- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, July 18, 2016

This year’s party conventions may not be pep rallies

There was a time when Americans paid a lot of attention to Republican and Democratic party conventions.

Looks like that time may be here again.

In the earlier days of televised coverage, party conventions could get a bit contentious. Sometimes more than a bit. And it made for some fascinating TV viewing.

Perhaps the best example is the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago. Protests by anti-war activists outside the convention hall - and Mayor Richard Daley’s aggressive response - had millions glued to their TV sets.

Those were turbulent days and the country was divided. We are living in troubled times again and there is deep division as well.

We hope our country will not see a repeat of 1968 at either convention.

The Republicans kick off their convention today in Cleveland. Donald Trump will be nominated along with his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. But that doesn’t mean the path will be smooth.

Most speakers will toe the party line. But there could be some who decide to take the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with the nominee. And, of course, we can expect protests for and against the Trump ticket and the Republican platform outside the heavily-policed convention hall.

The Democrats convene July 25 in Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination but supporters of rival Bernie Sanders may not lie down, even though their candidate has endorsed Clinton. So we could see some fireworks on and off the floor.

These days party conventions have become little more than pep rallies for the chosen candidates and a chance for up-and-coming politicos to gain a bit of recognition on the national stage. They are great for political junkies, but for most Americans the conventions have been a total bore. This year, however, may be different. In our view, that’s worth tuning in for.

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Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 17, 2016

Can’t we all just get along?

When do tough, but legitimate questions become prosecutorial badgering? And what’s the difference between righteous indignation and childish defensiveness?

It seems that, at least among professionals, those would be easy questions to answer. But in a world where the presidential debates devolve into schoolyard taunting, well, we suppose anything goes.

This comes to mind after a couple of incidents involving Washington County government. Washington County Judge Marilyn Edwards wrote a letter imploring Quorum Court members to treat county employees with more respect as they begin the process of setting next year’s county government budget. Edwards decried the prosecutorial tone she believes that some of the court members took last year when quizzing county employees about their budget requests. She said she also advised staff members to essentially walk out of a budget hearing if they believe they are being “belittled” by justices of the peace.

Though not mentioned by name, the letter seemed to target the approaches taken by some particular members of the Quorum Court, among them Sue and Eva Madison, the mother-daughter team of justices of the peace who have made parsing the county’s annual budget a priority and, in doing so, earned the enmity of some of those being questioned.

Then, a heated exchange in a Personnel Committee meeting related to budgeting erupted, further highlighting the division between the court members and the judge and county staff.

Let’s also not pretend that there’s not more to the story here. Edwards and the Madisons have been engaged in a political feud for some time, dating back to the controversy over questionable construction practices employed by the Road Department under Edwards’ watch. It spilled over into other areas (the use and placement of security cameras in the courthouse; accusations of illicit private conversations among Quorum Court members) as well. Edwards, who is not seeking re-election as judge, even unsuccessfully ran to unseat Eva Madison as a justice of the peace in the preferential primary last March.

Things had simmered a bit since then, but appear to be nearing a boil yet again as the budget season approaches.

Before going any further, let’s take a brief civics lesson about county government in Arkansas. The Quorum Court’s primary job is to allocate taxpayer funds to the various functions of county government. The justices of the peace are, essentially, in charge of the county’s purse strings. The elected county judge is the government’s top administrative officer and presides over the meetings of Quorum Court, if not the conduct of its members. Unlike a municipal mayor, the judge doesn’t get to hire his or her own department heads. Most of them (sheriff, treasurer, assessor, clerk, etc.) are elected, too.

Let’s also acknowledge Washington County’s approach to budgeting over the past few decades has been, shall we say, unique. Department heads felt free to move allocated dollars around from line to line within their departments however they saw fit, without the involvement of the Quorum Court. Perhaps that culture developed because most department heads are, themselves, elected and didn’t feel it necessary to consult the Quorum Court or, for that matter, the county judge on how their offices operated. That led to some unusual practices such as, for example, office supplies being purchased from funds allocated for, say, tires.

That began to change a few years ago as a new set of justices came into office and began to look more closely at the budget. Justices began to insist that department heads to be more disciplined in the way money was spent on various line items. But what the justices saw as greater attention to detail related to their duties to allocate funds was interpreted by some elected officials and their staffs as micromanagement. They argued the efficient function of their departments depended on their ability to act quickly to meet the needs of the taxpayers and that once the justices had allocated dollars they should just get out of the way.

It’s easy to see how the tension started. And, sad to say, it is still alive and well.

In that Personnel Committee last week, justices raised questions about why an employee whose position is paid for by two different departments was doing work for only one. Not surprisingly, Eva Madison was part of the discussion which got so heated that committee chairman Butch Pond reminded the participants to conduct themselves like “ladies and gentlemen.” Madison went on to suggest that the arrangement was essentially a favor to one of Edwards’ political supporters, which was met with strenuous denials by County Attorney Steve Zega. Pond said he thinks much of the indignation was manufactured in an attempt to embarrass Edwards, an allegation brushed off by Madison, claiming, “He always says that.”

Ben Bradlee, former editor of the Washington Post, called that kind of response a non-denial denial.

There will always be some level of tension between the party responsible for allocating funds and the party who wants to spend them. That happens in private business, government and, frankly, most households. But hashing out annual budgets is a routine part of government, so questions should come as no surprise. And professional courtesy ought to be the rule of the day.

Given the start Washington County has had to next year’s budgeting work, we’re not sure that last part is very likely. When the entire process starts with a plea for courtesy coupled with a threat to walk out, that’s a bad sign. The Madisons share the blame, focusing on their indignation over being called out rather than focusing on making the process productive.

It seems to us that the first step is for everyone to grow thicker skin. Just because a question is tough doesn’t mean its inappropriate. But questions ought to be asked in a professional way.

The second step is to leave the personal feuds at the door when the budget hearings commence in earnest - and that goes for all involved. Seeing elected officials fight might be briefly entertaining, but its less than conducive to efficient government.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 19, 2016

Pivot to the center

Every time a voter contemplates the prospect of another President Clinton, it may be enough to make the prospect of a President Trump palatable. And vice versa.

Swirling between the Scylla and Charybdis of this weird presidential race, the poor voter may find himself caught up in a whirlpool of second, third and fourth thoughts, with still more to come before November. It’s not just presidential politics this year that may be spinning wildly, but his head.

On Friday, The Donald announced his running mate to give the GOP ticket some balance. Instead of an attack dog, he’s chosen a solid, conventional conservative in Governor Mike Pence of solid, conservative Indiana. Call it a kangaroo ticket: stronger in the hind legs. The Donald’s choice of a prospective veep may be the only responsible decision he’s made as a presidential candidate to date.

True to bad form, the Clinton camp immediately denounced Donald Trump’s choice of a moderate, centrist candidate for veep as “the most extreme pick in a generation.” Why? For any number of reasons. Governor Pence, it seems, had moved to defund Planned Parenthood starting in 2007. The governor also has done his best to discourage abortions on his watch. And he moved to protect the rights of those citizens who have conscientious objections to celebrating marriages other than those between one man and one woman. Tell us more, since all those sound less like reasons to denounce Governor Pence than to applaud him.

What’s more, Governor Pence’s defense of freedom of religion applies to Muslims, too, which is why he’s differed with Donald Trump’s call for banning Muslim immigrants. As he put it in a tweet: “Calls to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. are offensive and unconstitutional.” As if our Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, which it does. Of course, now that he’s on the ticket, he has decided to help the boss. By helpfully explaining that The Donald meant only banning folks from countries where terrorists have taken over. To which the candidate at the top of the ticket all but said: Yeah, yeah. That’s what I meant.

Let’s note, too, that Governor Pence has been a longtime advocate of free trade. Which is why he supported NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement that would join Mexico, the United States and Canada in a common market, benefiting all. Unlike the party’s rampaging standard-bearer this year.

No doubt other differences between these two Republicans will be mined for all they’re worth and more as this strange presidential campaign gets even stranger, proceeding from the surreal to the ridiculous. It’s embarrassing, but what isn’t about this year’s presidential contest?

American presidential elections long have been contests between an old America fading away and a new one a-borning. The classic example may have been William Jennings Bryan’s campaign against William McKinley in 1896. An accomplished orator, Mr. Bryan mesmerized the Democratic convention that year and went on to run not just once but three times as the party’s standard-bearer. That he lost every time gave him a reputation not so much as a loser but martyr.

Some of our best candidates for president were never elected (think Adlai Stevenson) while others were unlikely choices who went on to prove great presidents (like James K. Polk and Abraham Lincoln). Or as Joaquin Andujar, a relief pitcher as erratic as they come once put it, there’s one word to describe America: You never know. This crazy year only the unexpected can be expected.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ search for a vice presidential candidate proceeds from left to lefter. For example, Queen Hillary spent part of Friday interviewing Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts firebrand, for the job. With her on the ticket, immoderation will be assured. Yet her camp calls solid Mike Pence an extremist. Stay tuned, confused American. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Surprises await. And, just as assuredly, so do disappointments.

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