The Rising: Mike Beebe, Reluctant Star
In a world filled with politicians whose ambitions far outstrip their talents, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is the exact opposite.
Beebe is among the most popular politicians in the country with polls regularly showing more than seven in ten voters in the Razorback State approving of the job he had done since coming to office in 2006.
And yet, despite repeated urgings from state and national admirers, Beebe expresses no interest in following in the national footsteps of past Arkansas governors named Clinton and Huckabee.
"I'm not a great traveler," Beebe told the Fix in an interview as part of our "Rising" series that profiles politicians you don't know but should. He added that the Democratic Governors Association had approached him several times in recent years to take on more of a leadership role but he had resisted. "They just want more folks to volunteer for hard duties," joked Beebe about the DGA entreaties.
Beebe's path to popularity (if not national prominence) has been a slow one. He spent two decades in the Arkansas state Senate before running and winning a race for Arkansas Attorney General in 2002.
Four years later, he sought the governor's office against former Rep. Asa Hutchinson who was touted by national Republicans as a potential star. Beebe crushed Hutchinson 56 percent to 41 percent and has spent the next three years focused on, in his own words, trying to drag the state from its traditional place at the bottom of state rankings on things like education and heath care.
"It's hard to get really excited about being 40th in something," Beebe acknowledges but notes that the successes the state has had in recent years -- moving to 40th in terms of overall health from 50th a decade ago --- are "nothing short of miraculous." (Of course, Beebe's predecessor -- former Gov. Mike Huckabee -- deserves a piece of that success as well.)
Asked about how he has maintained his high popularity numbers in a political environment that is decidedly anti-incumbent, Beebe is matter-of-fact -- noting that the state's economy hasn't been hit nearly as hard as some, and that the Democratic-controlled state legislature has handed him several tools -- including a "quick action" fund for emergency spending, which has been derided as a slush fund by his opponents -- that have helped him mitigate the economic downturn.
"In an economic crisis, we're faring better than a lot of other states," said Beebe. "Because of that a lot of the anger and fear that my colleagues have had directed toward them has been tempered."
The result of Beebe's stewardship of the state? Republicans have no announced candidate against him and there is zero talk of finding someone serious despite the fact that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried the Razorback State by 20 points last November.
If Beebe wins re-election next year, he will be 68 years old in early 2015 when he will be term limited out of the governor's mansion, the same age that McCain was when he made his second run for president last year.
While Beebe seems to have no interest in national office (and, unlike most politicians, we think it's safe to take him at his word on this one), he has clearly thought quite a bit about what has made so many Arkansas pols so successful at the national level.
The size of Arkansas makes it a place where retail politics still matters, explained Beebe, and that "give and take" between politician and voter produces the sort of pols -- like Clinton, Huckabee and Dale Bumpers among others -- who are quick on their feet. "You end up naturally having to understand to relate to people, to listen and respond," said Beebe.
Luck has, of course, also played a role in the prominence of Arkansas-based politicians, acknowledged Beebe; "We have had a run of extraordinary talent," he said.
And, while Beebe's poll numbers seem to suggest that he is the latest incarnation of Arkansas' remarkable run of national-level politicians, he is adamant about his interest in keeping his focus squarely on his state.
"I'm not ready to die but I don't want to start a new career," Beebe says of the possibility of a national run after he leave the governor's mansion. "Why would you ever want to be anything else after you've been governor?"
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