Leader Blues

Friday, May 26, 2006

SATURDAY EDITORIAL >> Stay tuned for runoffs

We still don’t have results from Lonoke County and a few other areas of Arkansas, which is a disgrace both to the candidates and the people who voted for them.

Except for local snafus, it’s agreed that statewide, the most boring and inconsequential Arkansas primary in more than a century is history, and now we prepare for one that is sure to be even more pepless, the runoffs.

Democrats still have to nominate a candidate for three statewide offices — attorney general, lieutenant governor and treasurer — although two of the offices are among the most useless jobs in all of government. Here and there across the state, Republicans or Democrats still must choose between two candidates for a state legislative position or a county office.
A shortage of lively or even live races for state offices and the traditionally fought-over local offices dampened turnout everywhere except, as far as we can tell, a legislative district in central Little Rock and the whole county of Benton in northwest Arkansas, where Republicans were excited about a local extremist who was running for lieutenant governor.

Elsewhere, people had to be reminded that it was election day and that there was a summons to their civic responsibility.
We are not sure of all the reasons for the ennui. The arrival of a true two-party system is one. In the old days everything had to be settled in the Democratic primary but now there is powerful impetus in both parties to keep down primary opposition so that the party’s anointed can go unfettered and unharmed into the general election. That is what happened in the governor’s race.

Term limits has ended the lively competition for legislative seats every two years. Once someone wins a term in the Senate or House of Representatives, the rest of the ambitious in the district cool their heels until the lawmaker’s allotted terms — six years for representatives and eight for senators — expire. Incumbents tend to get by free until then except in the few highly competitive districts.

And fewer and fewer people are seeking office. Term limits, remember, were supposed to stimulate the democracy, not deaden it.

Still, the commonwealth and the public welfare have something at stake in even this little primary, and the consequences are worth trudging to the polls again next month when the ballots are set. We hope the new voting equipment — more accurately, the people who operate it — will be up to it. We may be thankful in that way that the turnout was so poor Tuesday, or else we might have had violence at the polls as in the old days.

Democrats have one important task: nominating a candidate for attorney general. Two of the three candidates, all competent and reasonably progressive, will go at each other again, this time more aggressively, we imagine. Our choice remains Paul Suskie, the North Little Rock city attorney, who conducted a most dignified campaign. State Rep. Dustin McDaniel of Jonesboro, charismatic and well-financed, was and remains the frontrunner. Our problem remains his stalwart advocacy of a law that robs every school in Arkansas to help big land developers like the one who pumped money into his campaign. Every teacher and every parent of a public school child should demand an accounting from him for that.

Bill Halter of North Little Rock, the brainy former Clinton administrator, is running for lieutenant governor against state Sen. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould. There is no reason anyone should care who is lieutenant governor — it is the only job among 50,000 in state government where no service is affected and no one inconvenienced a whit if the holder decides to stay at home any day of the year, or every day.

But these men want that dubious honor and we follow the race because three times in the past 75 years the office has proved to be the right place at the right time. The governor did not complete his term, for different reasons, and the lieutenant governor got to hold the state’s highest office without having been elected to it. Halter and Wooldridge — and the Republican candidate, Jim Holt — hope that happens to them. We hope it doesn’t, but we must pay attention in case it does.

Our favorite continues to be Halter because he is bright and talented even if he is capable occasionally of the silly. He favors a state lottery, a popular but foolish idea that will not help the schools or the elderly, as Halter and its champions maintain. Barring further aberrations, we intend to mark our ballot for him again, if we can remember when the day comes. But we have a couple of weeks for him to change our mind.