Making History in Arkansas
In 1982, at the age of 31, Asa Hutchinson became the youngest U.S. attorney in the country. Appointed by President Reagan for the Western District of Arkansas, he was known for his penchant to seek redress on criminals. Upon prosecuting the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA), a radical white supremacist group, he made a name for himself both in Arkansas and nationwide. Unafraid of getting his hands dirty, he personally negotiated a peaceful resolution to a three-day standoff between the CSA and local, state, and federal officials that made headlines across the country. Looking to leverage his rising popularity, Hutchinson ran for Senate in 1986, but lost to Dale Bumpers, an incumbent Democrat and former governor. He dusted himself off and ran for Arkansas attorney general in 1990, but lost in an extremely tight race.
In 1992, Hutchinson saw his brother Tim elected to the House of Representatives. Then, in 1996, Tim decided to run for an open Senate seat, paving the way for Asa to run for Congress to replace his brother. As a result, Tim Hutchinson was elected to the Senate, and at the same time, Asa Hutchinson was elected to the House of Representatives (his first elective office): the only siblings in the history of the Congress to be elected simultaneously to the House and Senate. “Historic moment. Happy that my mom lived to see that event. It was a source of pride for her. She had been out on the campaign trail with my dad, and to see her happy and proud of both her sons meant a lot to me and has lasting memories,” he adds.
While the Hutchinson brothers were in Congress, Asa Hutchinson recalls the first time they voted differently, knowing it would make headlines. “It was trade relations with China. I voted for normal trade relations, and he voted against it,” he says. Additionally, there was an event that stood out to him, which happened during the Clinton impeachment trial. “I was an impeachment manager in the Senate trial, and my brother was on the jury. Senators were supposed to be present under pain of imprisonment but not say anything,” he tells me. “At one point, Tim thought the other side was giving me a hard time, so he jumped up and raised an objection, and everyone just looked stunned at him, thinking, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ He was probably just trying to protect his little brother.”
And in 2001, Hutchinson was appointed administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration by President George W. Bush. Confirmed with a 98-1 vote for the appointment, he was held in high esteem by his colleagues. “I was humbled by the respect amongst partisan colleagues and across the aisle,” he shares. “I remember fondly that Democrat John Conyers introduced me to the Senate, praised me, and promoted me as a fair-minded advocate during a very partisan time, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”
After 9/11, Hutchinson was subsequently appointed, by unanimous consent, as undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for border and transportation security (the largest division of the DHS when it was formulated). He left office as undersecretary in 2005 to return to Arkansas.
His return to Arkansas had a purpose. Hutchinson announced his intention to run for governor in 2006, and became the Republican nominee, but he was defeated by then-Attorney General Mike Beebe. After a respite from politics, he decided to run for governor again in 2014. This time, he won with 55% of the vote, the largest total for a Republican in an open-seat gubernatorial race since the end of Reconstruction.
After a successful first term, he won re-election by the biggest margin for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Arkansas history. He strongly believes that his success is due to a bipartisan approach to governing. “I represent all the people of Arkansas, regardless of political persuasion, background, or any other characteristics, and I try to follow that rule as I lead,” says Hutchinson.
His background as the first undersecretary of the DHS helped him prepare for the challenges ahead; he never anticipated a pandemic and the struggles that would come along with it. When asked to compare his time fighting terrorism with combating COVID-19, he says that there is no comparison whatsoever. “Fighting terrorism is a long battle. In a similar fashion, the pandemic is not like a tornado that comes and goes, and you pick up the pieces,” Hutchinson explains. “We’ve been in this for 10 months now, and the unpredictable struggle with the pandemic has been the most challenging event for the American public, as well as leaders.”
Through all the ups and downs, he never forgets his roots. He was born in Bentonville, Arkansas, where the Walmart headquarters is located. It was in this town that Sam Walton opened the original Walton’s 5&10 store in 1950, because his wife wanted small-town living. Walmart has since transformed Bentonville and has had a major impact on the state’s economy. Bentonville had a population of 9,000 when Walton was getting his first start. “[There were] probably about 100 stores at that point, but he was the kind of guy that you could go tap on his window on Saturday morning and have a good visit with him,” Hutchinson recalls. “What I learned from Sam in terms of management, in terms of putting the customer first, these are life-long lessons that will help any public official. I have incredible admiration for him. The Walmart legacy has tremendously changed the trajectory of the economy in our state.” With 2-plus years left in office, workforce development and the economy are issues he plans to focus on. However, his top priority is to get through COVID-19 and distribute a vaccine. (The National Governors Association, whose vice chair is Hutchinson, sent a list of questions to the Trump administration in mid-October about how to effectively distribute and administer a COVID-19 vaccine and how the states and federal government would work together.)
When he’s not working, Hutchinson can be found at the local gym, playing basketball, every Friday morning. He’s developed a tradition of playing pickup basketball games when he travels globally to market Arkansas. He started the tradition in Cuba, where he played with the Cuban national team. He has also laced up his high-tops in China, Japan, Israel, Germany, Bolivia, and Mexico. While his love for basketball is strong, his passion for change and listening to others is stronger. “Going back to our Founding Fathers, politics has been rough-and-tumble. But today, as the media has expanded, the divide has grown. We’ve never had the intensity of division that we have right now. What we have to do is to listen to each other and look for that common ground,” he affirms.
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographer & Videographer: Demetrius McCullough
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to Arkansas.gov (@arkansasgov - portal.arkansas.gov) & EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)