Over the past few weeks, there has been a sort of minor cottage industry in press circles of speculating about the causes and effects of state representative from Mena Nate Bell changing his party affiliation and voter registration from Republican to Independent. Hyperbola ranging from predictions of the fall of the Republican Party in Arkansas to the establishment of a long-lasting dynasty of special interests-backed RINOs (Republicans In Name Only, for those unfamiliar with the derogatory term) running the state has been tossed around widely.
As an observer from the other side, who has spoken with Bell only a handful of times and met him face to face only once, it seems much more likely that Bell is experiencing the same phenomenon that a lot of people who get into politics eventually experience: the idealist who pushed the party when it was struggling gets pushed to the side by those who are reaping the rewards of those struggles.
Bell is known as a sometimes abrasive and stunningly insensitive figure in the media, evidenced by statements made after the bombing of the Boston Marathon, or the revelation of a fellow legislator giving children to a pedophile earlier this year, or numerous other instances. And it is unfortunate that these public gaffes have come to define him in the minds of so many, because for those of us who pay close attention to state politics, Bell is more known as a man of big ideas and ideals – whether or not you agree with them, you know that they are writ large in his conscience.
Some of his rather less salubrious ideas of late have included bills requiring employees to allow their employers access to their social media accounts, to repeal testing and educational standards for homeschoolers, or to place candidates in office without the minor detail of an election. But peppered among the dross are a few nuggets of gold: proposals to expand the state’s Freedom of Information Act, to split the celebration of Robert E. Lee Day from Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, to establish a periodic review of longstanding bureaucratic rules in order to keep them current, and to limit special elections in order to have more voters available to participate.
Almost all of his proposals this year were stymied by the party that he helped push, pull and prop up into a majority – whether by factions that claimed that his proposals were not “pure” enough, those who openly admit to working for monied special interests, or a long-standing party chair who somehow manages to personally profit from activities that the GOP in the state undertakes “for the people.”
The final straw, as many have correctly surmised, was the action in the recent special session to move the state’s primary election from the end of May to the first of March, a move that Mike Huckabee thinks (despite ample evidence to the contrary from his time as governor) will help his presidential campaign. The rank and file of the state Republican Party were told that it would be good for the party because they would likely gather far more in filing fees from the various presidential candidates, and more money in politics is always a good thing.
Bell, who isn’t stupid, saw that nobody pushing it was talking about the cost of moving up the primary. The Democrats are tossing around a figure of approximately $1.8 million more than it would cost to keep the primary in May, but neither the state nor the GOP ever put a figure before legislators. He tried to hold the move up in his committee until somebody put a number down on paper, but got over-ruled by the “party of financial responsibility.”
Bell also pointed out that moving the primary up so far will place a vast burden on local and state level candidates, forcing them to run for a full year at least and spend far more money on those campaigns than the average Joe on the street can afford. He gave the impression in the aftermath of the vote to move the primary that the party had been bought and local candidates sold out.
Bell’s reaction is more than just a widening divide on ideals versus the “pragmatism” of taking money, illustrated when he made a statement that, “No party boss will EVER force me to vote for a bill that I believe is bad for Arkansas. Threatening me only strengthens my resolve to stand firm for conscience and principle.” Diminutive GOP chair Doyle Webb, who has a long and storied history of allegedly bilking relatives out of inheritances, accepting money from questionable sources and backroom deals that frankly stink, can quite believably have been thanking Bell for all of his hard work for the party by telling him that he would have no political future with that party.
So, is Bell’s exit from the GOP a sea-change in Arkansas politics that presages the collapse of the new Republican control of the state? No. Will Bell turn his back on his long history of championing conservative ideals? No.
The one thing that it does indicate, absolutely and definitively, is something that the cynics (who are nothing more than disappointed idealists) have known for a long time: Idealism – conservative, liberal, or any of a dozen other flavors – rarely wins out against rank greed.