Sen. Johnny Key of Mountain Home, who opted not to run for re-election to seek the top lobbying job at the University of Arkansas but wasn’t chosen, has a lobbying job with the University of Arkansas after all. He’ll be working for the UA System, however, not the UA campus in Fayetteville.

Earlier this week, Chancellor David Gearhart announced he’d chosen Randy Massanelli, a top aide to U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, over two other finalists, including key, to succeed retiring lobbyist Richard Hudson this summer. Massanelli will be paid $175,000. Key will be paid $130,000. It’s not a new job as far as being an authorized position for the system, but it has not been filled previously. A start date for the job is being negotiated, a spokesman said.


Today came a news release from the University of Arkansas System that Key  will be on the UA lobbying team after all.

Legislators normally have a one-year cooling-off period before they can take lobbying jobs. But state jobs are exempt from this rule. Legislators also may not be hired for state jobs while sitting in the legislature. A UA spokesman had told me originally that Key’s start date was up in the air, but Key has now told me by e-mail that he intends to complete his term in the Senate and begin the UA job in January.


That eliminates any questions about the need for a special election to fill any vacancy left in Key’s term. Three Republicans are seeking the seat in the primary election. There are no Democratic candidates.

It would be easy to be cynical about the sudden appearance of Key in a job not previously filled. And there will never be the hiring of a legislator by a public agency whose budget he once oversaw that should get a pass on close inspection. But Key holds a higher degree of credibility than, say, Gilbert Baker, whose incessant partisan lobbying and fund-raising were well-known before UCA hired him as a lobbyist and got even sleazier afterward, finally leading to his departure amid multiple investigations. I’d be surprised if Johnny Key makes similar headlines.


The UA also will be forgiven by somefor bowing to demands of the Republican majority. In keeping with D.C. tradition, the GOP thinking is that Republicans should be hired for lobbying jobs when Republicans control a legislatie body and Democrats should be shunned. Rising Senate leader Jonathan Dismang made it clear in a Democrat-Gazette interview that he felt a Republican should be chosen for the first UA job. It’s a hint of the brutal partisanship that will soon make Little Rock a miniature version of Washington. But I’ll concede again that, of the Republican legislators, Key enjoys one of the best reputations for bipartisanship. He is, as I’ve noted before, well attuned to the education agenda of the Walton billionaires, who are increasingly influential at both the UA and in the legislature.

The University of Arkansas System release explains some ethical issues that had arisen previously in the discussion of a legislator taking a lobbying job.


University of Arkansas System President Donald R. Bobbitt has named State Senator Johnny Key associate vice president for university relations for the UA System.

Key will assist Melissa Rust, vice president for university relations, in the coordination of the government relations efforts of the 18 campuses, units and divisions of the UA System. Key’s start date in the position is being negotiated and will follow the conclusion of his service in the Arkansas State Senate.

Key, who was recently a finalist for the position of vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, was an ideal choice to fill a need for additional government relations support across the system, Bobbitt said.

“We’ve had a need for some time to bring on someone to help Melissa, who essentially works for all 18 UA System entities to educate policymakers on the many issues we are facing in higher education,” Bobbitt said. “Johnny Key has been fully vetted through the search process at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to hire him to join our team at the UA System. His service as a lawmaker has given him a unique perspective on the legislative process and I know his knowledge and skills will be an asset to our government relations efforts.”

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the University of Arkansas System and all of its campuses and units in this capacity,” Key said. “I have always had a passion for improving our state’s educational system to benefit all Arkansans and I’m honored to have an opportunity to use that passion to advance higher education.”

Key was elected to the Arkansas State Senate in 2008, representing portions of Baxter, Boone and Marion counties. He has served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee and vice chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, among other roles. He’s also served as a vice chairman of the Education Standing Committee and a member of the Budgets and Review Standing Committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Previously, Key served as a justice of the peace on the Baxter County Quorum Court followed by a six-year term in the Arkansas House of Representatives. He is a graduate of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, with a degree in chemical engineering.

“I’m so pleased that Johnny Key has agreed to take on this role,” said Rust, who served as a member of the search committee that named Key as a finalist for vice chancellor for university relations at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. “Because we serve such a large and diverse system, we deal with a range of issues that impact all parts of higher education. Having someone with Johnny’s skill set on board will only complement and enhance our ability to serve the many needs across the system.”

As a condition of his employment, Key has agreed to only participate in activities that are consistent with Arkansas law and the rules and regulations of the Arkansas Ethics Commission. As a retiring lawmaker, he will not be allowed to register as a lobbyist, under A.C.A. 21-1-402, for one year from the expiration of his term in office. In the absence of registration, Key is allowed to lobby in an official capacity as an employee of the UA System, pursuant to A.C.A. 21-8-601 and Section 504 of the Rules and Regulations of the Arkansas Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission stated in Advisory Opinion 93-EC-004 that a “public servant, acting on behalf of the interests of [her] his agency, is free to advise, consult, testify, encourage or object to legislation or administrative regulations which affect the agency,” and that “such action as being within the public servant’s official capacity.” 

Key had said previously, that if hired for the UA campus job, that he would not make expenditures and seek reimbursements as registered lobbyists are able to do during the one-year period, such as spending on entertainment.