Frequently, political debates center around the role of government in citizens’ lives.
Parties and philosophies continue the tug of war over how much government should be expected to do for individuals and over how far its reach should be. While that debate will likely never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, it is certainly clear government can’t take care of everything.
That’s where organizations like Easter Seals Arkansas come in, and Governor Asa Hutchinson, the Easter Seals Arkansan of the Year, is glad to have them.
“It’s very important,” Hutchinson said during a pre-Christmas interview in his Capitol Building office. “It’s doesn’t take long for a governor to realize that the state, as a government, cannot solve all of our challenges. And the essential role that our nonprofit charities play is a big part of our solutions for the future.”
Hutchinson, at the dawn of his second year in office since he was elected to replace term-limited Mike Beebe, will be honored as Arkansan of the Year at Easter Seals’ benefit gala at the Statehouse Convention Center on March 31.
“The charitable community in Arkansas is a very important partner with the state and what we’re trying to accomplish for the future,” said Hutchinson, joining a long list of honorees that includes several former governors. “And Easter Seals is a leading part of those solutions for families that are struggling with children with disabilities. And I’m honored to be recognized but also very pleased to support that effort.”
While known for its work with children, Easter Seals Arkansas helps individuals of all ages who have special needs, and their families, through education and employment services, physical therapy, home care and assisted living. The Arkansan of the year benefit, which draws between 500-700 attendees and raises $500,000 or more, is Easter Seals’ primary fundraiser.
“Easter Seals, we’re still a nonprofit so it really benefits the programs and services we provide,” said Director of Development Mac Bell.
While honors and honorary titles often come with the political territory, Easter Seals tapped Hutchinson for this year’s honor for pragmatic as well as promotional reasons. A sitting governor, Bell said, is a good draw, and he added that Hutchinson’s policies and actions — preserving so far the “private option” Medicaid expansion begun under Beebe, for example — have helped or at least done no harm to nonprofits.
“I would think that this would be one of those that would be very heavily attended,” Bell said. “He’s done a lot of things that have helped children and families. He is in good standing. He’s done some good things. … I think that he genuinely cares about people.”
Hutchinson has held positions both elected and appointed during his career and he took the time to reflect not only on the usefulness of Easter Seals and other charities, but on the ins and outs of being governor and his own journey in politics.
Hutchinson, a Bentonville native, University of Arkansas law school graduate and Arkansas’ 46th governor, began his political career as Bentonville coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. President Reagan then appointed Hutchinson U.S. Attorney for the United States Western District of Arkansas, making him, at 31, the youngest U.S. Attorney in the nation.
“As my wife said, she thought she married a small town lawyer,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson lists Reagan, as well as Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt, among his political heroes and role models along with mentor Ed Bethune, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas’ Second District.
“We all need our mentors and the people that we admire,” said Hutchinson, noting that the historical figures he listed knew how to use optimism, the bully pulpit and power of words to promote patriotism “and motivate people based on that.”
Hutchinson has held offices both appointed and elected in his career. He won office as the U.S. Congressman from Arkansas’ Third District, was administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the first undersecretary for border and transportation security with the Department of Homeland Security. He ran against Beebe for governor in 2006 and defeated Democrat Mike Ross to win the office in 2014.
“All of these varied positions really prepared me to be governor,” Hutchinson said, pointing out his background in security and combatting terrorism with Homeland Security, how his DEA work gave him insight into the methamphetamine and opiate abuses affecting Arkansans and how his background as a U.S. attorney prepared him to grapple with potential reforms within the criminal justice system.
But when it comes to which is better, elected versus appointed office, Hutchinson says that hands down it’s better to be elected. While the demands on his time as governor were something of a surprise his first year, he said in its way elected office is more liberating because the people who voted are giving the office holder power to get things done and expect no less.
“The difference is empowerment,” Hutchinson said. “Whenever you are appointed to a position you have authority but you are not empowered by the people you serve and there’s a difference there. … Contrary to what some people think it’s actually a liberating sense. It’s great responsibility but also you have a great deal of freedom to accomplish those things.”
But that doesn’t mean a governor doesn’t need a little help, so Hutchinson is glad to lend his name and status to can-do organizations like Easter Seals as they try to make life in the state better.
“It’s closer to home,” Hutchinson said of the governorship. “It’s more fun and you can accomplish more and that makes it the best job in America without any doubt. I love the opportunity to be governor and despite the demands it’s a rewarding job and a fun job.”
Easter Seals Arkansas has operated in some form or fashion since 1944, when Virginia Armistead founded the Arkansas Association for the Crippled to serve children in local schools and hospitals.
“If you look at the history of Easter Seals it was created in response to a need,” Bell said. “There weren’t even any therapists in Arkansas.”
Easter Seals Arkansas today employs 530 people, 255 of which are waiver employees including case managers and home healthcare providers.
Children’s services include a developmental preschool, outpatient therapy, high-risk infant monitoring, in-home waiver services and inpatient rehabilitation. For adults, Easter Seals offers waiver services and operates a training and wellness center, four independent living apartment complexes and the 10-bed, residential, Butler Adult Living Center.
There are also education and outreach services and a technology and curriculum access center. Easter Seals helps people with all manner of difficulties — children with autism, Down Syndrome and developmental delays as well as those born with physical limitations. Some children eventually “test out” of rehabilitation to enjoy normal lives, while others require a lifetime of care.
“Easter Seals is there for them when they’re born but they’re also there for them when they get older,” said Bell, who noted that the toughest times for those with disabilities and their families are often when a disabled person reaches the age of 18 and leaves the familiar environment of school to face a lifetime of dealing with a disability.
The government and and government agencies and programs, HUD and Medicaid waiver programs for example, always help, Bell said. But Easter Seals will also always need people to staff those programs, and equipment to put in the buildings the government helps pay for.
And so the organization will always need a little help from its fundraisers, like Arkansan of the Year, and friends like the governor, this year’s honoree.
“That’s what this kind of stuff helps us do,” Bell said. “Those costs can’t be absorbed by the general business lines we have.”
“I think we all have a connection to Easter Seals, through history and decade after decade of service” Hutchinson said. “So I have that connection and obviously there’s friends and people that I know who have benefited tremendously by the vision and service of Easter Seals.”
Arkansan of the Year
When: 6 p.m., Thursday, March 31
Where: Statehouse Convention Center
Tickets + info: 227-3700, EasterSealsAR.com