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It was a tough decision to leave the newspaper business in July 1996. I was in my 30s and having the time of my life as the political editor of Arkansas' largest newspaper. Bill Clinton was in the White House, and all political roads seemed to lead to Arkansas. Whenever big-city radio stations or television networks would call, those calls often were sent to my desk. Arkansas journalists were getting their 15 minutes of fame.

I had a one-hour show each afternoon on KARN-AM 920 in Little Rock, which at the time was the top news-talk station in the state. I was a regular panelist every Friday night on the Arkansas Educational Television Network. For an Arkansas boy who grew up loving politics and wanting to be in the media, it just couldn't get much better.

Gov. Jim Guy Tucker had been convicted in federal court of felony charges on May 28, 1996. Shortly thereafter, Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee announced that he would drop out of the race for the U.S. Senate (a race he was leading in the polls) in order to serve out the rest of Tucker's term as governor.

As Arkansas Democrat-Gazette political editor, I had covered Huckabee's unsuccessful race against U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers in 1992, his successful race in a special election for lieutenant governor in 1993, his successful race for a full four-year term as lieutenant governor in 1994, and the 1996 Senate race. When he asked that I stop by the building near the state Capitol that had served as his campaign headquarters (and was now serving as a transition headquarters), I thought he was going to give me a news story. I walked in with a pad and pen.

He instead offered me a job on his senior management team.

The offer intrigued me. Huckabee would be only the third Republican governor since Reconstruction. State government was at best stagnant and at worst corrupt. Two-party competition was needed, and I figured Huckabee could strengthen the Republican Party.

I accepted the offer and left journalism for what I thought would be a short detour into government. It ended up being anything but short. I spent almost 10 years at the governor's side (including a nine-month leave from state government to serve as his campaign manager in 1998) and another four years in the administration of President George W. Bush.

I made my share of mistakes, but always respected the office of governor and the people we served. I wore a tie every day and never failed to put on my blazer before going into the governor's office. Those were little things, but they were also a sign of respect. We weren't perfect in that office, but we attempted to have dignity.

In these dark days when stories about the depth of corruption in the legislative branch come out on what seems to be a daily basis, the thing that strikes me is the total lack of respect shown by so many legislators. They've thumbed their noses at the institutions of government, the legal system and the people who elected them.

I'm thankful that the FBI is hard at work uncovering legislative misdeeds. I'm also thankful for the work of reporters and editors at this newspaper and other media outlets as they try to shine a light into the dark corners of the state Capitol.

At the center of much of the current corruption probe is a foul-mouthed lobbyist named Milton "Rusty" Cranford. In an outstanding piece of writing for the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, David Ramsey described Cranford this way: "He was a smoky-voiced hustler, a country rogue in a rumpled suit. He was as persistent and tenacious as a pawnshop broker closing a sale. He worked hard, and he was always working--always working you--whether you knew it or not. . . . Cranford had endless schemes, a finger in every money pie he could find. . . . Cranford was short, loud and crude. Crusty Rusty, sneered his enemies. He was a good ol' boy, not a blueblood. He smoked pack after pack of cigarettes and spoke in a froggy croak from the back of his throat, like a hillbilly pirate, sparking impressions at the Capitol. In court, Cranford's own defense attorney described him as 'an unapologetic and avid gambler.'"

Legislators who should have known better fell under his spell. Greed knows no gender, racial or party boundaries. If I ever met Cranford, I don't remember it. I left the governor's office in late 2005, and he was just a bit player in those days. According to Ramsey, his lobbying business only brought in $13,000 in 2002 and $30,000 in 2003. He filed for bankruptcy in 2004 and 2005.

While I never knew Cranford, I knew those like him--the obnoxious lobbyists in cheap suits who filled the halls of our beautiful state Capitol during legislative sessions. There was nothing sadder than seeing former legislators hanging outside committee rooms while pretending to talk on cell phones, trying to appear busy. They were unable to give it up even though they were no longer in office.

We headed down the wrong path as a state when voters started electing lawmakers for whom the tiny legislative salary represented the bulk of their income. While the Legislature has always had its share of idiots and scoundrels, there was a day when the majority of members had real jobs back home. They were lawyers, they owned small businesses, they ran insurance agencies, etc. They came to Little Rock, did their job and then went home to their families.

Want to know why we have so many useless interim committee hearings? Money-hungry legislators need the per diems. How many times have I watched them come into the room in casual clothes, sign the book so they can get their money, and leave? The answer: Too many to count. The games continue after dark as they show up in restaurants with lobbyists, flouting ethics laws while foolishly expecting me to believe they're splitting the ticket.

Granted, there are still good men and women in the Arkansas Legislature. I count some of them among my friends. But in addition to those who committed crimes, there were those who knew bad things were going on and remained silent. In my mind, they also are guilty.

Ultimately, this comes back to the voters. We must do a better job selecting the 135 men and women who serve in the Legislature. I hope we start this November. As far as the current criminal investigations, let the chips fall where they may. Let justice prevail.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 09/09/2018

Print Headline: State Capitol criminals

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