In the Heartland with the Governor

Arkansas Economic Development Wade's World

May 14, 2022

            Pearl River     Every once in a while, we have a close call on radio world which keeps everything exciting, even as it underlines the power that comes with access and control of the airwaves.  A public relations flak sent out one of the hundreds of pitches I get every month for our noncommercial radio stations.  This one offered an opportunity to talk to Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson who was appearing with Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana at some kind of meeting about the heartland.  I didn’t pay a lot of attention.  I thought it had to do with tourism maybe.  It was ten minutes, so what the heck, if I could get Russell to tape it, we’d see what and what.

From the Governor’s first response to my question about whether he and Edwards were trying to promote tourism and conventions in the middle south, I realized I had not been paying enough attention in class.  This was more about economic development in general in rural areas with the Republican Hutchinson touting this as a bipartisan effort since the Democrat Edwards was also in the mix.

Ok, I thought.  We can make this work, and we did.  I’ll get to that in a minute, but what was this heartland thing where I got caught not having done even the simplest Google search?  My first research pulled up Heartland Institute, which froze me in my tracks.  That was some kind of self-described free-market libertarian think tank from beyond the pale over the last almost 40 years.  Surely, this wasn’t it?  The governor said they were in Bentonville, Walmart country.  I googled Heartland meeting in Bentonville.  Success!  Turns out the Governors were at an invitation-only second meeting of something called the Heartland Summit which was a project of Heartland Forward.  Stick with me on this, please!

This was a younger generation Waltons’ of Walmart project to promote development, thinking, and whatever in, yes, the heartland, which would include Arkansas and Louisiana and states and cities up and down the middle of the country. The Waltons had some open events, including a concert with the Old Crow Medicine Show, which was an unusual choice.  The speakers included a number of their well-funded folks, like Teach for America, and the head of JP Morgan Chase.  I didn’t feel like I was the only one who missed the cues.  Pharrell Williams, the great singer-songwriter, performed for the crowd and admitted he was not an expert on education, finding himself in the Waltons’ charter school cheerleading club.  I feel you Pharrell, sometimes we get surprised.

So, about my brief visit with the Governor.  First, he couldn’t have been more friendly, not having done any research on me either, so we were even.  He did a great job boosting the advantages of northwestern Arkansas, the Buffalo River, outdoors, and hiking trails.  Parenthetically, the younger Waltons have just bought 1200 acres between Jasper and Harrison to develop hiking trails and the like, as has the Bass Pro billionaire re-developing the old Dogpatch into a similar destination.

I asked him if the country’s polarization and the recent abortion news wasn’t going to hurt Arkansas and Louisiana, especially given the controversy on the front pages about legislation to criminalize women, accursing them of homicide.  His response was well-practiced.  Abortion has long been contentious, he said.  If Roe is overturned, there will be red states and blue states that will go their own way.  Congress can’t get things done, governors and states will sort it out.  This was interesting to me.  The pretense of unity and a “one for all” country, just wasn’t in Gov. Hutchinson’s equation.  Division was ok.  Women would find a way or not.  I’ll work up to my fence line, and you look after the other side.

The Biden project of bringing the country together was, seemingly, of no interest.  Bridging the divide was a “who cares, not my problem” thing.  That was educational to me.  If we’ve lost the notion of unity as a common denominator in America, so that conservatives like Hutchinson can smoothly glide past the problem by papering over the differences with more moderate language and a never mind, we’re in worse shape than I might have reckoned.