Friday, October 31, 2014

TOP STORY >> It’s Hays against Hill

Special to The Leader

If the election for Second District congressman were a race between fetching names, who would win, Patrick Henry Hays or J. French Hill?

It is not a wholly absurd question because, at least as much as the reputations and issues, their names seem to be motivations for voters in the seven-county district that stretches from the hills north of Clinton to the Scott plantations. Polls, by the way, show the men running nearly even.

Hays does not go around proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” or “If this be treason, make the most of it!”—the famous battle cries of the revolutionary Patrick Henry, for whom he was named—nor does Hill try to make any use of popular French images. But they are both good names for a politician, memorable and suggestive. (It has nothing to do with candidate Hill, but French Hill also is a famous Israeli settlement in Jerusalem, often in the news, that has been a historic battleground between Arabs and Israelis since Israel annexed it in the Six-Day War in 1967.)

For Hill, a wealthy banker from a patrician Arkansas family, the name has sometimes been a problem as well as an advantage. Hill had a nasty but easy primary fight to win the Republican nomination against Col. Conrad Reynolds and state Rep. Anne Clemmer. They characterized him as a rich plutocrat who didn’t share the concerns of ordinary Arkansans.

“With all of the problems in Washington,” Reynolds said, “I think we need a bulldog in Congress, not a French poodle.”

Clemmer’s ads referred to him as “Fancy Fat Cat French Hill.” “What a phony!” she added.” Hill carried Little Rock’s affluent west side by huge margins and won easily.

Hays, the Democrat, has not resorted to name-calling like that, but his ads and those of independent groups that support him make the most of Hill’s somewhat aristocratic heritage. Hill has countered with ads about the “old” 1998 Volvo that he drives.

“My dad’s been driving ‘Old Blue’ since before I was born,” Hill’s daughter said in one big ad buy. “He watches every penny.” The Huffington Post and Hays’ team then countered the Old Blue ads by revealing that Hill’s garages also sport a super-expensive Mercedes-Benz and a BMW. Hill’s wife, Martha, is a lobbyist for health-care and other industries at one of Little Rock’s largest law firms.

The cultural and philosophical divide between the two men match the advertising rhetoric.

J. French Hill is a ninth-generation Arkansan, his campaign website notes. He received an economics degree at Vanderbilt University at Nashville and a Certified Corporate Director designation by the Graduate Management School at the University of Southern California. He had a couple of jobs in the administration of the first President George Bush, deputy assistant secretary for corporate finance in the Treasury Department and executive secretary of Bush’s Economic Policy Council. He was president, CEO and chairman of Delta Trust and Banking Corporation since it was formed 20 years ago and acquired a bank charter at Parkdale in Ashley County.

His bank was sold to Simmons First National Corp. of Pine Bluff for $66 million last spring as Hill entered the congressional race. The sale brought charges that Hill had pocketed a small fortune from the sale while many employees of the bank were to lose their jobs. Hill was saying that he would work to create jobs as a congressman. His key is to cut the taxes of corporations so they can compete worldwide and restrain government regulation and taxes.

Hays’ grandfather and father were locomotive engineers and his father was a leader of the railroad union.

“Pat,” as he is commonly called, received a bachelor’s degree and a law degree from the University of Arkansas, practiced law for a time, served a single term in the Arkansas House of Representatives in 1987-88 and then was elected mayor of North Little Rock in 1988. He served 24 years as mayor and generally gets credit for the city’s economic and cultural resurgence. The city’s services generally exceed those of its big neighbor, Little Rock.

When there were plans to build a big sports and entertainment arena in the metropolitan area and a new stadium for Little Rock’s professional baseball team, the Arkansas Travelers, Hays worked out deals to have them both built on his side of the river. The crumbling downtown was revitalized as the Argenta Arts District and became a thriving business and cultural venue, the city’s water system was merged into the Central Arkansas water system, and the sprawling Burns Park was improved. Two decades of declining population reversed.

Owing partly to his name and a statewide newspaper that reported on North Little Rock daily, Hays entered the race with unusual name recognition throughout the district.

He started to run for U.S. Senate in 1998 when Dale Bumpers retired but decided it would disrupt his family. He didn’t run for re-election in 2012 and soon began preparing to run for Congress. With early polls showing Hays well ahead of Rep. Tim Griffin before he even announced, Griffin announced he would not run again after only two terms. When the Republican lieutenant governor was forced to resign early this year, Griffin jumped into that race.

Hays said he decided to run for Congress after seeing the wreckage in Washington when the partisan standoff led to a shutdown of the government. Cooler heads somehow must prevail, he said. He thought he could corral the same cooperation in Congress that he achieved with the historically rancorous North Little Rock City Council although he will find Congress a much more stubborn legislative body than his city’s aldermen.

Hill has enjoyed the same advantage as every other Republican candidate in Arkansas—a black Democratic president who is extremely unpopular in Arkansas. Like every other Republican, he has exploited the advantage, linking Hays to Barack Obama on every occasion and often to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is as unpopular in the South as the president, if not as well known.

He promises to vote to repeal the 2010 health-reform law, known as Obamacare, just as Republicans have done many times since its passage, although Republicans generally acknowledge that the law cannot be repealed but perhaps modified. Hays says he will not vote to repeal the law but will work to make changes in it, just as Congress has repeatedly reformed Social Security and Medicare.

But Hill also favors repealing the so-called “private-option,” Arkansas’s peculiar version of the Medicaid expansion authorized by Obamacare. The Arkansas legislature, not Congress, will have to do that. Hays says the legislature should not end the Medicaid expansion because it would throw more than 210,000 Arkansans off insurance rolls.

It is not clear how that issue cuts politically in the Second District, where most legislators, Republican and Democrats supported the private option. About 65,000 of Hill’s Second District constituents would have their health insurance and ready access to doctor and hospital care ended.

Hill is virtually alone among both Democrats and Republicans on the minimum wage. He has opposed the concept of a minimum wage—of the government telling businesses they cannot pay rock-bottom wages to their employees.

But while other Republicans who have opposed minimum-wage laws in concept have come around to saying they will vote for the initiated wage floor that is on the ballot, Hill has steadfastly refused to say how he will actually vote on it. Polls show a large majority of voters supporting the wage law.

Hill said the higher minimum wage—to $8.50 an hour in 2017—will cost jobs and would do nothing to bring a genuinely poor family out of poverty. He eventually said he would vote for the Arkansas proposal if he could be absolutely convinced that it would not cost any jobs, but he has refused to say whether or not he had seen convincing evidence.

Hays said he could not understand why Hill and Standiford would not support a minimum wage so modest when it would improve the lives of thousands of Arkansans and give the economy a boost.

Both Hays and Hill received plaudits before October for running positive and cheerful ads and avoiding the name-calling and distortions that characterized all the other campaigns. But both then turned bitterly negative the last month of the race. It is hard to say who was first. But the blizzard of negative ads followed word that outside super-PACs were dumping millions into the campaign.

The Hill campaign and its independent stand-ins accused Hays of raising taxes in North Little Rock and using the taxes to raise his own salary several times. Actually, the City Council raises taxes and fixes the salaries. Hays said he did not ask for salary increases and that his salary when he was mayor was comparable to that of mayors of other cities in North Little Rock’s population range in Arkansas and lower than elsewhere.

So by this weekend, the question is how much, over 45 days, Hays’ image has been changed from effective mayor, bridge builder and disciple of the famous American revolutionary to greedy taxer, spender and Obama slave, and for Hill from civic-minded banker and Republican brain-truster to selfish protector of the well-to-do and corporations and bane of the working stiffs.