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NW corner makes political gains.

Legislative Redistricting Benefits Region With Growing Electorate; Hutchinson Tries to Fill Hammerschmidt's Shoes

FOR A LONG TIME, northwest Arkansas was the little Jack Horner of state politics. There it sat in its corner with outdated roads and a somewhat invisible crew of state legislators.

But things change.

The region gained one new state senator and three representatives in this decade's legislative redistricting. The number of registered voters in Benton and Washington counties rose a whopping 29 percent between Bill Clinton's re-election as governor in 1990 and his rise to the presidency in 1992, fortifying the political clout of the region.

And after two decades of lobbying, the area's transportation system is slowly catching up with the times.

"The balance of political power in Arkansas is gradually shifting to the northwest," says 3rd District Congressman Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., of Bentonville, who worked his way up from the state House of Representatives.

Historically, the district has suffered from a lack of seniority in the state legislature, a problem attributed to various factors. Hutchinson, for one, says the region's "two-party system" -- otherwise known as an unusually effective Republican party in a Democratic state -- has been largely responsible for shuffling the deck.

State Sen. David Malone of Fayetteville, a Democrat, takes the view that the grueling, three-hour-plus drive through the mountains to the state Capitol in Little Rock is the real culprit, usually wearing down Ozark legislators before they reach their 12th year in office.

"It's a lot more difficult to serve in the legislature from this region than it is from any other area of the state," he says.

Whatever the problem, the region's political status has been the victim. It was not until this year's general session of the legislature that changes became noticeable.

"This area has been underrepresented for years on the Joint Budget Committee," says Malone, who serves as executive director of the University of Arkansas Foundation Inc.

That committee is the most powerful panel of the legislature, essentially sealing the fate of all proposed laws that require funding by the state. It may not seem like much, but this year northwest politicos celebrated the fact that the region's senate contingent on the committee rose from a paltry two members to a very respectable 5. There is still room for progress.

Washington and Benton counties' only committee chairmanships in the legislature are state Rep. Charles Stewart of Fayetteville, who is chairman of Revenue and Taxation Committee and has served in the House since 1954, and state Sen. Joe Yates of Bentonville, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Economic and Industrial Development Committee.

Asset in Congress Lost

At the end of 1992, northwest Arkansas lost a valuable political asset with the retirement of 3rd District U.S. Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison.

Hammerschmidt, after all, had played a vital role in gaining national river status for the scenic Buffalo, and was instrumental in pushing through the continuing four-lane reconstruction of U.S. Highway 412 between Springdale and Tulsa, Okla., and U.S. Highway 71, which links Alma to Fayetteville and is traveled by thousands of Arkansas Razorback fans each year.

In general, the highly decorated World War II pilot was thought of as a man who consistently brought home the bacon to northwest Arkansas while symbolizing the growing conservatism of the region.

With 26 years in Congress, Hammerschmidt left something of a federal power vacuum in northwest Arkansas. He was the ranking Republican on the Public Works and Transportation Committees when he retired and held the same distinction with the Veterans' Affairs Committee from 1973-86. He was also the ranking GOP member of the Select Committee on Aging when he left Congress, and his close friendship with former President Bush probably benefited the region to some degree.

"When you are in 26 years, you build friends and relationships," says Sam Sellers, a spokesman for Hutchinson. "|Hammerschmidt~ knew the ropes of inside-the-beltway politics. That is something that is learned, and it takes experience."

Although newcomer Hutchinson is still learning his way around Washington, he has made an obvious effort to pick up where his predecessor left off, joining both the Veterans Affairs and the Public Works and Transportation Committees. Hutchinson says those committees are most closely related to constituent needs.

The emulation factor is so great, in fact, that Hutchinson has kept several key members from Hammerschmidt's staff. Randi Fredholm has stayed on as legislative director, Ray Reid has been retained as chief of staff and Chip Carlson is still serving as systems manager.

"Hammerschmidt left big shoes to fill, but I think we hit the ground running," Sellers says.

Just about everyone agrees that the top political issue in the region is transportation and infrastructure. That is probably a function of history.

GOP and Fate

Some say that northwest Arkansas was doomed to have inadequate roads when Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller appointed fellow Republican "Jake" Patterson of Lavaca to represent the region on the state Highway Commission. On a panel full of yellow-dog Democrats, Patterson was not well-received, the story goes, and neither were the infrastructure interests of northwest Arkansas.

The split has long healed itself, but northwest Arkansas is still playing catch-up with its road system, especially as the population of the area grows like a weed in an organic garden.

Before Hammerschmidt left Congress, he was able to push through $323 million in highway allocations for the 3rd Congressional District.

"Our battle is to keep up infrastructure-wise with the growth we're experiencing," Hutchinson says. "That means Highways 71 and 412, and the regional airport."

A four-lane widening project on U.S. 71 began in 1987. The highway is being improved from two ends at once, with crews working southward from Chester to Alma and northward from West Fork to Fayetteville. The area between West Fork and Chester is not under contract.

The politically minded in northwest Arkansas will also be following development of the four-lane, U.S. 412 corridor that would cut straight across northern Arkansas from the Oklahoma border to the Missouri boot heel. The State Highway and Transportation Department is in only the second year of a 14-year program on the U.S. 412 project, so it's easy for the locals to get impatient with the program.

Work is hot and heavy on a 16.5-mile section of U.S. 412 between Springdale and Siloam Springs. When completed, the work will leave the 110 miles of the road from U.S. 71 to Tulsa completely four-laned.

When he speaks of an airport, Hutchinson is talking about the proposed Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, a $140 million project that would connect the region by air with the entire country. The proposal, a hot topic in northwest Arkansas political circles, is in the midst of an environmental impact study. If it clears that hurdle, it will be up to the Federal Aviation Administration to provide grant funding for land acquisition.

The concept seems to be supported on all sectors of local and state government. Hutchinson, along with northwest Arkansas politicians, will be monitoring the FAA's decision-making process closely and trying to fend off likely political snipers such as the supporters of rival airports in Tulsa, Springfield, Mo., and Joplin, Mo.

Republican Territory

Northwest Arkansas is rightly known as a Republican stronghold. "It's an area that a Republican candidate has to carry -- and has to carry with a significant percentage -- to avoid getting his brains beat out in the other parts of the state," says Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee.

It's also a region that has been de-emphasized by many complacent Democratic candidates.

"My view is that from now on, Democrats are going to have to do better in northwest Arkansas if they expect to keep winning elections," says Woody Bassett, a Fayetteville lawyer and vocal Democratic supporter.

If nothing else gets their attention, Huckabee's excellent performance in the traditionally Democratic counties of east Arkansas might convince the Democrats to follow suit, striking deeper into the "enemy" territory of the northwest.
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Title Annotation:Northwest Arkansas
Author:Haman, John
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 18, 1993
Previous Article:$2 billion chicken lays golden egg.
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