LITTLE ROCK — There’s a simple truth about the lieutenant governor’s office that helped get Mark Darr elected to the position more than three years ago. It’s the same truth that could spell the Republican’s doom as he grapples with a growing call to resign over his ethics woes.
Without any real power attached to it, the Arkansas lieutenant governor’s influence depends more on personality than policy. It’s an office where symbolism trumps substance.
It’s a truth that past lieutenant governors have been able to exploit as they worked in an office where they didn’t have a veto and only had a vote in the rare instance of a tie in the 35-member Senate they oversaw.
Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter used that symbolic power to successfully advocate for his pet cause, a state-run lottery to raise money for college scholarships. The late Win Rockefeller used it to advocate for the state’s economic development interests.
Darr’s ethics woes are testing whether he has any symbolic power left. After agreeing to an $11,000 fine over ethical violations tied to his office and campaign spending, Darr has rebuffed calls from a Democratic governor and the state’s top Republicans to resign.
It was a mix of personality and politics that helped Darr ascend to the No. 2 elected office in the state. Then, as a 37-year-old pizza restaurant owner who had never run for office before, Darr in 2010 defeated a veteran state senator after vowing to fight President Barack Obama and be a counterweight to the state’s top elected Democrats.
“I think it’s good to know that your leaders are sticking up for the people of Arkansas,” Darr said in 2010.
But Darr’s accomplishments since taking office in January 2011 have been more about style. Aside from successfully pushing for the creation of an “online checkbook” where Arkansas taxpayers can see how their money is being spent, Darr has few policy accomplishments that he can point to as lieutenant governor.
Most of Darr’s accomplishments instead boiled down to image. After vowing to use his office to fight the federal health care law, he signed on to a friend of the court brief as an individual supporting a lawsuit filed by Missouri’s lieutenant governor challenging the overhaul.
Even his high-profile act of defiance last year — signing a measure making secret the state’s concealed carry permit list — seemed more about poking at Democrats than policy. Signing while Gov. Mike Beebe was out of a state a bill fractured an already uneasy relationship with Beebe and only expedited by a couple days the effective date of a measure the Democratic governor planned to allow to go into law without his signature.
Darr’s strategy is one that has worked for his predecessors. Despite a rocky relationship with the state’s political establishment, Halter succeeded with his lottery proposal by taking the idea directly to voters after lawmakers rejected the plan. The office is what you make of it.
Darr’s chief problem now is there’s little he can do to redeem himself in the eyes of voters or legislators as he faces growing calls to resign.
House Democrats are also threatening the possibility of impeachment if Darr doesn’t step down soon, a move that could gain support from Republicans who have been joining the resignation demands. GOP figures calling for him to step down include state Rep. Andy Mayberry, one of two Republicans running for Darr’s post this year.
“In his role presiding over the Senate, I believe Lt. Gov. Darr’s presence during the upcoming fiscal session could prove to be an unnecessary distraction as the legislature hopes to focus its full attention on other important issues facing our state,” said Mayberry, who has said he hopes impeachment is not necessary.
Mayberry’s comment reflects a concern growing among Republicans that Darr won’t just overshadow the fiscal session, but an election that the GOP believes could mark the end of the state Democratic Party’s dominance. With little policy power and few symbolic gestures left, Darr risks being seen less as a player and more as a sideshow.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo