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Ark.’s Huckabee ending service; is run for president next?

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP)–Last year Time magazine named Mike Huckabee — a former Southern Baptist minister — one of the five best governors in the United States. As Arkansas’ 44th elected chief executive, and only the fourth Republican to serve in a statewide office since the Reconstruction era, Huckabee has earned a positive reputation among his peers in other states and also has taken on national leadership roles in developing education and economic policy.

On Jan. 9, Huckabee will hand over the reins of leadership in the state to its newly elected Democratic governor, but his political career likely will not end there. Speculation in the state is rampant that Huckabee will launch a presidential bid, but the governor himself has yet to make a formal announcement.

Huckabee’s political story began humbly. Early on, he had no plans to enter politics. After attending Ouachita Baptist University — which has now named its education school in honor of the governor — and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, Huckabee dabbled in television ministry with evangelist James Robison. He later served as a pastor to churches in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, Ark., and also led Southern Baptists in the state as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. A life as a Southern Baptist statesman seemed inevitable, Huckabee told Baptist Press in 2001.

But it was his entrance into politics in 1993, which Huckabee believed was God’s will for his life, that brought him statewide notoriety. He won a special election that year to become the state’s Republican lieutenant governor. Achieving that office was not easy, a former Huckabee staffer said. Many in Arkansas were dubious about a preacher turned politician.

“The hurdle he had to overcome was more or less the electorate,” David Sanders, Huckabee’s former policy and communications aide, said. “They had to get over the idea that a minister shouldn’t run for political office. A lot of people expected him to be a red-meat, right-wing Republican.”

There was, however, no evidence that Huckabee had such an attitude. He was re-elected lieutenant governor in 1994, and in 1996 was thrust into the state’s most powerful office with the resignation of then Governor Jim Guy Tucker, who left office after being convicted of conspiracy and mail fraud in the Whitewater scandal that plagued the Clinton administration during its first four years in Washington.

Mark White, who served as a policy advisor to Huckabee from 1999-2003, said liberal pundits still expected Huckabee to be a “Governor Falwell” or “Governor Robertson,” focusing exclusively on issues that would garner support among the church-going electorate. “But he didn’t just focus on social issues. He focused on the everyday business of government and how limited government could improve the lives of its citizens,” White said.

And Huckabee has proven recently that he may not always toe the conservative Republican line, even on issues such as immigration. He supported President Bush’s guest worker program for illegal immigrants, putting him at odds with many conservatives in the state. He also attempted to push through the state legislature a scholarship fund for the children of illegal immigrants.

“Mike Huckabee delights in being provocative,” Sanders said. “He doesn’t like to be pigeonholed by anyone.”

Programs such as the scholarship fund for the children of illegal immigrants, and other state programs the governor has created, are geared toward raising both the economic and educational outlook of Arkansas’ citizens, said Douglas Baker, now vice president for outreach with the National Fatherhood Initiative. Baker was special assistant to the governor from 1999-2001.

“He always filtered every public policy decision through the lens of a poor Arkansan,” Baker said. “He is not an elitist. He had a hard upbringing, but he loved his parents and always appreciated what they did for him.”

Huckabee was among the first members of his family to receive a college education, which he completed in only two-and-a-half years. His experiences, Baker said, have helped him to understand the importance of education and hard work. And they’ve translated into action in the governor’s office, he said.

Huckabee created programs such as Smart Start, an intensive math and reading program for students in kindergarten through 4th grade. A similar program, Smart Step, is now in place for students in the 5th through 8th grades. Huckabee was the first Arkansas governor to pursue and pass a broad-based tax cut, and he also was among the first of the governors in the nation to tackle the problem of healthcare for the children of his state. He created ARKids First, a health insurance program for low income and minority families that has helped reduce Arkansas’ welfare rolls by 50 percent during his 10-year tenure.

“I think he would regard this program as one of the things he’s most proud of,” Baker said. “The program is a window into this man’s heart. He believes you can leverage the resources of the government and the private sector together to accomplish something for the people.” That, however, does not mean that government should do everything for the people, Baker added.

Huckabee ran on promises of limited but empowering government in 1998. They were promises he has kept, Baker said. “He was always concerned that government should remain a servant, not the master. He wanted to keep government in its place. He would always say that a check can never substitute for a church, and government will never substitute for relationships and real people being involved in someone else’s life,” Baker said.

That sentiment is evident throughout Huckabee’s books, all published while he served as governor. In 1997, Huckabee wrote “Character Is the Issue” about the importance of integrity in politics and in relationships in life. The book was also a response to the declining morality of big government in Washington. In the following year, he wrote “Kids Who Kill,” a book which debunked popular myths about why children have become increasingly violent. Huckabee wrote that the rising tide of violence could not be turned by legislation, but by faith, family, work and community. He also wrote “Living Beyond Your Lifetime,” a book about leaving a legacy of faith and family, in 2000.

Huckabee wants the citizens of his state to live long and healthy lives, and he is “pro-life” at every turn, his former aides said. He even regards legislation that banned smoking in all of the state’s restaurants this year as a “pro-life” law, Sanders said. As governor, he has encouraged Arkansans to live healthier lifestyles, and he has modeled healthy behavior. In 2003, Huckabee was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. Today, he is 110 pounds lighter, a marathon runner, and the author of another book, “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork.”

Just how his books and his experiences as governor will translate into future political capital remains to be seen, but those who worked closely with the governor stress that the best testimony to his political skill has been his effectiveness as governor. Added to Huckabee’s improvements in education and healthcare are his improvements in the state’s transportation corridor — earning him the nickname “Highway Huckabee” — and the state’s technology sector. He has also improved the state’s park system, illustrating his own love for the outdoors and the environment.

Huckabee, friends say, lacks something that many veteran politicians will likely deal with in future campaigns — scandal. “Mike Huckabee is a rigorous and vigilant system man,” Baker said. “He expected and would check to see that his staff obeyed every state and federal regulation. He has always seen his office as a sacred trust.”

That view of his office as the state’s chief executive may well help him in a future presidential bid, his former aides contend. While none would speculate on the outcome of a White House run, each said that Washington would be a different place should there be a President Huckabee.

“Mike Huckabee, the chief executive, the president, would be solid on the issues important to conservatives. He would be good on marriage, on abortion, on the Second Amendment, on the Darfur crisis, on Africa and the AIDS epidemic,” Sanders said.

Baker said that Huckabee would take a “new birth of courage” to Washington, encouraging Americans to “get out of the rut and not be afraid to move forward.” He also said the governor has never shied away from controversial issues, and has often reached across the aisle to accomplish his goals. He would do the same as president, Baker said. But while he would work with the opposition party, should he be elected “he will work for consensus without abandoning his convictions.”

In July, Huckabee completed a term as chairman of the National Governor’s Association. He is immediate past president of the Council of State Governments and also past chairman of the Education Commission of the States. His latest book, “From Hope to Higher Ground: 12 Stops to Restoring America’s Greatness,” was released Jan. 4.

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  • Gregory Tomlin