Leader Blues

Monday, January 21, 2008

EDITORIAL>> Good suits back Huck

Five titans of business gave the Mike Huckabee presidential campaign a badly needed boost in conservative South Carolina on Thursday, two days before its primary, by praising his friendliness to business when he was governor of Arkansas. Like everything about our man’s presidential striving, it was at the same time impressive and strange.

Their statement, released by the Huckabee organization, urged South Carolinians to look past the accusations about the big tax increases in Arkansas while he was governor and the “unwarranted criticism” of his business record and consider what his leadership had done to the “economic and societal fabric” in Arkansas.

“In our support of Governor Huckabee’s truly conservative, small government business outlook and his pragmatic, yet compassionate style of governing,” the corporate executives said, “we invite you to look past the shallow rhetoric of yet another campaign season to see what we have experienced first hand.”

As with all things Huckabee, their implied endorsement would have been more impressive if it been a bit more frank. The five were not exactly disinterested observers. French Hill, the chairman of Delta Trust and Banking Corp. and the spokesman for the group, is Huckabee’s finance chairman and a major Republican Party benefactor.

The other four, all scions of inherited fortunes and businesses, had special reasons to be happy with Huckabee’s tenure. Huckabee had appointed Madison Murphy of El Dorado, former chairman of Murphy Corp., to a 10-year term on the state Highway Commission, the most coveted largesse in a governor’s power. John Tyson, chairman of Tyson Foods and a Republican fund-raiser, must have appreciated Huckabee’s valiant defense of the poultry industry when the Oklahoma attorney general attempted to get court orders to halt the industry’s pollution of the Illinois River, which drains northwest Arkansas and chokes the downstream reservoirs in Oklahoma with phosphorous from chicken-litter runoff.

Warren Stephens is the head of the Stephens family financial empire, including the largest municipal bond brokerage in this part of the country. Huckabee promoted the greatest use of municipal bonds in Arkansas history, for highways, universities and water projects, exceeding the debt accumulated under all other Arkansas governors in history combined. If you are the pre-eminent bond underwriter, that is real leadership indeed. Stephens also was the largest shareholder in Alltel, whose CEO, Scott Ford, was the other executive signing on to the statement.

They did not directly dispute the accusations about Huckabee’s tax increases because they are a matter of record. But here is the fascinating thing about that. The attacks on Huckabee’s tax record and the huge expansion of government on his watch were paid for by Warren Stephens’ brother, Jackson T. Stephens Jr., a Little Rock businessman who is not part of the Stephens family financial conglomerate. Jackson Stephens has funneled money to the Club for Growth, which has run commercials criticizing Huckabee in the early primary and caucus states.

We would have encouraged a little more frankness about another matter. The businessmen’s statement pointedly praised his “pragmatic yet compassionate style of governing,” an allusion to Huckabee’s famous compassion for Hispanic immigrants when he was governor. Tyson, Stephens and Alltel were the most prominent members of the Arkansas Friendship Coalition, which last year praised the immigrants’ contribution to the Arkansas economy and culture and called on government leaders and the people to show respect and concern rather than hostility for them.

As governor, Huckabee battled the nativists in his party who sought punishment for illegal immigrants and companies like Tyson who employed them. Gov. Huckabee famously said that God had given Americans a second chance to do right by the immigrants after the nation’s terrible treatment of blacks during slavery and segregation.

But Huckabee has changed his tune altogether in recent months and now leads the attacks on immigrants. He now espouses the rapid construction of a wall to seal off Mexico and calls for the instant removal of all undocumented workers and family members from U. S. soil, some 12 million of them. Alone among the candidates from both parties, he has signed a pledge to resist any form of amnesty for any undocumented workers and family members.

Compassion is a value to which everyone subscribes, but we understand why the businessmen preferred not to define it any further for South Carolina Republicans. They can guess for whom Huckabee might have been compassionate when he was governor. White, middle-class Protestants maybe? And if you actually liked what he stood for in 2005 there is always the chance that after the last hurrahs of the mean campaign have subsided President Mike Huckabee could embrace those values again. You never know!