Halter doesn’t mind going it alone

The fastest, surest way to get a laugh from Bill Halter is to observe that establishment Democrats don’t merely dislike him, don’t simply disdain him — they revile him.

Halter, who wants next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination, believes that (a) he can win it without the establishment and (b) that it will come around because it will have to. And (c): Arkansans want a program, ideas.

“Arkansans respond positively when someone presents policy alternatives to them,” he smiles. “They already have,” he grins.

Besides, “I would dispute” that the Democratic Party, to the extent it is one, is devoid of affection for him. “We already have endorsements from people who’d be considered ‘establishment,’” he says. In fact we were not yet seated for lunch when a press release from Halter’s campaign office arrived electronically, announcing the support of former state Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, who chaired the chamber’s Education Committee.

(“An easy choice for me,” Argue told me later, meaning Halter’s focus on education, public and post-secondary).

Halter’s effort was made feasible by the personal difficulties of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose eventual withdrawal from the primary had Halter formally in the race within hours. The Democratic establishment, predictably aghast, beseeched Mike Ross, just retired after a dozen years in Congress from the Fourth District, to step in, which he eventually did. A contentious campaign was guaranteed.

Not that the Democrats’ progressive component is much enamored of Ross — in the House he keeled so far to starboard on guns, abortion, health and fiscal policy that he was less a Blue Dog than a Red Stater who caucused with the Democrats. That his apostasies were the price of keeping his seat, and keeping it in the party, were reluctantly accepted by the party’s core activists. Their stoicism at the prospect of a Governor Ross — most frequently expressed as “Halter can’t win” or “Ross would hold down the damage” — is faintly amusing.

Halter regards it as downright hilarious.

“This is a Democratic primary,” he exclaims. “There ought to be a Democrat in it.” And: “I’m convinced Arkansans would prefer a leader to a lobbyist as their next governor,” a barb aimed specifically at Ross’s short-lived post-congressional career with Southwest Power Pool (for which he says he did not lobby).

Halter’s difficulties with the Old Order began in 2006. Freshly returned after years in the Clinton presidential administration, Halter outraged the party’s powers with a brief, ultimately aborted campaign for governor against Mike Beebe. Halter easily won the lieutenant governorship that year, but his effrontery, and his undisguised ambition, led most of the party’s incumbents (and especially Mr. Beebe) to shove him into a deep freeze. Undeterred, Halter engineered the Arkansas lottery to success at the polls with no assistance from the Democratic hierarchy (and despite its tacit disapproval).

Thus was Halter two for two in statewide races until 2010, when he stumbled in a challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln. (Pause for irony: Lincoln was regarded by her own party’s activists as Ross on a larger scale, more abided than adored). That Lincoln was a sitting duck for the GOP — then-U.S. Rep. John Boozman defeated her handily — did not defuse anger at Halter for compelling an expensive primary).

So it is not that Halter has no use for his party’s establishment, rather that he’d be happy to have it join him and, if not, he’ll go his own way. Again.

Can he succeed? The next campaign finance reports will tell much. Halter boasts of a million-dollar treasury, but two-thirds of it is his money. He is quick to relate that he recruited a thousand volunteers, some in each county, in the first days after announcing.

He is even quicker with pen and paper napkin: in the course of a two-course barbecue meal Halter plucks a dozen doilies from a dispenser and covers them with charts, graphs and other statistics. They are the stuff of the issues he will run on, issues he presents as questions: What is the value of a college degree versus a high school diploma in lifetime earnings? What was Arkansas’s share of Gross Domestic Product in 1940? When, and why, did industrial development in Arkansas truly begin? What percentage of state general revenue goes to higher education as compared to, say, Georgia, and what’s the result?

The social questions, matters Halter implies he believes are at best marginal to the state’s future (and which he hopes have been marginalized by the legislative session just ended): he has owned guns since age 12; believes abortion should be not safe, legal and rare but “rare, safe and legal”; gay marriage is in the courts although “there should be no room for discrimination.”

Can a Democratic candidate can get past Arkansas’ demonstrated paranoia about Barack Obama?

“Yes,” Halter says, firmly, “and it’s not by being Republican-lite.”

It will be a whale of a Democratic primary.