Wednesday, May 17, 2006

SAT 5-17-6 EDITORIAL >> Lt. governor choices...

Only a few more days remain before you get to vote for a new lieutenant governor — just as as soon they get the new voting machines working. Meantime, to whet anticipation, the Leader offers its advice in the two primary races for the office among four Democrats and three Republicans.

Our preference would have been to continue the tradition begun after World War II of awarding the job to the most deserving or neediest war hero. For 28 years the lieutenant governor was a Medal of Honor winner (Nathan Gordon and Maurice L. “Footsie” Britt) or a man severely crippled in the war (Footsie and Bob Riley). But combat wounds have been replaced by terminal dullness as the principal qualification for the job (Joe Purcell, Winston Bryant and Win Paul Rockefeller).

The lieutenant governor’s only duty is to preside over the somnolent state Senate three or four hours a day for 60 to 80 days every two years. If he is sick or wants a break from that torrid pace, the Senate runs very well without him. A senator steps into the chair and bills flow just as smoothly. The lieutenant governor doesn’t take sides on legislation but rather is to preside impartially.

This makes it hard to craft lively campaign issues, so candidates for the past 20 years have talked about things they would do that the job does not call for, like recruiting industries for the state. But the lieutenant governor, who is known far and wide to be utterly powerless, carries no portfolio to do that or anything else except to see that the Senate follows its rules when it is passing and defeating bills. So the voter’s first task is to ignore all those campaign promises.

Still, the decision is of some consequence because the lieutenant governor has occasionally proved to be a steppingstone to higher office. The first lieutenant governor (in 1928) and the last two became governor automatically when the governor vacated the office for one reason or another. It could pay to be careful whom you vote for.

The Democrats are state Sen. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould, Rep. Mike Hathorn of Huntsville, Bill Halter of North Little Rock and state Rep. Jay Martin of North Little Rock. Three of them have served a short time in our term-limited legislature and Halter, a Rhodes scholar and son of a longtime civil servant, had several jobs in the Clinton administration in Washington, including deputy and then acting commissioner of Social Security.

The campaign has centered on Halter because he sandbagged us by raising a big bundle of money from around the country to run for governor and then dropping off to run for the lesser job when it was clear that Mike Beebe had a lock on the Democratic nomination for governor. Hathorn has challenged the propriety of Halter’s financing and now foes have filed a lawsuit to remove him from the ballot because he has lived in the national capital for part of the past dozen years. But his voting residency has remained in the state and the courts have held that this reflects where you intend your home to be. That’s good enough for voters, too, we imagine.

All are fittingly boring men and have enough sense to preside over the Senate, and the leading candidates, Hathorn and Halter, carry a bit of youthful arrogance that puts lots of people off. And Halter is not that young either.

Nevertheless, our narrow choice is Halter simply on brains. He is smart, analytical and progressive. We could use that in an office that counts one fine day. A chastening defeat early in his political career would no doubt make him a better man, but we do not have that luxury.

(head) For the GOP: Banks

The choice is much easier in the Republican primary, where former United States Attorney Chuck Banks of Little Rock takes on two state lawmakers, state Sen. Jim Holt and Rep. Doug Matayo, both of Springdale. Banks is the choice.

Holt is the frontrunner in a race where name recognition is a premium. Holt has gotten acres of newsprint since he entered politics because of the curiosity over his childrearing. He and fellow townsman Jim Bob Duggar, who is running for Holt’s Senate seat again, between them have spawned (at our last count) 25 children, all of whom are schooled at home by the wives. Holt’s career is marked by two passions, abortion and Mexican immigrants. He doesn’t like them.

But he is running for the one job where he cannot do a thing about either problem. He cannot sponsor antiabortion bills or bills to punish either Mexicans who sneak into the country to work or their children. He is counting on voters not to know that. Matayo, a conservative Republican, says Holt is an extremist.

Banks fits the prevailing qualifications for the job best. He is boring. Or maybe we just confuse competence, thoughtfulness and dignity with dullness. But you can be all those things. Banks comes closest of all those in either primary to nonpartisan fairness. As a Reagan-appointed U.S. attorney he was diligent and evenhanded. In 1992 he refused importunities from Washington to use his office to influence the presidential race. That sounds like a pretty good qualification.