Mike and Ginger Beebe stroll into the formal living room of the Governor’s Mansion like any couple who’ve called a place home for eight years. She adjusts the silver tea service on the coffee table, which was turned backward after an event the night before, and takes a throw pillow from the sofa to put behind her when she sits in an armchair built for someone with a larger frame. He catches a photographer about to move a large vase from another table and warns him that it’s heavier than it looks.
They are just as comfortable talking about their life together in politics, which extends back through Beebe’s two terms as governor, four years as attorney general and 18 years in the state Senate. He is firm, charismatic, humorous in a low-key way. She is the picture of grace, aware and appreciative of the first lady’s inherent ability to help a cause through the use of that title alone. In her case, that ability is arguably amplified by the woman Ginger Beebe, an experienced and accomplished volunteer in her own right.
The pair will soon leave that life behind, at least officially. In the midst of packing, organizing records for the home’s next occupants and putting together one final budget proposal for the state Legislature, Gov. and Mrs. Beebe sat down to talk about their time in the Governor’s Mansion and what the future holds.
MB: We’re going home. She’s redoing our home, which we’ve never left.
GB: It needed a little face-lift.
MB: It’s getting more than a face-lift.
GB: It’s been eight years! And he was gone four years as attorney general, living here during the week and coming home on weekends, so he’s really been gone 12 years. Things need painting every 10 years or so. And floor coverings need changing.
MB: And bathrooms need enlarging …
GB: Whose idea was that?
MB: Cabinet tops need changing, and new appliances, and the sunroom needed to be completely redone …
GB: Well, yeah …
MB: So we know where we’re going. We’re going back to our home in Searcy.
GB: I’m going to work in my yard and volunteer because I did volunteer work before. He says he’s going to play golf every day. That’ll work for a while … but he doesn’t sit well. And there’s just so many books you can read, puzzles you can work or history programs you can watch. So after a period of time, I think he will find something to do to get out of the house. He must have a place to go. Don’t you think?
He still has an interest in economic development and seeing that Arkansas continues to attract businesses here. Now you can speak for yourself. I’m just saying what I’ve heard you tell everyone else.
MB: You’ve done pretty well.
GB: He might want to teach a course at the law school.
MB: No, undergraduate somewhere. I might teach a college course somewhere.
GB: I’ve been telling everyone you were going to the law school. Well, you may have to go. I’ve told a lot of people.
MB: But no specific plans. I’m not in any hurry to make any of those decisions. I’m not going to do anything for a while, and it’ll just evolve, and we’ll see what happens.
For the first time in 30 years, you won’t be an elected official. How do you think that will change your relationship with the people of Arkansas?
MB: Well, obviously there are people who like what I do and don’t like what I do, and I won’t be the topic of their conversation anymore. But for the most part, people have been really, really, really good to me, way better than I would have ever expected. And I suspect that when I come in contact with those folks, that those relationships will continue to be warm.
What accomplishments from the past eight years are you most proud of?
MB: We now rank fifth in the country in K-12 education. I’ve talked about it and talked about it and talked about it, and we’ve still got a huge segment of our society that doesn’t even know that. There was a letter to the editor in this morning’s paper talking about us always being at the bottom of education rankings, and nothing could be further from the truth. We’re fifth, for God’s sake. That’s something we’re proud of.
Obviously I’m proud of the fact that through the worst recession in our lifetime, we’re one of only four states that never got into fiscal trouble. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been competitive in job creation with our sister states, particularly on a per capita basis—it’s hard to stay up with a [state like] Texas just on raw numbers.
And then even though it wasn’t by our design initially—just reacting to the forces that are thrust upon you—we made a major mark in health care reform. The private option is making national news, and we’ve got all these Republican states now trying to emulate what we did. Who would have ever thought we’d have a decrease in health-insurance-premium rates.
Then what doesn’t get a lot of press in that health care issue but is probably more long-lasting and significant than anything else is payment reform—doing away with fee-for-service as the way we pay for health care, which is an unsustainable model. It actually has lowered costs and improved quality, if you can believe that. America’s the only civilized nation that has that problem of huge cost as a percentage of GDP in health care vis-a-vis poor outcomes, and by changing the model by which we paid for health care, by doing away with fee for service, we changed that dynamic. Everybody else in the country now, they all need to follow that, and the federal government in particular needs to follow that, because the old path was unsustainable.
How did things change for you after the 2012 election, when you were suddenly dealing with a Republican majority in the Legislature?
MB: Not much. There are some social issues where things changed, where they voted stuff that they knew better, and even overrode vetoes on some social issues when they knew it was unconstitutional, and subsequently the courts have borne that out. But with the exception of some of those issues, they’ve been just as easy to work with as a Democratic Legislature. Give them the facts, tell them the truth, provide them some leadership and be willing to work with them, and you’re not dealing with a great deal of difference. What you saw in some of those big issues, you had all the Democrats and what I refer to as the traditional business Republicans aligned and working together. So with exception of the Tea Party, working with business Republicans and conservative Democrats and even liberal Democrats was pretty much the same as it’s always been.
GB: But that is what has given him such good relationships with so many people of other parties or other persuasions. He didn’t just start this as governor. His whole time in the Senate, he was one who used to say it didn’t matter what party you were or where you came from. If you had an idea that was good for the people, … everyone should get behind it.
Is there anything that eight years ago you really wanted to tackle or accomplish that you’re having to walk away from now?
MB: Not really anything from eight years ago, but issues evolve. In 2006 and 2007, I had no idea we’d be involved in health care stuff like we are. It wasn’t in the forefront. I had no idea we’d be dealing with the worst recession in our lifetime. In fact, I had some political pundits that remarked after my first year that it’s easy to be governor when you’ve got all that money and things are going great. Anybody could be governor. It wasn’t but about a year and a half after that when the economy collapsed and I asked some of those folks, “How easy is it now?”
What are some of the most difficult moments you had as governor?
MB: The hardest thing is calling the wife or mother of a serviceman who we lost. That happened frequently early on. Because there’s not much you can say, other than to let them know their state and her people express the love and respect and condolences for that sacrifice.
On the other extreme, we set eight executions. You can be for the death penalty all you want to be, but if you’re the last person who says whether that person stays alive or not? The enormity of that responsibility is different than when you just talk in the abstract about being supportive of the death penalty. … The court stayed every one of them, so we haven’t had an execution, but that’s a sobering, sobering responsibility.
Disasters. We’ve had ice storms, we’ve had floods, we’ve had tornadoes, we’ve had all sorts of fires. One of the things I learned from that early on was how important it was for me to be there. You need to show up and let them know that help is on the way, even if there’s not a lot you can do directly.
Mrs. Beebe, many first ladies devote their attention to one or two issues, but you gave your energies to a number of causes.
GB: The first thing I did was the mental-health tour. I think that was in April of ’07, after legislation was passed establishing the system of care. There was a commission appointed by the governor, and I went out and talked to families and children with mental illness, and I went back and reported to this commission so they could improve the system of care throughout the state. It just sort of evolved from that with my interest in women and children, and especially people with disabilities. Then we recognized that in our state, we were pretty much at the top of a ranking that you don’t want to be second or third in, with childhood obesity. So that kind of went along with children and their health. And then when you talk about obesity, you realize there are children that are hungry, and there are children that are hungry and that are obese because they’re not eating the right food. Then you really delve into, Why are they hungry? They don’t have access. Their family doesn’t have funds. That’s a whole other issue. And then when you’re talking about children’s overall health, whether mental, physical or educational, that leads to literacy. So that became an issue, too—getting every child at a level where they could read. There are many good organizations in our state that promote literacy, so I became involved in that.
With the arts, when we moved into the Governor’s Mansion, this whole atrium space—part of the expansion that was built in 2003—there’s an upper and lower atrium space before you get into the actual Great Hall where events are held. I’ve always had an interest in arts, so I could see all those spaces filled with art. But it had to be Arkansas art.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
MB: What I hope I’ll be remembered for is not any single issue. I hope what I’ll be remembered for is that we’ve instilled a swagger in our people, where they don’t have that inferiority complex they used to have. Where we believe we can accomplish anything we want to. I hope I’ve instilled a modicum of that. I don’t ever want to hear, “Thank God for Mississippi” ever again.