The subject line in an e-mail from a friend of the political class read: “ross-burkhalter.”
The one-word message: “satisfied?”
My one-word reply: “Curious.”
This cryptic exchange occurred a couple days after a column in which I teasingly bemoaned any competition for lieutenant governor, especially a primary, as now has been occasioned by the entry of Democrats John Burkhalter, the Little Rock businessman who had been openly exploring his possibilities for the top job, and Dianne Curry, a Little Rock school board member, who added her name the same day. The cyber-chat occurred one day after Burkhalter and former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, his party’s presumed front-runner for governor, endorsed one another in a joint appearance.
As the column suggested, life would be easier for any governor should he or she be empowered to choose his or her lieutenant governor, as is done in many states, as do presidential candidates, rather than have voters fill the two offices independently of one another, as done in Arkansas. The nominee for the higher office presumably would choose a running mate who not only added electoral appeal to the ticket but would be ideologically in sync — more truly a deputy governor, one much less inclined to mischief (vetoes, pardons, personnel actions, etc.) when his or her patron was out of state.
So the question is not whether I am “satisfied” (no dog in the hunt, here) that the candidate of the Democratic establishment has recommended a former potential rival as his stand-in. Rather, it is whether Ross will be content at campaign’s end, possibly beyond.
Ross and Burkhalter insist there was no quid pro quo in the latter’s opting out of the gubernatorial race, though the former immediately benefited by the now distinct improbability of a runoff primary against Bill Halter, the former lieutenant governor and unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate, who delights in his role as insurgent. Burkhalter, a wealthy, self-made businessman, likely would have self-financed much of his campaign; for months he tested the waters, tepid until Ross’s entry turned them decidedly chilly.
A Ross spokesman tells the Arkansas News Bureau that the two will run separate campaigns, that his candidate and Burkhalter are simply a mutual admiration society. Perhaps that is how Ross wishes it but the notion is slightly ridiculous. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, Ross and Burkhalter are married.
Marriage can be stressful, and some Ross allies regard the union with anxiety. Ross himself is still viewed with suspicion by many Democratic regulars, rankled by his right-of-center congressional voting record; and while he is said to be enjoying some fundraising success (the next campaign finance documents will speak to that) more than a few customary donors reportedly are biding their time — for what, they admit, they aren’t sure. They were certain only that Burkhalter wasn’t ready for prime time, and now fear the linkage could prove troublesome or worse to Ross.
All who know Burkhalter, or claim to, credit him with being a good man, a shrewd executive and a talented inventor (he is said to have earned millions from a pipeline repair patent) but they judge his intellect as strictly technical and his off-the-cuff comments often ill-considered. Almost universally he is described as a naïf with no grasp of the political arts and barely a surface knowledge of state government despite past service on the state Economic Development Commission and, now, the Highway Commission, both at Governor Beebe’s appointment.
An informal candidate screening at the home of a prominent Democrat earlier this year left the assembled astonished at what Burkhalter did not know. “He’d be asked a question and he’d turn to his wife, almost like, ‘What do I think?’” one of those present sighed. “I was embarrassed for him,” commented another.
When Burkhalter lobbied the legislature in behalf of highways his attempts were so ham-handed, so tone deaf, more experienced hands shook their heads in wonder.
“He’s accustomed to telling people what to do, not listening to them and figuring out what to do,” one of them told me. “He has no tolerance for the public process.”
Such liabilities would be inconsequential if Burkhalter became lieutenant governor and then performed only as the state Constitution anticipates — presiding over the Senate and breaking the quite rare tie vote. Nor does it especially discomfit the wary that Ross has pledged to name him chair of the economic development “cabinet” he would create if elected governor, as the skeptical, prevailing view is that the idea is campaign eyewash. It is of some concern to them that Ross has wed a white executive before Curry, who is African-American, could launch her campaign.
The first public barb was Halter’s, shortly after the Ross-Burkhalter nuptials.
“In a state with pie boxes comes along a couple of guys cutting back room deals before they’re even in office,” tweeted the Halter campaign, alluding to the payoffs allegedly delivered amid sweets to the former state auditor.
Ross, and Burkhalter, can expect more of the same.
• • •
Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.