This partnership, or whatever it is, between Mike Ross, Democratic candidate for governor, and John Burkhalter, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, isn’t earth-shattering, but it is interesting.
The two stood side by side to endorse each other during a press conference June 15, where Ross said that, if both were elected, he would appoint Burkhalter to chair what he called a "Governor’s Cabinet for Economic Development."
That was kind of a big deal because they both have Democratic primary opponents. Ross faces former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter while Burkhalter faces Little Rock School Board President Dianne Curry.
Candidates for governor and lieutenant governor typically don’t have much to do with each other. It’s hard enough managing one’s own campaign. There was an exception back in the 1960s, when Winthrop Rockefeller was trying to build the Republican Party and was elected to two terms as governor campaigning with his lieutenant governor, Maurice "Footsie" Britt, a Medal of Honor recipient. The two were friendly enough that Rockefeller joked about Britt’s "lieutenant governor handshake" – one finger placed on the governor’s wrist hoping to find there was no longer a pulse. They even had "Rockefeller-Britt" yard signs printed, just like the presidential and vice presidential candidates do.
The Ross and Burkhalter campaigns plan to run separate operations and won’t print joint yard signs, but they ought to seriously consider it if they both win the primary. Ross has spent his career as a moderate Democrat, while Burkhalter is an independently wealthy contractor and engineer. Together they could try to run on a "Jobs First" platform, a message that was displayed on the sign behind them during their joint announcement. Also on the sign were the words "Focused on the Future," which they’ll have to be because Republicans will win a lot of votes focusing on President Obama, who is very unpopular in Arkansas.
Putting the politics aside, working together now would serve the candidates well when they actually start governing, which is supposed to be the point of all this. It’s questionable whether Arkansas even needs a lieutenant governor, but if we’re going to have one, he or she ought to have something to do besides the office’s only two constitutional responsibilities: presiding over the Senate when it’s in session, and acting as governor when the elected governor is out of state or incapacitated. Leading a Governor’s Cabinet for Economic Development would seem to be an appropriate task for Burkhalter, who also served on the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and now serves on the Highway Commission.
The past few governor-lieutenant governor combinations have not always been good fits. Beebe and the current lieutenant governor, Mark Darr, are of different parties and were at odds this past session over Darr’s signing of a gun bill while Beebe was out of state. Beebe and the previous lieutenant governor, Halter, were not exactly buddies. Going back a few years, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and then-Lt. Governor Mike Huckabee also were of opposite parties and not always on the same page.
Gov. Huckabee and Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller, both Republicans, spent most of a decade just down the hall from each other in the Capitol. They were friendly, but they were never close partners until near the end of their time in office, when Rockefeller vocally supported Huckabee’s plan to consolidate school districts. It was an unpopular position, and Huckabee was genuinely touched by having a teammate in his corner during a time when he was taking a lot of heat from every direction. In fact, they both became pretty loyal to each other.
You think a guy named Rockefeller could have chaired a Governor’s Cabinet for Economic Development? Maybe if the two had been partners from the beginning, he would have.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.