According to most political science textbooks, there are two kinds of elected representatives: the delegate and the trustee.
In a legislative setting, a delegate votes exactly the way a majority of his or her constituents would want. (Think Mike Ross.) A trustee, however, uses his or her own judgment to determine which way to vote. (Think Vic Snyder.)
And then, as Al Gore might say, there’s that little-known third category.
State Sen. Bob Johnson doesn’t seem interested in strictly representing the interests of his district or applying his knowledge and conscience to act in behalf of the greater good. Instead he seems to have carved out a whole separate role for himself as an errand-boy for Arkansas special interests.
Just consider his record in this legislative session:
• Johnson is the lead sponsor of SB 230, the bill that would make it more difficult for Central Arkansas Water to condemn property around the watersheds it maintains. He introduced the bill because Deltic Timber wanted a way to get around CAW’s objections to a development it is planning on the shores of Lake Maumelle, which supplies the drinking water for 360,000 customers in the region.
Johnson’s district does not include the land in question, and his constituents do not get their drinking water from CAW’s system, so there was no reason for him to get involved except to serve the interests of Deltic Timber.
• Johnson is the lead sponsor of SB 999, which became law last week, allowing local elections on whether Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs and Southland Greyhound Park in West Memphis can add electronic games of skill.
Again, neither Hot Springs nor West Memphis is in Johnson’s district. The only parties who stand to gain from expanded gambling options are the owners of Oaklawn and Southland, who will make more money.
• Johnson is the lead sponsor of SB 233, a bill that is designed to limit the regulatory authority of the state insurance department.
This is not the first time Johnson has gone to bat for the insurance lobby. During the 2003 legislative session, the American Insurance Association praised his tort-reform bill, which capped punitive and non-economic damages and contained other provisions favorable to the corporate sector.
While other legislators certainly serve the special interests, Johnson deserves to be singled out.
His knowledge and experience, derived from five years in the House and five years in the Senate, make him an expert manipulator among the novices who populate the legislature in this age of term limits. As one observer noted, “There are only one or two intelligent guys around here who can figure out how to put a deal together.”
Meanwhile, all of his considerable talents are being put to use in behalf of special interests. He is nowhere to be found on issues related to the budget or health care. As other Senate leaders like Jim Argue and Shane Broadway work on complicated problems like education and school facility financing, Johnson introduces the three bills named above and 16 requests for appropriations from the General Improvement Fund.
Which brings up the question: Why?
Why is Johnson spending his time in the Senate serving special interests? Why would someone want to hold public office only to act against the public good?
Johnson did not return phone calls seeking comment. Several legislators and lobbyists speculated that Johnson’s primary goal is to curry favor with business interests who could finance a campaign for higher office.
A political consultant suggested that Johnson has always been willing to do the special interests’ bidding, pointing out that as speaker of the house in 1999, Johnson was instrumental in passing legislation that deregulated electric utilities. With that in mind, one state representative said of the current session, “We are seeing the real Bob Johnson.”
Fortunately, the book has not yet been closed on Johnson’s political fortunes. His Central Arkansas Water bill is before a House committee this week. Legislators who understand their responsibility to the greater good and believe public service is a noble calling can differentiate themselves from Johnson by voting against him.
If Johnson ends up running for Congress or statewide office, he will surely be rewarded by his patrons — Deltic Timber, Oaklawn, Southland and the insurance industry, for starters. Whether he is rewarded at the ballot box may depend on how many people understand his real motivation for holding elected office, which is why his actions today merit exposure and condemnation.