Performance at the Capitol
John Brummett John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.
If you’re the governor and your prison director is seeking to do your bidding but runs into resis- tance from the Board of Corrections, there are a couple of ways to go. One is the way such things usually have been handled in state government. The governor, normally not a hyperpartisan person, meets with the resisters. He figures out the hangup and either privately jawbones or negotiates the matter to a reasonable solution. It’s treated as an executive matter requiring executive behavior from the chief executive of the state. The other is the way Sarah Sanders did it last week, which was to perform as Tommy Robinson Lite in a political job requiring political behavior. Sometimes an exception to those two options might occur if differences erupt openly when a legislative committee gets involved. And I remember that the late Frank White, during his two years in office, granted me a rare interview when I asked his press office about a report that he’d cowed the prison director. He didn’t mind at all getting out the word that he’d forced tough new prison policy on the director and board. It was one of those “then I told him” kinds of autobiographically heroic narratives. Generally, though, governors have worked it out in a style generally shared by Mike Beebe and Asa Hutchinson. But Sarah did it her and Captain Hot Dog’s way last week. She demagogued about her toughness on crime and her resisters’ supposed lack thereof. That invoked the memory of 1980s-era Pulaski County Sheriff Tommy Robinson, a.k.a. Captain Hot Dog. But she did not go as far as to chain overcrowded county-jail inmates to the state prison fence. Thus, she was only Tommy Robinson Lite, which is still a lot, too much. Sanders is influenced by the huffy and divisive bluster of Donald Trump. She has a grandstanding nature of her own. She is experienced as a political operative, not an executive. She jumps at chances to exploit matters for political benefit rather than deal with them in executive style for smooth operation. Smooth operations are for governors not obsessed with frolicking on the national political playground. And Sanders is still probably trying to change the subject from that lectern. She called a news conference to assail prison board members for neglect and bureaucratic obstruction. They’d declined to go along with her prison director on adding beds at once in several state facilities to ease county-jail crowding. She was joined by Attorney General Tim Griffin. She and he engaged in a little sparring over which could go farther in accusing the Correction Board members of being weak on crime. This matter serves as an example of Sanders’ redefining the governor’s job from nonpartisan and problem-solving to partisan and exploitative. And that will probably solve the specific problem, leading her resisters to wilt and cow. In another day, a governor would have been confronted with the prison board’s inaction and said, “get those SOBs in here,” by which he’d have meant the prison board members to a meeting in his office. Sanders, too, said, “get those SOBs in here,” so to speak. But she referred to reporters for her on-camera performance about shaking up the tired status quo. She had that line to deliver—that there would be no tolerance of softness on crime while she was governor. No one in this story is soft on crime. The fact of the matter is that the board agreed with the governor’s prison director to approve new beds at a couple of facilities. And, on the other expansion recommendations, the board voted only to put the matters aside temporarily to await more information. The agenda for the meeting hadn’t listed anything about a vote, but only an information update. One report was that prison board chairman Benny Magness was surprised when called by a reporter for a response to being attacked by the governor at a news conference. It’s a new day. Now a veteran state board member needs to watch the local television news to see if that strawman getting kicked by the governor bears a resemblance to him. It’s political performance over courtesy and usual procedure. None of this has anything constructive to do with the important policy debate on whether to deal with crime with more prison beds and tighter parole laws or with so-called holistic methods. I’m for both. I favor the state’s lightening the load on county jails. I favor tougher release policies for bad guys. But I also favor keeping some offenders out of prison to leave room for the bad guys to stay longer. But this dust-up wasn’t much about policy. Arkansas has decided on that for now: Lock ’em up, more of ’em, longer. This was all about Sarah Sanders, as most of her things are, except for the supporting role that was allowed Tim Griffin, who may be something of a Lieutenant Hot Dog himself.