It was an interesting 2013 in Arkansas politics; 2014 promises to be another good one for all who enjoy politics in the Natural State.
Hopefully, the new year won’t be so plagued by scandals.
It is hard to believe that just a year ago Attorney General Dustin McDaniel was the front-runner to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. But the heir apparent to Gov. Mike Beebe began the year with a cloud hanging over him. Divorce records from a Hot Springs attorney revealed that she had an affair with McDaniel. He acknowledged having an inappropriate relationship.
Try as he might to weather the storm, McDaniel ended up pulling out of the governor’s race. However, he has managed to redeem himself somewhat by focusing on finishing strong through his final term as attorney general. Notably, he has put pressure on the oil company responsible for the Mayflower oil spill.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter tried unsuccessfully to fill the Democratic void, but soon former Congressman Mike Ross showed up and locked up most of the Democratic establishment’s support and money. The governor’s race has since taken a turn for the dull with an expected match up between Ross and former Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson.
McDaniel was not the only Democrat hit by scandal in 2013. Former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner resigned following her arrest on federal criminal charges. She faces 14 counts of bribery and extortion, accused of accepting more than $36,000 hidden in pie boxes in exchange for directing state bond business to a broker.
Of course, embarrassing news does not know a partisan home. One of the more bizarre political stories in 2013 involved the Republican candidates for the office Shoffner once held.
Saline County Circuit Clerk Dennis Milligan, whose campaign for state treasurer is known for handing out bars of soap with his logo on it, looked to capitalize on a video that was leaked to him of a late-night visit to the state Capitol by a party that included his GOP primary opponent, state Rep. Duncan Baird.
But as is often the case, Milligan overplayed his hand with what turned out to be a rather tame video of Baird walking around the Capitol with some friends and colleagues. Milligan met Baird at Krispy Kreme in west Little Rock. Milligan said it was to warn Baird that political enemies could use the video against him if he stayed in the race. Baird recorded the conversation and said Milligan tried to pressure him to bow out of the race.
The scandal bug also hit Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Darr on the heels of revelations about campaign finance irregularities by Democrat Paul Bookout that forced the longtime lawmaker to resign from the state Senate. The state Ethics Commission fined and reprimanded Bookout after concluding he converted tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to personal use.
On Monday, Darr signed a settlement with the state Ethics Commission agreeing to pay $11,000 in fines for 11 separate violations of state campaign finance and disclosure laws.
Darr, who dropped out of the race for the GOP 4th District congressional nomination when allegations came to light, said he had no plans to resign and would not say whether he would seek re-election.
Darr admitted to using contributions to his 2010 campaign for personal use, accepting contributions in excess of legal limits, receiving state travel reimbursements for which he was not entitled and inadequately maintaining records.
There were more scandals in 2013 than space here allows to fully recap, including former Democratic legislator Hudson Hallum’s sentencing on a voting fraud conviction. Hallum pleaded guilty and resigned from the House in 2012 in the case related to a 2011 special election.
We will see if state politicians can clean up their act or if the hits keep on coming in 2014.
• • •
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.