Who Is Mike Huckabee?
By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report
December 3, 2007 — When Mike Huckabee moved suddenly from the second tier of Republican presidential contenders to front row center, interest in him surged, along with his presidential prospects. With that in mind, we decided to go back into SPR’s archives to see what we have written about Huckabee, who served almost eleven years as governor of Arkansas, over the years. On a personal note, I have interviewed -- and observed him -- many times over the past 15 years, mostly at the annual meetings of the Southern Governors’ Association. I have always found him an approachable, personable and interesting public figure, with some apparent contradictions that upon closer examination reveal a man of conviction, but also with a genuine concern for others.
Sense of Humor
As for the contradictions, the first one is that, despite being a Baptist minister and a social conservative, Huckabee has a sense of humor -- amply demonstrated in the presidential debates -- which has long been a significant part of his personality. In 1997, he allowed television host Don Imus -- long before his racial faux pas -- to broadcast his morning show from the grounds of the governor’s mansion in Little Rock. In defending term-limits, Huckabee told me in 1999 that the new law was “opening up some seats. It used to be they left in a pine box.” (Then on a serious note, he praised the effect of term-limits on the lawmakers: “People know they won’t be there that long and don’t have long to get things done.”) When the Southern governors sponsored a panel on the region’s quality of life, Huckabee quipped, “You never hear people say, ‘I’m going to retire and move North.’ ” And at a gathering of Southern Republicans in Louisville, the former president of Arkansas’ Southern Baptists said, “Politics is like a Wonder-bra -- you take what you got and arrange it so that on Election Day, you’re over the top.”
He almost got in some trouble once, when he discussed some election irregularities in Arkansas and referred to his home state as a “Banana Republic,” leading some Democratic legislators to wear buttons proclaiming, “I’m a Banana Republican.”
Despite his consistent conservatism on social issues -- he opposes abortion, including the FDA’s approval of RU-486, an abortion drug, same-sex marriage, gun control and favors strict controls on illegal immigrants -- he manages to take these stands without using harsh, judgmental language, sort of a compassionate conservatism, if you will. In the presidential debates he praises legal immigrants and recently said he would accept the support of the gay Log Cabin Republicans.
This may reflect the fact that Huckabee is a conservative Christian by instinct, but did not win office in Arkansas as the candidate of organized fundamentalists, who have not been strong politically in the state. And though, as a conservative Republican, Huckabee has not been in the forefront on issues of concern to African Americans, in 1998 he actively courted support from black leaders and black churches; as a result, exit polls showed he got some 48% of the black vote.
A Feisty Family
His family has the same streak of individualism that Huckabee exhibits. His wife, Janet Huckabee, got in a squabble with members of the Mansion Committee when she took down drapes in order to let in more light. Arkansas columnist John Brummett, writing about her at the time, noted that she would “rather ride a jet ski any day” than fight over the mansion’s furnishings. And in 2002, she ran for Secretary of State at the same time her husband was running for re-election as governor. The dual office seeking went over poorly with Arkansas voters and though she was an early favorite, at the end she lost badly (38% to 62%). During the campaign, one Huckabee aide told SPR, “Our governor’s wife is a great big anchor” on his re-election.
In 1999, as the next year’s presidential campaign was developing, Huckabee first supported Lamar Alexander; when Alexander dropped out, he endorsed George W. Bush. However, Huckabee’s son, John Mark Huckabee, at the time a 22 year-old political science major, chaired Steve Forbes’ “Youth for Forbes” campaign in Arkansas.
Governing and Politicking
During his two-and-half terms in the Arkansas governor’s office, Huckabee always had an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Sometimes he got along with them, sometimes he did not. He established some records for vetoing legislation, and some records for having his vetoes overridden. He took on some major challenges, including coming up with a new formula for funding education when his state’s courts ruled the old one unconstitutional. Through a series of special sessions, a new plan incorporating many of Huckabee’s proposals was passed. His plan for reorganizing state agencies in order to save money did not pass the legislature, however, although some of his proposals have since been enacted piece-meal.
The governor has always been a political player, and has been active behind the scenes in backing various candidates for public and party offices in Arkansas. His preferences were often at odds with those of the influential Hutchinson brothers, Tim and Asa, conservative Christians like Huckabee. However, in 2005 when Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller (R) withdrew from the 2006 governor’s race due to illness, Huckabee -- a Rockefeller supporter -- held a press conference and endorsed Asa Hutchinson for the seat (he lost to Mike Beebe [D] 55% to 41%). Today, Asa Hutchinson, in private business in Little Rock, has endorsed Huckabee for president, including signing a fundraising letter for him.
Huckabee has apparently been interested in the presidency for some time. In 2000, for example, he headlined some 80 fundraisers for Republicans across the nation, mainly in the South. And during the campaign, he also addressed the Christian Coalition in Washington, whose adherents form a major target of his current campaign.
On the down side, Huckabee has occasionally come under criticism back home, mostly for what one critic (D) termed “penny ante stuff,” such as accepting a canoe from a soft drink company or buying a small plane and renting it to his campaign. Huckabee apparently did not take kindly to the attacks. He is “thin-skinned” about such matters, said SPR”s source, and got “real blustery” over the attacks.
Mostly he has been very popular in Arkansas, with approval ratings as high as 77%. By the time he was re-elected for his last term in 2002, however, he began to get some criticism and had a stiff challenge from state Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher (D), who criticized the governor as unfairly claiming credit for some state accomplishments. But he won by 53% to 47%.