It was supposed to be simple: Jim Guy Tucker would formally resign as governor Monday, and Mike Huckabee would be sworn in as his replacement.
By 2 p.m., hundreds of joyous supporters, including a busload of friends from Texarkana’s Beech Street Baptist Church, which Huckabee once pastored, were waiting on the Capitol lawn for Huckabee to emerge. And they waited. Finally came word that there was a problem. The political turmoil that ensued was reminiscent more of a banana republic than an orderly democratic institution.
For weeks, Tucker had told friends that he should have declared a “disability” rather than immediately announcing plans to resign the governorship after a federal jury convicted him of conspiracy and mail fraud May 28. But until Friday, friends say, he saw no good reason to change course.
Friday, Tucker filed a motion in federal court asking for his conviction to be set aside because one of the jurors might have been biased against him. The juror, Renee Johnson, apparently planned at the time of her selection to the jury to marry a convicted criminal who had tried, but failed, to receive clemency from Tucker. The wedding took place in the midst of Tucker’s trial.
“He really began to believe the evidence was so powerful the verdict would be set aside,” says a friend.
Tucker agonized about his resignation over the weekend and through the day on Monday. One source says he prepared two letters–one an unqualified resignation, and the other the “disability” option. At the governor’s office, he was joined by his wife, Betty, and Presbyterian minister, Bill Poe. His agonizing continued. Finally, at 1:45 p.m., a tearful Tucker walked out of his office and told a shocked staff that he would not be resigning. And 10 minutes later–with only five minutes to spare before the swearing-in–he notified Huckabee himself, who was stunned by the news.
Tucker then passed the letter to Sen. President Pro Tem Stanley Russ and Secretary of State Sharon Priest, and it was soon read on the floor of the House, where the assembled members of the Senate, House and Supreme Court sat slackjawed.
Huckabee and his suddenly unemployed staff could not have been placed in a tighter jam. (Some of them reportedly were so concerned they called former employers checking to see if their old jobs were still available.)
Huckabee was potentially the biggest loser. He had dropped out of a Senate race to take over as governor. A return of Tucker to power would leave him in a minor state job, and no option of returning to the Senate race.
A man obsessed
Tucker was hardly thinking about Huckabee. Instead, he was obsessed with the possibility that he might resign and then be exonerated. He gave too little thought to the public outcry that would follow a politician’s breaking of a promise to resign. Never mind that, on Monday, no greater legal reason existed to compel him to resign than had existed for seven weeks. It was simply that the people were ready and, no small factor, the TV cameras were rolling.
Old friends like Jim Pledger and Hayes McClerkin, and presumably Sens. David Pryor and Dale Bumpers, whose counsel Tucker also sought, cautioned Tucker against clinging to power. But there were other friends who, if not supportive of a change of direction, minimized the outcry. They were no prophets.
All across the Capitol, Democrats and Republicans shook their heads in disbelief. Republicans were alternately furious, frustrated and jubilant. They knew Tucker had created a political meltdown for the 60 Democratic legislative candidates with Republican opposition. Cabinet-level advisers couldn’t hide their unhappiness.
“I think it was a terrible decision,” said Richard Weiss, director of the Department of Finance and Administration. “I think it was the worst possible decision he could have made for the state … and for his family.”
After making a brief statement to the press, Tucker walked past a crowd of booing, hissing Republicans (some of the angriest held babes in arms) and went to a Pleasant Valley house, a new home rented to him by longtime supporter Sam Winstead. Then his entire staff walked out the door, leaving only receptionist Angela Watson—-and later a group of Huckabee volunteers—to struggle with the huge flow of phone calls.
By now, hundreds of Republican well-wishers were flooding the Capitol halls in search of answers, and Attorney General Winston Bryant, who had heard rumors of Tucker’s plans, was preparing a lawsuit to remove Tucker from office. At 2:55 p.m., the Republican crowd followed Huckabee to the doors of the House, where Huckabee made a brief speech, called for a meeting with legislative leaders and announced plans for a television address.
Huckabee moved to his office, followed by House Speaker Bobby Hogue, Sen. Russ, House Parliamentarian Tim Massanelli and Senate Chief of Staff Bill Lancaster. At the office, the group huddled with Huckabee advisors Jim Von Gremp, Dick Barclay, Jim Keet, Joe Yates and Rex Nelson. Also present were an office secretary, staff attorney John Wyvill, constitutional law specialist Leon Holmes and state Supreme Court Justice Jack Holt, who was a member of the Huckabee transition team.
Huckabee takes charge
According to Lancaster and Russ, Huckabee quickly took control.
“He said ‘here’s where we are, and here’s my position,’ ” said Lancaster. “He was very adamant, and, I thought, forceful. He was clearly a man who knew what he wanted to do. He said that Jim Guy’s position was clearly unacceptable.”
Some advisers suggested that Huckabee sue to gain control of the governor’s office, Russ said, and some thought he should do nothing, allowing the wrath of the public to drive Tucker from office. But Huckabee found both of those options unacceptable. If Tucker wouldn’t relent, he decided, the only course of action was to call a special session of the legislature the next morning for the purpose of asking the House to return articles of impeachment. No one said much about it, but impeachment is a process that requires a Senate trial. From start to finish, it conceivably could take months.
Huckabee asked Lancaster, Massanelli, Hogue, Russ and Holt to get Tucker on the phone and to tell him that if he tendered an unqualified resignation letter by 5 p.m., Tucker would be spared any further embarrassment. Barring that, Huckabee would call the session if Tucker didn’t resign by 9 a.m the next day.
The State Police came up with a number for Tucker at his temporary residence, and Tucker answered the phone when the legislative delegation called. Fumbling with the speaker-phone feature, the delegation disconnected Tucker at one point. Then, Tucker expressed reservations about Holt, the Huckabee insider, being present.
“We talked for approximately 30 minutes,” said Lancaster. “Jim Guy was very open and honest about his feelings–his chances for a new trial.” But the threat of impeachment didn’t seem to bother Tucker.
“If I get impeached, I get impeached,” Lancaster quoted him as saying.
The threat actually seemed to embolden Tucker, a proud (some would say arrogant) and stubborn fighter throughout his political career. He was back on the phone a couple of times with Sen. Russ before 5 p.m., but still refused to give in. In fact, he anticipated Huckabee’s next public move by faxing a 4:40 p.m. letter saying that he was reassuming the office of governor. The theory seemed to be that this would make it impossible for Huckabee to call a special legislative session. Like much of the day’s legal speculation, it’s a cloudy theory. There are ways for the legislature to meet without a governor’s call.
As a large crowd gathered outside his office, Huckabee made a riveting, unscripted televised address to the state at 5:15 p.m.
“Going back on one’s word is a serious thing,” he said, delivering the impeachment ultimatum in a measured, soothing voice. The gauntlet was down.
But before the speech was over, Tucker aide Sandy Ledbetter had delivered Tucker’s defiant letter, declaring that Tucker’s “inability to serve as Governor has ended,” and that he had resumed the powers of the office.
The crowds were outraged.
The state’s one-hour crisis
Huckabee learned of the letter during a brief news conference held after the television address, and ducked back into his office for a huddle. When he reemerged, Huckabee said he refused to accept Tucker’s latest letter, or his claims to the governorship. It was a gutsy stroke, if weightless legally. Thus began the state’s brief constitutional crisis.
At that point–and for the next hour or so–the state effectively had two governors. If both showed up to claim the office in the morning, people wondered, would there be fisticuffs?
“I met with the State Police in Huckabee’s office,” said Lancaster. “They were assigning a detail to the Huckabee family, and a detail to the Tucker family. Their position at the time was that if Jim Guy showed up at the governor’s office or the mansion, he would be denied access.”
Tucker, meanwhile, left his wife at home and drove to state Democratic Party headquarters at the behest of Bynum Gibson, the former Dermott legislator named by Tucker to chair the state party. There, he met his old friend and Highway Commissioner Buddy Benafield, press secretary Max Parker, summoned from home, and Ledbetter, in her workout clothes. Gibson also had dispatched Tucker’s former law partner, the well-respected Maurice Mitchell, though Mitchell had been warned by Betty Tucker in a phone call not to be “overly optimistic” about changing her husband’s mind.
In a brief meeting, Tucker again received little support for fighting on. His resolve was beginning to crack.
“… He realized what was happing to legislators,” said one Democrat later. “I think when he saw he was putting people in a horrible position–people who had helped him, people who had trusted him–he then had another reason to do what he promised to do. He couldn’t put the legislators in position of trying to justify it.”
Tucker’s ultimate decision to resign came after two phone conversations with Gibson and, finally, with his wife, Betty.
Gibson who had been at work in his southeast Arkansas law practice, began burning up phone lines on news of the drama. He wasn’t successful reaching Tucker at first. The voice mail on the governor’s new unlisted phone was already full. So Gibson called Winstead to drive six minutes over from his new house to his old home to encourage Tucker to head downtown to party headquarters.
Finally, at 5:30 p.m., Gibson reached Tucker at party headquarters. “I told him I knew he thought he had been mistreated in many ways in the prosecution and that he had been a great governor, but those who loved and respected him couldn’t stay with him on this.
“I said those legislators who wanted to be for him were in a box and there was no way to defend this. I said he needed to go ahead and do what he would probably inevitably be doing. He said he understood and hung up.”
Two minutes later, Gibson called back. He urged Tucker to make his decision by six. “That’s the key,” Gibson said. “Don’t wait until 6:05. don’t let the newscasts begin without an announcement you’ve resigned.” Gibson feared that, without action, “people would say things they could not take back.” The impeachment movement was in full howl; Democratic legislators were madly telephoning hometown papers to criticize the governor’s action; there was talk of mass defections of Democratic legislators to the Republican Party.
Tucker’s response to the call: “I understand your fundamental message.” Still no commitment.
But his mind apparently had been made up. He made a final call to his wife.
The call reportedly closed with Tucker saying, “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it quickly.” He got off the phone and dashed off a handwritten note to the secretary of state. Ledbetter delivered it just as Priest was preparing to leave the Capitol. A reporter drew Priest over to Channel 11’s live camera and she announced at 6 p.m., officially, that the crisis was over. The governor had resigned.
“Should I put down a reason?” the governor had asked as he wrote the short. “No,” he was told. “That won’t be necessary.” Minutes later, Maurice Mitchell arrived, his persuasive skills no longer needed. Tucker was calm then, friends said, “flat” and unemotional.
Huckabee gets the news
When the news reached Huckabee, Lancaster said, the new governor urgently said, “We need to get a judge, and get sworn in.” Any judge would do, apparently. “The implication was clear that he wanted to get it done before Jim Guy changed his mind again,” Lancaster said.
Lancaster, though, reminded Huckabee that for the sake of tradition, he needed to be sworn in on the floor of the House by a state Supreme Court justice.
Four minutes before 7 p.m., it came to a storybook ending.
Speaker Hogue opened the doors of the normally buttoned-up House to the public, and Huckabee supporters of all ages–happy people who had only hours earlier scowled and shouted in anger, flooded in to commandeer the leather-upholstered chairs, relegating many House and Senate members to folding chairs and standing room.
As the Huckabees made their entrance–Janet misty-eyed and clutching the family Bible–supporters roared their approval and clapped in cadence. The people had taken back their government, and lawmakers could only stand back and watch.
“This was about as good as when my old cow came back to life,” said state Republican Party chairman Lloyd Stone.
Stone had reason for joy. The leader of his party, Mike Huckabee, enjoyed 80 percent favorable ratings before Monday’s events, a healthy byproduct of his selfless decision to forego the Senate race. He was triumphant in crisis Monday.
And, while the situation can always change, Republican insiders are now confidently predicting that Huckabee will be in the 1998 governor’s race, not looking again at U.S. Senate. On the strength of his early performance, he’ll be the man to be beat.
Other fallout: Probably slight to most Democrats, given their own outrage and the quick resolution. The Republicans will make much of Winston Bryant’s failure to file suit immediately, though it couldn’t have forced a resolution any sooner and Huckabee, who also had standing to sue, chose to allow Tucker to leave with a grace period.
Tucker himself tried to make amends with an apology issued through a press secretary. But it seemed not to mute editorial criticism. And he belied his sincerity by refusing to speak the words himself to a trailing Channel 7 news reporter who caught the former governor as he headed to a commercial airline flight for Colorado and a few days of peace. They will be small consolation for a man who faces a long stay at the Mayo Clinic to do prep work for a liver transplant, sentencing on two criminal charges and a pending trial on still more felony counts.
Print headline: “Huckabee becomes governor after four hours of chaos.” July 19, 1996.