Sen. Keith Ingram and a run for governor


WEST MEMPHIS — “I don’t have to be governor. I don’t need that like a star atop a Christmas tree.”

But: “It does make you feel good, the calls.”

So: State Sen. Keith Ingram is thinking of running for governor.

However: “I have to pay attention to the Senate; I can’t lose focus on that. If I have to declare (candidacy) right away, then I won’t.”

Then again: He thinks he could quickly solidify the support of much of the east Arkansas business and agri establishment, as Attorney General Dustin McDaniel did before withdrawing from the race last week. As a self-styled “true moderate” in the mold of Gov. Mike Beebe, whose conservative budgeting he applauds and whose parallel objectives of economic development and educational improvement he embraces, he believes he could satisfy the cravings of Democrats elsewhere in Arkansas for a credible candidate with serious views on public policy.

Ingram’s first year as a senator is his third as a widower. He and Betty dated for seven years before marrying. Five years later the first breast tumor was diagnosed. Two decades later the disease finally prevailed. The tears that still form he discreetly wipes away.

His wife’s ordeal brought home to him, Ingram says, the “intensely personal” dynamics of life and death. Ergo, “I’m comfortable with Roe v. Wade. Even though I know I’ll disappoint some friends. At the end of the day it’s between a woman, her family, her doctor and the Lord.”

His brother’s principal stewardship of the family’s prosperous cement business has permitted Ingram to indulge his zest for the Great Game. Now, at 57, with the children and grandchildren doing well in life and his district base secure, and with McDaniel’s travails leaving the Democratic primary anybody’s game, Ingram contemplates playing in a bigger league.

Ideas, he believes, ultimately will matter more than ideology, even in Arkansas, even in this era of Republican ascendancy. He has some, including some notions about economic development that he is still “fleshing out in my mind.” He also has some questions:

Are Arkansas’s “essential” two-year colleges as nearly in sync as they could be with the state’s business and industrial landscape?

What’s the impact on public schools if charter schools proliferate? “With the dollars we have for kids, how do you strike a balance? How do you have both?” And why can’t the much-touted “flexibility” of charters be introduced into conventional classrooms?

And that food, so much of which goes uneaten in so many schools — it becomes garbage only when it’s thrown into a garbage can. Can’t we find a better use for it? It is a question with special resonance to a legislator from an impoverished region.

So is the question of Medicaid expansion, which Ingram long ago answered to his own satisfaction by declaring “no question.” In not authorizing an insurance exchange, Ingram says, the General Assembly erred, with opponents betraying their own 10th Amendment creed. “The surrender of state control — it’s mystifying.”

East Arkansas has not produced a governor in six decades. The last one, Francis Cherry, was ousted after a single term. Retail politics were not Cherry’s specialty, and he was ignorant of the inside baseball of governance. Ingram is adept at both.

The customary calculations beg, money chief among them; but also organizational ability (it’s not as early in the election cycle as it appears) and voting record (every legislator’s potential liability). And something else, an uncertainty in the Epoch of Obama: Where, politically, is Arkansas today? Is “the center” an outdated concept? Has the balance swung so far to the right that “moderation” is left dangling?

Ingram contends Mr. Beebe’s enormous popularity is evidence that the philosophy of prudence outweighs the fever of impulse; that light blue can, if marketed smartly, still sell better than crimson.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.