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REX NELSON: A state divided

Arkansas is, in many ways, two states within a state. And we're not talking about the contrived media-fueled rivalry between northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas.

You've probably heard about those folks in the northwest corner of the state who once had a chip on their shoulder, believing that too many state resources were going to other parts of Arkansas while road construction languished and governmental services suffered in the northwest. Those same people, we're told, now look down their noses at central Arkansas, noting the higher growth rates in their region of the state.

You may also have heard of the capital city bluebloods who once looked down on northwest Arkansas as too inaccessible and too far from what one Little Rock editorial writer liked to call "the civilizing influences of central Arkansas." Those same people, it's said, are now the ones with the chip on their shoulder, paranoid about what new entities will call northwest Arkansas home. As one Little Rock business leader once told me, only half in jest: "If they could fit the state Capitol through the Bobby Hopper Tunnel, it would have moved up there by now."

The problem with this scenario is that it's largely untrue. Northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas are both doing relatively well economically. Numerous companies have offices in both places with executives driving between the two metropolitan areas. Business and civic leaders sit with each other in private suites at University of Arkansas football games and walk the halls at the state Capitol during legislative sessions to lobby officeholders on the same issues. In that respect, northwest Arkansas and central Arkansas are in the same state within the state. That other state consists of a large number of rural counties--most of them in the eastern and southern parts of Arkansas--that continue to lose population and struggle economically. With crop prices low for farmers and the forestry industry slow to recover from the Great Recession, the gap between the two states of Arkansas is, in fact, widening.

In the face of these economic and demographic headwinds, how do we slow the split? As someone who has spent all but four of my 57 years in the state and has long studied the Arkansas psyche, I offer up the three keys to keeping us united as Arkansans:

A strong governor who unites rather than divides

Fifty years ago, Winthrop Rockefeller was in his first year as governor. Casting partisan politics aside, it can be said that we've had a decent run of chief executives in the past half century. Both the Democrats and Republicans have tended to be pragmatists, aware that residents of a populist state such as Arkansas expect a governor to solve problems in addition to making speeches. Those who thought Republicans Mike Huckabee and Asa Hutchinson would be ideologues from the far right wing of the political spectrum instead discovered that those governors took common-sense approaches to problems facing the state while reaching out to Democrats in the Legislature. In between Huckabee and Hutchinson came eight years of Democrat Mike Beebe, a former legislative insider obsessed with the details of state government who saw to it that departments operated smoothly during his time in the Governor's Mansion.

The executive branch also has been remarkably free of major scandals during those 50 years. The biggest scandals--as is currently the case--have come in the legislative branch, where too often the shallow end runs the length of the pool. The key going forward will be for Arkansans to continue electing pragmatists who understand what makes Arkansas unique. Arkansas is different from its neighbors. The successful politician understands that and governs accordingly, throwing out the party talking points that come from Washington.

Razorback athletics

Few things unite Arkansans like University of Arkansas sports teams, especially the football Razorbacks. I say this with all due respect to my friends at Arkansas State University. I wish the Red Wolves success. The four NCAA Division I football programs in Arkansas--the UA, ASU, the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff--are in different conferences, meaning there's no reason an Arkansan can't root for all four teams.

Nothing can more quickly connect a fellow from Ashdown with one from Blytheville than a conversation about the state of the Razorback football program. It's why the decision as to whether some Razorback football games are still played in Little Rock when the current contract ends next year must be made by the UA Board of Trustees rather than the athletic director. An athletic director can concern himself only with per-game revenues. Trustees must take into consideration how to unite this state and prevent the flagship campus in Fayetteville from becoming regionalized. At a time when Arkansas needs additional college graduates, more students have been from outside the state rather than inside Arkansas in recent freshman classes at Fayetteville. The trustees must take those jokes about "the University of Texas at Fayetteville" seriously and act accordingly.

A quality statewide newspaper

I'm biased, of course. In an era of newspaper decline, we're fortunate to have one of the last great statewide newspapers in the country. Someone in El Dorado can see who died in Mountain Home. Someone in Bentonville can find the high school football score from Lake Village. This newspaper helps us be a part of the same Arkansas family. With the economic gap widening between the "have counties" and the "have-not counties," that task is becoming more difficult by the day.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 06/18/2017

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