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Michael Dale Huckabee served as the forty-fourth governor of Arkansas. His personal visibility helped him to become the only Republican governor elected to two four-year terms in Arkansas, but he did little to promote the growth of a more expanded two-party system in Arkansas. His policy legacies may well be in the areas of education, environment, and health.
Mike Huckabee was born on August 24, 1955, in Hope (Hempstead County), the son of Dorsey W. and Mae (Elder) Huckabee. Huckabee's father worked as a firefighter, and his mother was employed by the Louisiana Transit Company. In 1965, he joined Garrett Memorial Baptist Church and became involved in church activities. His faith continued to play a significant role in his private and public life.
As a young man, Huckabee wanted to pursue a career in media or public service. The tumultuous national and international events of 1968 spurred his desire for a public career. In 1972, Huckabee was elected governor of Arkansas Boys State.
During his final semester at Hope High School in 1973, he dated Janet McCain. The couple married on May 25, 1974, and had three children.
Huckabee enrolled at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia (Clark County) where he majored in religion, minored in speech, and graduated after two-and-a-half years in 1975. Following his graduation, Huckabee attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for one academic year.
Evangelist James Robison hired Huckabee to be his director of communications; a post he held briefly until he returned to Arkansas in 1980, where he became the minister at Immanuel Baptist Church in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). Huckabee also pursued his interest in media by producing radio and television advertising spots as well as helping to establish KBSC television station in Texarkana (Miller County).
Huckabee moved on to become the pastor of Beech Street Baptist Church in Texarkana, and he served in that position from 1986 to 1992. During these years, he established and became president of Beech Street Communications, an organization that created television station KBSC-TV (later KLFI 35), a twenty-four-hour UHF channel. In 1989, while serving as the pastor at Beech Street Baptist Church, Huckabee was elected president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. During the two years he served as the president of that organization, people began to urge him to seek public office.
In 1992, he decided to run as the Republican candidate against the incumbent senator, Democrat Dale Bumpers. Bumpers, a popular politician, had served in the Senate since 1975 and had a well-established base in the state. Huckabee was defeated in the general election that fall, with Bumpers receiving sixty percent of the vote to Huckabee’s forty percent.
That same year, Governor Bill Clinton won the U.S. presidential election, and shortly before his inauguration in 1993, Lieutenant Governor Jim Guy Tucker was sworn in as the state’s forty-third governor. A special election was called to fill the open lieutenant governor position. Huckabee ran and won the position. As the only Republican holding statewide office, he often clashed with the Democratic Party and other Democratic officers during his first year as lieutenant governor. In 1994, however, he won a comfortable reelection with fifty-eight percent of the vote in the race against Democrat Charlie Cole Chaffin.
In 1996, Mike Huckabee decided to pursue the Senate seat being vacated by Democratic David Pryor. Huckabee was leading in the polls when Governor Jim Guy Tucker was convicted of felony fraud charges stemming from the national Whitewater investigation. Since Arkansas law prohibited convicted felons from serving as governor, Tucker announced his intention to resign. Huckabee decided to give up his bid for the U.S. Senate and was set for his swearing in ceremony as Arkansas's forty-fourth governor on July 15, 1996. Only moments before Huckabee was to take the oath of office, Tucker called the lieutenant governor and rescinded his resignation on the grounds that his appeals had not been completed and that new evidence had arisen. This presented the state with a looming constitutional crisis for several hours until Tucker decided to reinstate his resignation after Huckabee threatened to call lawmakers for an emergency legislative session to consider Tucker’s impeachment.
As only the second Republican governor since Winthrop Rockefeller in a primarily Democratic state, Huckabee faced many political challenges. One of his first acts was the creation of a program labeled ARKids First. The initiative called for a medical insurance plan for the thousands of children of families who could not afford private insurance and who were ineligible for Medicaid. He also supported and promoted Amendment 75, a 1/8-cent sales tax that created increased revenue for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the Department of Parks and Tourism, and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.
In 1998, Huckabee ran for election and won with 59.7 percent of the vote over Democratic challenger Bill Bristow. Following the election, he led a campaign to rebuild the state highway system by supporting a substantial bond initiative, and he pushed for Arkansas’s tobacco settlement to be used for the state's health care system.
Education was a dominant issue for Huckabee. Early in his first full term, he enacted two programs targeting school children and achievement. The first was Smart Start, which placed emphasis on the promotion of math and reading skills for students from kindergarten to fourth grade; an additional plan called Smart Step pushed for achievement in the same areas for students from fifth to eighth-grade students. Also during his first full term, Huckabee began to find leadership posts within regional organizations. In 1999, he became the chair of the Southern Governor’s Association and later the chairman of the Southern Growth Policies Board.
While Huckabee achieved several significant political and policy victories following 1998, many public relation incidents began to plague him toward the end of his first term. One concerned the renovation of the Governors' Mansion. While the mansion needed the upgrade, Huckabee received criticism from opponents and in the media for the cost of the renovation and for the triple-wide mobile home that was brought to the grounds for the family to live in during the remodeling. Critics said that by living in the mobile home, Huckabee was promoting a national stereotype of the state. Huckabee attempted to ease the situation by appearing on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and by eventually donating the mobile home to a sheriff’s ranch for disadvantaged and troubled youth in Clark County.
Around the same time, Huckabee was criticized for a comment he made on New York radio program, during which he referred to Arkansas’s electoral system as one akin to a “Banana Republic.” The statement produced critical statements from the state’s press and from a fairly large public arena.
While many of the state’s governors have exercised their power to issue pardons and clemency, Huckabee received attention toward the end of his first term for several high-profile pardons and commuted sentences. In addition to political opponents and the press, some victim’s rights groups also created unpleasant public relations situation for the governor’s office. Additionally, Janet Huckabee had decided to run for the secretary of state position in 2002, and opponents argued against a husband and wife holding two statewide constitutional offices at the same time.
These issues followed Huckabee into the 2002 gubernatorial election. That year, the Democratic Party saw an opening and began to organize a stronger opposition to his reelection. State Treasurer Jimmie Lou Fisher was chosen as the Democratic nominee. The criticism that Mike Huckabee had received during the previous years caused the race to seem fairly close. Following a spirited campaign, Huckabee was able to defeat Fisher by a margin of fifty-three percent to Fisher’s forty-seven percent. Janet Huckabee lost her bid for secretary of state to Commissioner of State Lands Charlie Daniels.
Huckabee faced one of his greatest political challenges shortly following his third inauguration in 2003. In the Arkansas court case Lake View School District, No. 25 of Phillips County, et al. vs. Mike Huckabee, Governor of the State of Arkansas, et al., the Arkansas Supreme Court declared that the state’s process of school funding was unconstitutional. The court additionally ruled that Arkansas needed to establish a fair system by the end of 2004. A court decision as early as 1994 had found the school funding system inequitable, but subsequent appeals had kept the rulings from being enforced. The 2002 Lake View ruling had created an urgent issue for the state.
To meet the requirements of the ruling, Huckabee proposed a plan that would consolidate many small school districts. The plan proved controversial in several rural areas, as well as among superintendents and many legislators, and the 2003 General Assembly failed to produce any resolutions. Later that year, Huckabee called the legislature into special session, and after much debate and compromise, a consolidation plan was passed. Many rural districts were allowed to find consolidation partners among schools in their vicinity. This process continued into 2004. The same year, Huckabee began to find leadership positions within national organizations. In 2005, he became the chairman of the National Governor’s Association, and he became the chairman the Education Commission of States. He also served as chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board.
Huckabee was also instrumental in passing the Covenant Marriage Act of 2001, and later, on Valentine’s Day of 2005, the governor and his wife participated in a large gathering of 8,000 Arkansans at Alltel Arena in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), all of whom expressed their desire to support and reaffirm their marriages.
Huckabee’s personal story also gained national attention in 2004 after he lost 110 pounds and changed his diet and exercise habits. That same year, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that sixty-three percent of adult Arkansans were either overweight or obese. Using his personal story, the Huckabee launched a program called “Healthy Arkansas” in 2004 to promote more healthy lifestyles among all Arkansans.
During 2004, the governor’s name began to be mentioned as a possible contender for the 2008 Republican nomination for president. Huckabee opened an office in Washington DC and started to travel regularly to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other areas of the nation to test these prospects. Late in 2005, Time magazine listed Huckabee among the five most effective governors in the nation. While in office, Huckabee authored five books: Character is the Issue (1997), Kids Who Kill (1998), Living beyond Your Lifetime (2000), Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork (2005), and From Hope to Higher Ground (2007). Because of term limits, Huckabee was not eligible to run for reelection in 2006.
Huckabee announced his intention to run for president in January 2007. His campaign attracted a great deal of attention from religious conservatives, and he won the Iowa Republican Caucus the following January. He won several primary victories throughout the South, including Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee, and he also captured a noteworthy victory in Kansas. However, he bowed out of the race in March after U.S. Senator John McCain scored enough delegates to win the nomination. He subsequently provided political commentary to the Fox News channel and was given his own weekend talk show, Huckabee, which first aired in September. He also published a campaign memoir, Do the Right Thing (2008), and has continued writing and publishing other books.
Huckabee moved to Florida in 2010. He began a new three-hour talk-radio show produced by Curtis Media, The Mike Huckabee Show, in April 2012, but it came to an end in December 2013.
For additional information:Huckabee, Mike. Character is the Issue: How People with Integrity Can Revolutionize America. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997.
Riddle, William H. “The Interpersonal Dynamics of a Modern Political Family: An Interpretive Biography of Governor Mike Huckabee.” PhD diss, University of Louisiana at Monroe, 2012.
Sabin, Warwick. “Huckabee for President?” Arkansas Times. September 22, 2005, pp. 14–17.
Ouachita Baptist University
Last Updated 12/2/2013
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