October 2018 Issue
by Caleb Talley | Photos By Jamison Mosley
On Nov. 6, Arkansans will make their way to the ballot box to cast their votes in a gubernatorial election for the 76th time since Arkansas was admitted to the Union in 1836. The race, one of 36 governors’ races nationwide, will result in either another term for Gov. Asa Hutchinson – the first term Republican and only the fourth Republican governor in the state since Reconstruction – or Jared Henderson, his Democratic challenger, becoming the state’s 47th elected governor.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a native of Northwest Arkansas, was elected to his first term in office in 2014, after defeating then-U.S. Representative Mike Ross with more than 55 percent of the vote. As a former congressman, U.S. attorney and Drug Enforcement Administration administrator, Hutchinson has spent the better part of three decades in service to the public.
But the last four years, he says, has been the most fulfilling. He believes he’s accomplished the goals he set for his administration in 2014 and hopes voters have noticed
“I don’t get to do my own evaluation,” Hutchinson says. “But if you measure my first term based upon keeping the promises and goals that I set, the people of Arkansas should be very pleased. I said that we’re going to do three things. I said we’re going to have a $100 million income tax cut. We did that, plus more. I said that we’re going to put computer coding in every high school. We now lead the nation in computer science education. I said I wanted to be the jobs governor. We’ve created 70,000 jobs in Arkansas since I became governor, and I’ve worked every day on it. I did what I said I was going to do. And I think those are good goals and good accomplishments for the people of Arkansas.”
Under Hutchinson, the state has experienced historic lows in unemployment and has led the nation in foreign direct investments, which has resulted in new factories, many of which have come from China, in rural Arkansas.
By way of education, Hutchison is most proud of his work to put more computer science teachers in Arkansas classrooms.
“When you can go from having fewer than 20 teachers in Arkansas that can teach computer science, and having actually no program in computer science, we soared to leading the nation in computer science education,” he says. “That has to be one of the most gratifying and important success stories of the first term. And it has really changed individuals’ lives and opportunities. And that, to me, is the gratifying thing about public service.”
But, according to Hutchinson, there’s plenty of unfinished business.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m seeking re-election,” he says. “We need to have another round [of cuts] in order to flatten our income tax in Arkansas to lower it to 5.9 percent… We’ve greatly expanded the access for our high school students to high quality career education programs. But there’s still a few pockets of our state that do not have sufficient programs that we want to focus on.
“We had a short-term highway plan,” Hutchinson adds. “That was very successful. We fulfilled our commitment of $50 million dollars each year to our highway funding. But, I’ve acknowledged from day one that we needed a long-term plan… I want to see that passed in the next year, a long-term highway funding program.”
Voters will be tasked with comparing Hutchinson’s record and expectations for a second term to the promises of his Democratic opponent, a political newcomer with an impressive resume. According to the governor, the differences in their visions for Arkansas are clear.
“He’s against the tax cut,” says Hutchinson of Jared Henderson. “He’s against the Medicaid work requirements. He’s not going to sign pro-life legislation. There’s major, major differences. He articulates a need to improve education, but I’m the only one with a very specific plan that is comprehensive from our reading program, the RISE initiative to computer coding in every school and continuing STEM education to a very specific plan for teacher raises. I think there’s a lot that distinguishes us.”
But, he admits, they do have at least one thing in common.
“We both have an appreciation of teachers and the importance of education. And we both went to Springdale,” Hutchinson says with a grin. “I appreciate anybody that offers himself for public service, that loves the state of Arkansas.”
Hutchinson’s first challenge in the 2018 election cycle came from his right in Hot Spring gun range owner and Fox News regular Jan Morgan, who argued the governor wasn’t conservative enough for Arkansas. One of her most recited critiques of Hutchinson was his support of the Medicaid expansion program, dubbed Arkansas Works, which provided health care to more than 250,000 previously uninsured Arkansans.
The decision to expand Medicaid has been credited with keeping many rural Arkansas hospitals in operation. Surrounding states that failed to follow suit in the wake of the Affordable Care Act have seen a number of hospitals, especially rural hospitals, close their doors for good.
“We haven’t had any of our rural hospitals close,” he says. “That’s a story in and of itself that rural health care continues, challenged, but available. I think a large part of it is because we have continued to support health care coverage with reform. We’ve balanced access to health care with affordability to our state. I think the result is that we have clearly improved health care access in Arkansas… And we instituted some significant reform measures that helps it to be affordable for the state.”
Hutchinson drew fire from some Republican lawmakers for the Medicaid expansion program they deemed too expensive. His two most vocal conservative critics in the General Assembly lost their primaries in the spring.
The governor has since implemented a work requirement for recipients between the ages of 30 and 49 who have no in-the-home children under the age of 18, do not have a disability and did not meet other exemption criteria. Arkansas was the first state in the nation to do so. The changes were billed as a means of lowering the cost of the program to the state. Arkansas Democrats, including Henderson, have spoken out against the work requirement. Hutchinson says their opposition is misguided.
“The thrashing around about how terrible this is going to be is misguided because we’ve made to where it is not difficult to comply,” he says. “The whole objective is to – if somebody is underemployed, if they need more job skills training, if they need a GED – get them over to Workforce Services, and get them on a path to a better job. That is the objective.
“Whenever you stop thrashing around about how evil this is, look at whether or not we’re achieving that objective,” Hutchinson adds. “There are people that have either gotten a better paying job or are in work or training. They would not have been in there without this impetus to say you can do better in life, and we want to help you to do better. That’s how I’m measuring it. I think there is success thus far, and I think that there will be more success in the future.”
Of the roughly 26,000 Arkansans subject to the work requirement, more than 4,300 lost their Medicaid coverage after either failing to comply or failing to report exemptions. Hutchinson says that approximately 1,000 Arkansans in the program found employment.
When asked why voters should give him a second term, which would make him just the second Republican governor in Arkansas history to serve for more than four years – Mike Huckabee being the first – Hutchinson cites his commitment to the people of Arkansas.
“I’ve demonstrated a commitment to Arkansas,” he says. “I have fulfilled my commitment to the people in this state. I see the brightest future ahead for our state. I’m ready to lead us in that direction.”
The last book Gov. Hutchinson read: Grant by Ron Chernow. “It’s a great book. A long book, but it’s a great book about a president, but also a general, who struggled in life. He met the needs of our country. He was challenged by his administration, so it’s instructive for anybody who’s a leader in government.”
The last movie Gov. Hutchison watched: The Post. “It’s the story of Katherine Graham and the risk she took in printing the Pentagon papers of Daniel Ellsberg. Great movie, and I was a teenager then so I lived through that moment in history.”
For Halloween, Gov. Hutchinson will be: Abraham Lincoln. “That is a commitment I have. Halloween is my daughter’s favorite holiday, and she is insistent that we participate. Susan and I will be outside, in front of the Governor’s Mansion, handing out candy on Halloween night in costume.”
Democrat Jared Henderson, a fellow Northwest Arkansas native, may be new to the scrum of politics, but he has a resume that’s certain to catch voters’ attention.
After graduating from the University of Arkansas, Henderson earned masters’ degrees from Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He went on to work as a research scientist and operations manager at NASA before joining McKinsey & Company. After working alongside Fortune 500 executives across numerous industries, he served as executive director and senior vice president of Teach for America.
And now, this 40-year-old political newcomer is set to square off against Arkansas’ popular incumbent governor in an attempt to become the state’s 47th governor. And he’s quick to give his reasons for running, which includes a sincere desire to improve education and teacher recruitment.
“I’m willing and excited to pursue some bold ideas that could really be transformative,” he says. “The governor has been in office for three-and-a-half years. He’s got an extensive, taxpayer funded staff. Beyond computer coding, we’re not seeing a lot in education. Meanwhile, we’ve had a 57 percent drop the number of people in that profession in last 10 years.
“I think this is an urgent problem, but it also creates an opportunity if we can really think with a little bit of creativity,” he adds. “If we can set a real vision, if we can really focus people on what I think is the most important priority, which is making teaching attractive and sustainable, we can actually take a big leap as a state. It could set us up, not just to catch up on some fronts, but to get ahead in 10 years.”
Henderson promises a new approach to job creation, too, citing a current reliance on foreign investment to grow the job market.
“Our whole strategy right now is recruiting business from out of state and overseas,” he says. “That’s fine. But that should be a tactic; that should be a sliver of what we do. We are missing the chance to equip citizens in every town with the resources to actually build businesses from the ground up, have some sort of progress in every town, to return a sense of empowerment.
According to Henderson, he and his administration, if elected, would be willing to tackle challenges that the current administration isn’t talking about. One of those challenges, he says, is teen pregnancy.
“We have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the United States,” Henderson says. “That leads to us having some of the highest rates of child poverty. That’s outrageous because we can do something about it. There are other states that have done stuff about this that have had dramatic reductions, and we’re not even having the conversation. That’s a failure of leadership in my opinion.
“We’ve got the fourth highest rate of incarceration in the United States, and that’s causing us massive expenditures, to say nothing of the human toll,” he adds. “We’ve got to figure out how we do something about that, while being smart and safe at the same time… We need to conserve our resources so that we can really find a way to solve some problems.”
Henderson also takes issue with the governor’s tax cuts, primarily because of who they benefited.
“I think tax cuts, by far, do the most good when they go to the lower middle class,” he says. “Those are folks that need them more. They’re most likely to put them right back in the economy and generate more jobs… When it comes to tax cuts for our most affluent citizens, I think, over the next five to 10 years, there are better investments we can make as a state.”
An investment, he says, can be made in education by raising teacher pay. Henderson proposes raising teacher pay in more than half of the state’s districts by 10 percent next year, followed by another 3.6 percent over the next three years. “And we wouldn’t even eat up the $180 million dollars that’s projected for these tax cuts. People that say that we don’t have the resources for this, that’s not true. We just don’t have the right priorities,” he says.
“This might sound like a cute campaign line, but I think it’s the truth,” Henderson says. “I really think that his ideas of tax cuts for the wealthiest, his idea that smaller government is always better – he has been running on those ideas since he began his political career more than three decades ago.
“He’s still kind of trapped in this 40-year-old big government, small government argument,” he adds. “I think that the quest is how we find smart government. Let’s set some concrete goals for people and let’s figure out how we take steps toward them. Sometimes that’ll be new government efforts. Sometimes there’ll be scaling it back, but we don’t need to be so dogmatic.”
Like Hutchinson, Henderson recognizes at least one thing he has in common with his opponent.
“I think that we both, generally speaking, want people to have good lives,” he says. “I don’t question the governor’s intentions, but I think his ideas are bad or at best they’re 40 years old. We’re living in 2018.”
And like the governor, Henderson is supportive of the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion program. But he draws a hard line in the sand when it comes to the newly implemented work requirements.
“We’re going to really absurd ends to try to make it harder to get and keep Medicaid,” Henderson says. “These work requirements are internet requirements. We’re in a state that is 49th in internet connectivity, and we’re asking our citizens, the citizens that are the least likely to have access to internet, to prove every month that they’re meeting arbitrarily set government conditions. And by the way, we’re having them do it on a website that only works during normal business hours, which is just absurd.
“If we want to spend less on Medicaid in five or 10 years, if we want to really spend less on Medicaid and not leave any of our most vulnerable citizens behind, again, let’s attack our childhood poverty rates,” he adds. “Let’s equip some of our youngest people with the knowledge they need so that thousands of them delay parenthood from 14 or 15 to somewhere in their twenties… The far, far more important discussion, and the harder one, is how do we lower health care costs. We’re not even talking about that, much less trying to do something about it. Let’s have these conversations.”
Henderson is working hard to break through to voters as a Democrat in a state that has shifted heavily to the right in recent years. He’s found success in finding common ground, meeting voters where they are and demonstrating a desire to understand their concerns.
“When Arkansans are introduced to campaigns that make this more about the candidate, their ideas, their character, Arkansans will see past political labels,” Henderson says. “But you have to build campaigns that make that possible.
“It’s never been more tough to talk about politics with people,” he adds. “But that’s precisely why it’s more important now than it’s ever been. Get involved however you can. There is someone out there this year, whether it’s in my race or another race, that is worth your vote… Play a constructive role.”
The last book Henderson read: The Martian. “The move is good, but the book is so much better.”
The last movie Henderson watched: The Avengers. “That’s been awhile, during the summer, but that was probably the last movie I had time to see.”
For Halloween, Henderson will be: Dale Bumpers, circa 1970. “I need to capture that magic exactly.”
Editor’s note: Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Mark West was asked to participate but could not because of scheduling conflicts.