Arkansas Democrats honored the two terms of Gov. Mike Beebe Saturday evening (Aug. 23) while rallying its base with less than three months until the Nov. 4 general election.
First Lady Ginger Beebe, who introduced her husband, said if it was not for term limits, the governor likely would have never made the journey from the Arkansas Senate to the attorney general's office to his first opposed election in 2006 against former Republican U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is challenging Democrat Mike Ross in this year's race.
The first lady said while Beebe will never again serve in elected office, he was not leaving behind his passions, giving a glimpse into his retirement.
"Mike thinks the next chapter of his life is going to be filled with playing golf everyday, spending time with family. But I, as the wife, know better," she said. "While he'll never be elected to an office again, he also will never quit fighting for Arkansas."
She said the fight will include working for improved quality of life "and how we see ourselves."
Former President Bill Clinton, who spoke by video, said Beebe's time in office was led with a "steady hand."
"During the last eight years, I've watched with real pride as Gov. Beebe has guided our state through some pretty difficult terrain," he said. "But regardless of what our national economy or the courts or the federal courts placed before Arkansas, Mike always remained a steady hand, guiding us through and making sure that Arkansas would emerge stronger on the other side."
Beebe himself spoke of his upbringing as the child of a single mother and becoming a lawyer and legislator and how the opportunities he was given were possible due to what he said were Democratic policies enacted at the state and federal levels.
He said his own story was the story of many Arkansans and many in the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock Saturday for the annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, the Democratic Party of Arkansas' largest fundraiser of the year.
"Half the people in this room could probably tell the same story. You came from backgrounds that were less advantaged, that had obstacles, that had to overcome certain things to get where you are, significant economic depression – probably in your personal lives, certainly in your household. Many of you from single parent families, many of you from folks that weren't educated and yet you grabbed your part of the American dream."
Reflecting on his decades of public service, the governor said his life "wouldn't be worth anything" if he turned his back on Democratic ideals after achieving success in the private sector.
Discussing his almost eight years as governor, Beebe said much of the success he has claimed could be owed to experienced and energetic staff, both young and old, who "created synergy."
Throughout the evening, most of the candidates and speakers reflected on Beebe's time in office, noting that the best way to honor his legacy was to elect Democrats in November.
Ross, who officially received the Democratic Party nomination for governor at Saturday morning's Democratic State Convention, said Beebe has laid the ground work and he was prepared to build upon that.
"I know that we can build upon the foundation that Gov. Beebe has laid and we can do better," he said.
The former Prescott congressman repeated many of the themes from his stump speech delivered around the state, touting raising the state's minimum wage, protecting the Private Option – the state's expansion of Medicaid – and working with the General Assembly in a bi-partisan fashion.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who is facing a tough re-election fight from Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, reflected on his relationship with Beebe.
"I've known Mike as a lawyer in Searcy, I've known him as a state senator, I've known him as attorney general and now as governor. And he has been excellent in all the things he's done," Pryor said, reminding the crowd of Beebe's highest in the nation approval rating of any sitting governor.
"One of the reasons he has that is because of the fact that he's sensible, he constructive, he's smart and he's decisive. He's exactly the kind of leader Arkansas wants."
Beebe said for all the praise heaped on him Saturday, it was hard for him to narrow a single accomplishment from reducing taxes on groceries to seeing that the Private Option not only passed the General Assembly, but funding was renewed in 2014.
But he said Arkansans should not look back on his time in office and neglect the future.
"It's about tomorrow. We should always honor our heritage," he said, noting former U.S. Sens. Dale Bumpers, David Pryor and Clinton.
"All those people led the way and should be honored and revered and respected, but we should not spend too much time looking back. We should spend more time looking forward."
And while the evening was meant to honor Beebe, it started with protests outside the Statehouse Convention Center with a small group of protestors championing passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to a legal status for undocumented children and students.
Humberto Marquez, who spoke during a town hall event featuring Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Womack earlier in the week in Fort Smith, said the protests outside the Democratic fundraiser Saturday evening were meant to affect change in local policies regarding undocumented immigrants.
"Right now undocumented students are paying out of state tuition, which for us is very unjust. These are students who are graduating from Arkansas high schools and they are on top of their class. And they are getting treated unfairly by paying out of state tuition and sometimes, international fees," Marquez said.
In response, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt said in a press conference before the dinner that he was in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.
"I think we need an immigration policy in this country. If we continue to postpone that, it will continue to hurt our economy. … I think Sen. John McCain had a great bill that should be looked at and moved forward. I think we need a pathway to citizenship, but also I think we need to protect our borders at the same time as we move forward with this."
In a statement, Ross stopped short of calling for in-state tuition for undocumented students in Arkansas, though he said college overall should be more affordable.
"We should do everything we can to make college more affordable for any Arkansas student who studies, works hard and graduates from an Arkansas high school, and, as governor, I'll work in a bipartisan way to make college more affordable for more Arkansas families."