
Health has been a special area of concern for Huckabee. Arkansas is among the few states to devote all of its tobacco-settlement dollars to health care.
A particularly ambitious program is AR Kids, which provides health coverage to some 200,000 children. As a result, Arkansas in recent years has had one of the best records nationwide in lowering the number of its citizens without heath insurance. “It was a great program and a great idea and he takes some credit for it and I think rightfully so,” says Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times and a frequent Huckabee critic.
In addition to pushing health efforts in his state — including the nation’s most ambitious childhood obesity-screening program — Huckabee has made the issue central to his current chairmanship of the National Governors’ Association. He has devoted much of his time in recent months to promoting NGA’s proposed Medicaid changes, which formed a basis of discussion of the program in Washington this fall.
In keeping with the health benefits he has received personally from dieting and exercise, Huckabee is a big believer in prevention. “We have to shift to a healthy culture,” he says. “We need to start killing snakes and stop treating snake bites.”
Most recently, Huckabee won plaudits for Arkansas’ response to Hurricane Katrina. Faced with some 75,000 evacuees from the storm, the governor quickly set up an all-purpose, cross-agency command center in his office to coordinate shelter and other relief efforts. Huckabee took advantage of the end-of-summer closure of Christian camps throughout the state, dispersing the influx and mitigating the impact on school districts and other service providers.
— Alan Greenblatt
Photo by Sean Moorman