By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- When the idea for a proclamation declaring Christian Heritage Week came up in 1994, Jim Guy Tucker, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, would not sign it. His aides said he did not think it was appropriate to honor a particular faith.
But when Tucker went out of town for a week and Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee became the acting chief executive, the Baptist minister enthusiastically signed the proclamation, declaring at a later celebration that he was taking a stand against "Christophobia."
"It's a new word. I just made it up," Huckabee said, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Some people talk about homophobia; I've been hearing Christophobia."
Other executives have signed similar proclamations, but in Huckabee's case his aggressive, in-your-face efforts for the symbolic cause exemplify the central role his religious beliefs played in setting policy in Arkansas, first as lieutenant governor and then as governor.
Huckabee's moral certainty revealed a public official quite different from the affable, folksy campaigner who describes himself as a conservative, but one who is "not angry about it." His decisions have opened him to criticism from the left and the right, as liberals and conservatives have complained that his religious devotion has clouded good judgment.
His detractors point to a governor who became indignant at criticism of his personal behavior, particularly after it was disclosed that he had accepted tens of thousands of dollars in gifts from supporters. And they say his views resulted in petty conflicts over matters such as Christian Heritage Week or his refusal to sign a disaster relief bill until legislators removed the words "acts of God" to describe tornadoes because Huckabee argued that God was protecting people from tornadoes, not causing them.
To his admirers, both liberal and conservative, his religious views have been an asset. Supporters have seen Huckabee's strong opposition to abortion, his push to get health insurance for lower-income children and an unsuccessful initiative to allow the children of illegal immigrants to get college tuition breaks as expressions of the compassion he has drawn from his faith.
"He's very concerned about children and people who are less fortunate," said Jerry Cox, a Huckabee supporter who runs the conservative Family Council of Arkansas. "He's a compassionate person towards individuals who need a second chance, which I suppose can be good and bad."
Huckabee, whose sudden rise in the polls has transformed the Republican presidential race, won four elections in this unusual Southern state, where the governor's office, both U.S. Senate seats and the legislature are controlled by Democrats.
After a stint as the head of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, Huckabee's first run for public office was a 1992 bid for the Senate on a platform that included many of the issues of the emerging religious right, particularly limiting abortion rights.
He lost that race, but Huckabee won a special election for lieutenant governor the next year. Three years later, Huckabee became governor after Tucker resigned following convictions for conspiracy and mail fraud as part of the Whitewater investigation.
Huckabee's political career started in the antiabortion movement. While a pastor in the 1980s, he worked as a local organizer for an Arkansas ballot amendment that would ban all public funding for abortions except those required to save the life of the woman.
Early in Huckabee's tenure as governor, an unidentified 15-year-old girl had an abortion after being raped by her stepfather. When the clinic sought reimbursement for the procedure through Medicaid, the state declined.
The amendment to the state constitution that Huckabee had worked to get passed did not include an exception for rape or incest. Federal law allows Medicaid funds to be used for abortions in such cases, but Huckabee stood firm, saying he did not want to violate the state's antiabortion measure.
As a compromise, Huckabee set up a special private fund where donors could help fund abortions for women who could not afford them.
Huckabee's effectiveness on restricting abortions was nearly absolute. Cox said he remembers chatting with Huckabee's aides about what antiabortion measures they should pursue, and everyone reaching the same conclusion: After almost a decade with Huckabee as governor, Arkansas had done everything it could to limit abortion as long as Roe v. Wade was still in force.
But Huckabee did not solely focus on abortion and other social issues, and his positions were not always typical of a conservative. His proposal to offer in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, for example, was not just opposed by Republicans, it was more liberal than the position of many Democrats in the legislature.
Likewise, expanding health insurance to low-income children was not a priority when Huckabee entered office. But after a 1997 meeting with Amy Rossi, a children's rights advocate, the governor dropped plans for a $25 tax rebate to everyone in the state, persuaded instead to back expanded health insurance to uninsured children who did not qualify for Medicaid. It was an achievement he now singles out as one of the most important of his governorship.
And to fund programs to improve roads and schools, Huckabee advocated a policy that has left him open to attacks from his GOP primary opponents: raising taxes.
"If you deem that all new revenue sources, your proposals or mine, are indeed dead on arrival, then you'll be saying that teacher pay increases are dead, scholarships are dead, medicine for the elderly is dead," he said in a 2003 speech to Arkansas lawmakers that his GOP opponents have seized on.
Huckabee has signed a pledge not to raise taxes as president, though in Arkansas he supported several increases, including in taxes on gas, nursing homes and sales.
As governor, Huckabee was unusually active in another area: reducing prison sentences. Huckabee not only pardoned or reduced 1,033 sentences, more than double the actions by his three predecessors, but he reduced the sentences of 11 convicted murderers, according to a tally by the Democrat-Gazette. A Huckabee spokeswoman said that because of changes in state law, Huckabee had many more applicants than his predecessors and denied the vast majority of requests.
Huckabee's push for the release of convicted rapist Wayne Dumond, who killed a woman after he left prison, became a campaign issue this month when victims' families criticized him.
On the stump, Huckabee has defended his record, arguing that many of the people whose sentences he reduced deserved second chances.
Chris Pyle, Huckabee's liaison to the state's religious community, said, "I don't think it was a notion of forgiveness as much as desire to see justice executed evenly, which is a component of his faith."
But victims' rights advocates worried that Huckabee personalized the pardon process. Two men convicted of violent crimes, one for armed robbery, another for murder, got reduced sentences after they served as helpers in the governor's mansion as part of their incarceration and got to know people around Huckabee.
One family was furious to find that the governor referred to the man who had killed their relative by his first name.
"I always liked Huckabee. I was one of those who voted for him until he started letting murderers and rapists out," said Dee Engle, who works for a group in Little Rock that represents families of murdered children. "Calling them by their first name is unacceptable."
In 1999, explaining a decision to reduce the sentence of a man on death row to life in prison, Huckabee said: "I am fully aware of the likely reaction to this decision and further realize the gravity of such a decision. But I must stand ultimately before God and account for my decision. I'd rather face the anger of people than the anger of God."
Still, nothing opened him to more criticism than his acceptance of thousands of dollars in gifts, even though they were legal. The Huckabees used a state fund for improving the governor's mansion to buy personal items such as pantyhose. When Huckabee was leaving office, the couple set up a registry for people to give them gifts for their post-gubernatorial home. An ethics board here found that Huckabee violated the law five times in not disclosing income on time or not filling out the proper paperwork for gifts and money earned from speeches.