Watching Mike Huckabee’s surge in Iowa, Jackson T. “Steve” Stephens Jr. is second-guessing his one-time flirtation with elected office. “If had it to do over again, I would probably challenge Huckabee,” he said of the short time in 2001 when he considered running against him for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
But he doesn’t have it to do all over again, which is why he now feels a heightened obligation. As an Arkansan who knows Huckabee well, he feels obliged to make sure the rest of the country knows much more about his former governor’s “taxing and spending” ways.
Stephens isn’t just any person; he is a board member of the anti-tax, and increasingly anti-Huckabee, Club for Growth — a group Huckabee routinely refers to as the “Club for Greed.” He is also the son of the late Jack Stephens, one of Arkansas’s most successful businessmen, who grew a local investment banking business into Stephens, Inc., a company which houses one of the largest trading floors off Wall Street and has offices all over the world. He worked in the family business for a time, though now he is the CEO of a biomedical firm which he founded.
He doesn’t have a preferred Republican candidate, but adds that his “sole purpose is to educate people about Huckabee.” According to Stephens, the Club for Growth will target Huckabee this week with “significant” television ad buy, both in Iowa and nationally. “We will use his own words against him,” he said referring to the ad, which features Huckabee standing before the Arkansas Legislature in 2003, reciting the litany of tax increases he would be willing to sign into law.
Anti-tax groups, like the Club for Growth, have been at odds with Huckabee for a while, and at times it’s become quite heated. In 2001, when the Club for Growth gave the then-Arkansas governor a low “C” grade for his handling of budget and tax policy, Huckabee sent Stephen Moore, who was the group’s president, a fiery missive protesting his rating. “Grades given by out-of-state eggheads don’t go on our permanent record.” Huckabee wrote.
In 2003, when Grover Norquist, president for Americans for Tax Reform, criticized Huckabee’s tendency to raise taxes instead of scaling back spending, he fired back.
“What do our critics want – to rip the feeding tubes out of an 8-year-old or an elderly person on Medicaid? Grover needs to run for governor somewhere, win, and then try to govern,” Huckabee told the Washington Times. “He makes it sound so easy.”
As for Stephens and Huckabee, the two men haven’t always been on opposite ends of ideological spectrum. Stephens began working with Huckabee as chairman of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a state-based free-market think tank, which, shortly after Huckabee became governor in 1996, launched a complete top-to-bottom review of Arkansas government called the Murphy Commission.
At the time Stephens had high hopes for the new Republican governor, but the group’s recommendations to stream-line and shrink state government were never implemented. “These were wonderful recommendations that more than 200 volunteers worked on for two and a half years, and he didn’t choose any of that. He is not a conservative, certainly not a fiscal conservative,” he said.
In the summer of 2001, when Stephens setup his exploratory committee, Huckabee’s $160 million in tax cuts had shrunk to $13 million after he’d increased the sales tax, as well as taxes on diesel and gasoline, cigarettes, and other tobacco products. But he didn’t stop there.
In spite of his pledge not to raise taxes in November 2001, in which he stated “additional taxes hurt the economy,” Huckabee increased taxes on numerous occasions; by the time he left office in January 2007 he had increased taxes by a half-billion dollars.
But that wasn’t the first time Huckabee has broken his word on taxes.
Stephens met with Huckabee in 2002 to talk about education and tax policy. During their conversation, Stephens told the governor that he was supportive of a new citizen effort to get rid of the sales tax on food and medicine. Huckabee responded that he supported getting rid of the tax in principle, and that he wouldn’t take a position on the citizen effort because he was busy focused on his own re-election. But later that same year, Huckabee began speaking out against the “Axe the Food Tax” effort, which Arkansas voters rejected at the polls.
Stephens thinks very little about Huckabee’s new claims that he is an economic conservative or that he supports the Fair Tax. “Supporting that proposal was Huckabee’s attempt to tap into $150,000 the Fair Tax folks were spending to bus people to August’s Iowa Straw Poll,” he said adding that Huckabee never undertook any kind of fundamental reform of anything when he was governor.
Stephens cautions conservatives who maybe inclined to consider Huckabee, but are less than flattered with the Bush administration’s record on spending and growing government. “At least President Bush cut taxes. With Mike Huckabee you don’t even have that,” he warned.
— David J. Sanders is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau.