Affair puts haze over Dustin McDaniel


Everything was in order.

Dustin McDaniel seemed the natural heir to Governor Mike Beebe. On his wall were the appropriate academic certificates. His time with the Jonesboro police department, albeit brief, gave him a touch of law enforcement luster. His law practice with an established Craighead County firm (his father, a senior partner, is among the most highly regarded barristers in the state) gave him entrée to the state’s legal and business communities. McDaniel expanded that portfolio in the state House of Representatives, work he pursued seriously. Still, his election to state-wide office was not foreordained; in 2006 he had to fight his way through a tough Democratic Primary, and a razor-close runoff, to become Arkansas attorney general. Four years later McDaniel escaped serious opposition and breezed to a second term. (As the GOP was unable to find a candidate to oppose him, whether he would have stayed afloat against the unprecedented anti-Obama wave that surfed so many Republicans into office we will never know).

The campaign that brought McDaniel to Little Rock featured his family in its advertising, hardly uncommon. Shortly after arriving, however, the McDaniels divorced, a matter of some natural concern to his supporters but which was alleviated by its apparent amicability. Divorce doesn’t help a politician but no longer is it fatal, voters having decided some time back that their elected officials are, at least sometime, human. Whispers, again among the political class, that McDaniel robustly enjoyed his time off subsided with his marriage, in 2009, to the former daughter-in-law of Wallace Fowler, a wealthy Jonesboro businessman and generous philanthropist (and, by Mr. Beebe’s appointment, a State Police commissioner), who has publicly expressed delight in McDaniel as a second father to his grandchildren; and who, as in the past, has continued financial support of McDaniel’s political efforts — at least $6,000 this year.

Talk of McDaniel as a gubernatorial prospect began in his House days and he did nothing to discourage it. He did a smart thing: he created a political action committee and dispensed some of the money (a fair amount went to “administrative expenses”) to favored legislative candidates, even — to the discomfort of some Democrats — a couple of Republicans. A good way to earn political good will.

Earlier this year he did another smart thing: announced early, more than two years before the Democratic primary, getting a head start on possible rivals, setting up the requisite formal organization, hiring a campaign consultant. And raising money: more than a million dollars, he announced in October, with the bulk of it (almost $900,000) on hand.

And yet another smart thing: he made peace, it is understood, with Mr. Beebe. Relations between the two had frayed over what the Governor and his staff regarded as McDaniel’s grandstanding. Not yet you aren’t, it was relayed to McDaniel, in what are described as unmistakable communiqués.

So everything was in order. The personal and political credentials were in good shape — so good that McDaniel had become the establishment candidate, introduced by at least one speaker at this month’s gathering of the Democratic State Committee as the “next governor of Arkansas.”

Problem: In between doing smart things McDaniel did a very, very dumb thing. He had a brief (precisely how brief is not clear) “inappropriate interaction” with a Hot Springs attorney last year. McDaniel, in his only comment on the matter, says he and his wife have discussed it and remain committed to one another. He apologized for the affair. His statement fairly pleaded: May it end with this.

Problem: It won’t end. Judging from the public record, the Hot Springs lawyer, Andrea Davis, has a rather complicated personal and professional life. She is embroiled in a messy divorce in which she is purported in pleadings to have engaged in several extra-marital affairs including the one with McDaniel, and the continuing litigation promises to keep his name in the news with none of the pluses of a primary run-off. She remains at war with a judge in her local circuit court, alleging prejudice against her and her clients, and is reported to have failed to appear in court this week as scheduled in behalf of a client in a pending case. Her dossier includes a photo of her in handcuffs prior to being questioned in the death of a man whose body was recovered from her front lawn (she was soon released and has been accused of no wrongdoing). Further complicating the situation is Davis’s advocacy in behalf of plaintiffs in a case involving education law in which McDaniel’s office represents the state.

Now things are most definitely not in order.

Arkansas Democrats, trying to re-brand themselves after two consecutive tsunamis, had enough trouble with Martha Shoffner’s administration of the state treasurer’s office. Now the man many considered the party’s best hope of retaining the statehouse post-Beebe, who says his campaign continues, has them rattled.

McDaniel says he and his wife have “moved on.” Undecided, unknown, is whether his party will move on to another candidate.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.