A race with potential

Posted: July 23, 2014 at 5 a.m.

A panel of journalist-pundits was professing analytical command of Arkansas politics at the state press convention a couple of weeks ago.

Someone in the audience noted that the Democrats had a fine candidate for secretary of state in Susan Inman. He wondered about her chances considering the controversies besetting the Republican incumbent, Mark Martin.

Not so good, the four of us agreed.

I amplified that what rules Arkansas politics now is inertia—a Republican momentum based on nationalized conservative issues. I opined that only Democrats who can break out of that inertia to make their race about something uniquely local or particular to their Republican opponent, as Mark Pryor has done with Tom Cotton, stands a chance.

Getting that kind of special and broad focus on a down-ballot race is nigh unto impossible, I regretted.

Then I glanced to my right to see a forced smile on the face of Karen Garcia, who lives there in Hot Springs where we were convening.

She was seated alone at a table, taking notes.

And she is the Democratic nominee for a down-ballot office, state treasurer.

So I said: “Except, of course, in the case of the fine Democratic candidate for treasurer, seated here.”

But I didn’t mean it.

I figured that the thoroughly unpleasant Dennis Milligan, who tragically won the Republican treasurer’s primary over a consummately ethical and eminently more qualified candidate, Duncan Baird, would ride this nationalized Republican inertia.

I practically ceded to him woeful occupancy in an office I’d dearly love to see us abolish as an elected one and incorporate into the state Finance and Administration Department.

Milligan is the Saline County circuit clerk. He lacks any treasurer’s qualification whatever.

He infamously tried to bully Baird out of the race because a small party of which Baird was peripheral got recorded on video trying to visit the state Capitol roof around midnight during a special session. Milligan beat Baird largely by steamrolling him in Saline County, which ought to be ashamed of itself.

All of that is to set the stage for this development Monday: Garcia has now made her play to break out of inertia. She seeks to make the treasurer’s race about something locally specific that voters ought to distinguish from the nationalized Republican tide.

And her play is not bad. In fact, it’s good. Actually, it’s important.

Her point is that the treasurer’s office is worthy of special focus because it acts as custodian for the placement of hundreds of millions of tax dollars. And it’s unique at the moment, Garcia contends, because it recently has been disgraced, and thus needs sanitizing.

Disgrace was courtesy of Martha Shoffner, as unqualified in her day as Milligan now. She has been convicted of taking bribes for placement of tax money with a favored investor.

On Monday, Garcia issued a 10-page code of ethics for the treasurer’s office. She could impose it unilaterally if elected because the treasurer is constitutionally independent.

The headline is that neither the treasurer nor any employee may accept any gift of any type from any investor or vendor seeking to do business with or through the treasurer’s office.

The code also calls for transparency in the office by posting online every day the details of any competitive bids made that day for receipt of state tax money.

No attempts to seek advantage by extending favors and no opportunity to receive special consideration outside the public eye … those are such basic and profound principles that it defies reason that they haven’t been binding guidelines all along.

So consider all that along with Garcia’s impeccable qualifications as a former corporate accountant for Weyerhaeuser who is a certified public accountant and holds a master’s degrees in business administration.

Superior ethical standards and professional qualifications did not matter so much to Republican primary voters in May. Perhaps they’ll matter more to the broader general electorate.

It might be that Republican primary voters for Baird would want to consider a rare bipartisan movement.

Republicans are going to win plenty in November. They can spare this important office, especially in deference to a special localized matter of ethical standards and professional qualifications.

John Brummett’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his blog at brummett.arkansasonline.com, or his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.