Posts Tagged ‘Mike Beebe’
Am I at a Republican event?
Loud, booming music about America plays over a loud speaker. I feel like General Douglas MacArthur could rise from the dead and storm to the podium at any minute.
For so many years, Democrats have reliably played John Cougar Mellencamp, Bon Jovi and U2 songs at these events to the point of musical exhaustion for reporters. But tonight it’s seemingly John Phillip Sousa’s greatest hits on a loop. I’d take “Beautiful Day” over charging military anthems, but nobody asked me..
Welcome to the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner 2011. Yee-haw!
At these events, news is seldom made. People get awards. They eat a buffet dinner. They drink. Switch “greedy Republicans” for “tax and spend” Democrats and you have the same thing at the GOP’s annual dinner. This is a red-meat event meant to fire up the party faithful.
Speaking of red meat – tonight’s buffet dinner is (surprisingly) beef instead of chicken. We media always sit at a back table and don’t get to eat. Since journalism ethics require us to starve rather than accept a slice of cheesecake. At this event, media wasn’t allowed to pay a small ticket price – $10 to $15 – to enjoy a buffet while waiting for the main speaker: The colorful Montana Governor, Brian Schweitzer. Alas, I should have packed a picnic to this shindig.
The temperature is freezing in Verizon Arena. Not chilly, not cool. Close to sub-zero. Sarah Palin would feel right at home if the room wasn’t filled with 1,300 Democrats.
This is not the glamorous part of a girl reporter’s life. Waiting and watching – that’s the name of the game.
Fashion makes for colorful entertainment. For women, the dresses range from ultra casual to full-on fancy formals with glittery high heels. One woman wears a necklace that looked more like a chandelier than jewelry. A girl almost teeters out of her glittery gold too-high-heeled pumps right in front of the media table. Whew! Good thing her beau was there to catch her.
Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe soon arrives and the television camera guys buzzes around him. He sticks to talking points, chatting about how Democratic candidates could get elected in 2012. (Hardworking candidates who are known in their districts, he says.) Confession: My attention wanes. My eye roams to the cute guy in his security detail. Did he just wink at me?
Beebe moves along to mingle because that’s what politicians do at these events. Shake hands and chat.
Plates of food attached to the hands of Democrats march past the media pen. My stomach growls. I’m cold. If this was a hashtag, #unhappy would be it.
Media usually stays in its assigned area, but in case we didn’t know that, arena officials suddenly arrive in front of the table and sticks down bold black and yellow striped tape. What happens if we cross it? Hmm. Will Beebe’s cute security guy tackle me?
The show starts with Gabe Holmstrom, who once worked for former Rep. Marion Berry. Berry has been diagnosed with lymphoma. Holstrom wants everyone to yell a get well wish for Berry while he recorded it on his iPhone. It doesn’t go so well as everyone is out of sync. It’s the thought that counts, right?
An invocation by Democratic stalwart Jimmie Lou Fisher follows. Amen.
Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor addresses the crowd next, explaining to Schweitzer how everyone works together in Arkansas. “Even the Baptists and Methodists work together sometimes.” He adds that there were limits to this.
It becomes hard to focus because I really long for a pair of mittens as a cold wind blows across my notepad.
The new Arkansas Party Chairman, Will Bond, who looks like Harry Potter minus the scar, introduces a video about Arkansas Democrats. I don’t know any of the people in the video although one guy Mark who runs his own business looks vaguely familiar.
A bevy of presentations followed before Rep. Mike Ross (who announced less than 48 hours later that he would not seek re-election in 2012) hit the stage. He targets Republican Rep. Tim Griffin and Rep. Rick Crawford, saying Griffin already thinks he is running for senator and Crawford still has a deer in the headlights look in his eyes. Ouch.
More constitutional officers speak before Beebe, like a Baptist preacher, gets the crowd fired up about tax cuts, job losses and the overall ills of the country.
“The strength of the country has always been in the center,” he says.
I’m hungry. I tweet that I’m hungry. Maybe someone will hear my pleas.
Finally, the man of the night Schweitzer, in casual dress and wearing a bolo tie, blasts onto the stage. He says he hated to leave Montana in July because the state only gets two months of summer. Beebe, however, told him that Montana and Arkansas has the same weather.
“You get down to 74 and we get up to 74 in the day,” he says.
Ah ha! That’s why it is so cold in the arena. They want to make Schweitzer feel right at home. I hope I don’t catch pneumonia on this assignment. Some people are covering themselves with napkins. Maybe I can take the blue skirt off the table and whip it into a cape. A cape revolution! (Note to self: Watch more DIY shows.)
Schweitzer spins yarns about the Big Sky state, which he loves dearly. He makes it sound romantic with its beauty, wind energy and people living to be 114 years old. How much does a plane ticket to Montana cost?
Three slices of cheesecake arrive at our table from the state director of a non-partisan organization, Americans for Prosperity. Two of the reporters don’t trust it. Ethics be damned. I’m starving. The only food I have eaten all day is a cat-head biscuit. At the moment, I could eat the whole cat. It’s not as yummy as a wedge from the Cheesecake Factory, but it’ll keep my blood sugar to plummeting to zero as Schweitzer carries on. Montana runs deep in him.
In my peripheral vision, the cute security guy lurks. OMG. Has he been watching me scarf this dessert as if it is my last meal on death row? #embarrassing
Schweitzer finally wraps up his cowboy storytelling just as I enjoy the last bite of cheesecake. Perfect timing, Mr. Montana.
The mystery: Dead blackbirds, dead fish.
The setting: Rural Arkansas on New Year’s Eve.
The story: In a town named Beebe, thousands of red-winged blackbirds begin to drop dead out of the sky onto New Year’s revelers. Coincidentally, the surname of the Arkansas governor is Beebe. Meanwhile, 125 miles away, 100,000 drum fish are found belly-up in the Arkansas River. Two days later, in Louisiana, 500 more red-winged blackbirds are discovered dead on a highway, and Kentucky reports bird deaths. Religious leaders begin preaching about the end times. Officials say loud fireworks or weather are tied to the bird deaths. The fish likely died from disease. Social media erupts with conspiracy theories. It makes the news in Russia. People don’t believe the government.
Questions, fear and plenty of speculation erupt.
As one Democrat quipped, “Could the birds be harbingers of bad things to come as they fell right as the GOP was taking over?”
Many people joke that maybe too many people were playing the computer game “Angry Birds.”
Or as Jon Stewart said Monday night on “The Daily Show,” maybe Arkansas is just in the running this year for “leading exporter of bat-bleep crazy.” Last year, it was South Carolina.
The official line is that the birds died of blunt trauma to their organs and suffered blood clots resulting from a massive midair collision. The theory is that they were startled by something — fireworks or weather.
But the storms that rocked the state earlier in the day had moved way east of Arkansas by the time the birds fell, according to the National Weather Service in North Little Rock. On the fireworks front, the city of Beebe does not host a large pyrotechnic display on New Year’s Eve. Would a few bottle rockets do that kind of damage? Arkansas officials are still investigating the fish kill.
Dead fish have also been found in Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. More than 100 tons of sardines were found dead in Brazil on Sunday. New Zealand media reported on Tuesday that dead, mostly eyeless, snapper had washed up on several Coromandel Peninsula beaches.
Naturally, people have jumped from disease explanations to government cover-ups worthy of an old “X-Files” episode, to signs of the apocalypse.
The town of Beebe sits less than 20 miles from the Little Rock Air Force Base. Could the base be conducting secret tests? Last year, it was reported that some Air Force researchers were testing high-powered microwave blasts to knock small robo-planes out of the sky. Officials with the Little Rock Air Force Base did not return calls for comment.
Other theories involve poison from the BP Gulf disaster. Another one centers on drilling and fracking throughout Arkansas. Environmental causes are often the reason behind many wildlife deaths such as honeybees and birds. Is the world at an ecological tipping point?
One theory that could have some real basis also looms.
Arkansas sits on the New Madrid earthquake fault line. It extends from northeast Arkansas through southeast Missouri and into western Tennessee, western Kentucky and southern Illinois. A series of strong earthquakes occurred in 1812 in this area. Reports from the time say that wildlife died before the big ones.
Geologists have predicted that in the next 50 years, if not sooner, a devastating earthquake of 6.5 or higher might happen. In late 2008, the Obama administration’s Long Term Disaster Recovery Working Group held five meetings around the country, including in Memphis, which sits in the heart of the fault line. Maybe they need to meet again.
Then, there’s the conspiracy theory that links two major news stories this week — the birds and the death of John P. Wheeler, III.
According to WhatDoesItMean.com, (one headline from the site: US Descends Into Total Police State As 2012 ‘Solar Chaos’ Fears Grow) a document has been prepared for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by the Foreign Military Intelligence Directorate. It supposedly shows a linkage between the birds and Wheeler, the special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force from 2005-2008 who was found dead in a Delaware landfill.
Basically, as the story goes, a malfunction in an Air Force tanker carrying Phosgene poisonous gas caused the deadly brew to be sprayed over central Arkansas. Wheeler then confronted the Pentagon and ended up dead.
But the strange but true tales of wildlife deaths also prompted some folks to exercise their capitalist muscles. A T-shirt with a dead bird is already on sale in Little Rock. With bird deaths occurring globally, the creator may soon have a thriving business.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – In a historic Gothic church in downtown, more than 150 people from Arkansas, around the country and the world gathered Wednesday night to show their support for the West Memphis Three.
The West Memphis Three are Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. While teenagers, they were charged with the murder of three 8-year-old boys, who were found in 1993 naked and bound in West Memphis, Ark. The case immediately made national headlines and was the focus of two HBO documentaries.
Echols was sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences.
Since 1993, the case has received attention from celebrities, including a rally and concert in August that featured Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines, Patti Smith and Johnny Depp.
On Thursday morning, the Arkansas Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Damien Echols’ case. His attorneys asked for a new trial based on claims of juror misconduct and new DNA evidence – DNA testing was unavailable in 1993 – that they say proves his innocence. Attorneys for the state attorney general office argued that DNA testing wasn’t enough to warrant a new trial. More than 100 people packed the Supreme Court chamber and an overflow room where West Memphis Three supporters viewed the proceedings on a closed-circuit television.
Two women are at the heart of the West Memphis Three activism — Capi Peck, a Little Rock restaurant owner, and Lorri Davis, the wife of Echols. Together, they have become a force to be reckoned with as they have pushed for a new trial and more grassroots activism in Arkansas, the one place where attention on the case has been minimal.
“Arkansas voices needed to be heard,” Peck told Politics Daily. “I’ve taken flack for getting involved since I own a restaurant and been told it wasn’t wise because the public position was divisive and polarizing. But this is social justice. It is a black mark on our state and judicial system.”
Peck met Davis through her restaurant four years ago. Back then, Davis, who is shy, didn’t publicly talk about the case or her relationship with Echols. The two women never mentioned the case as they began to hang out on Saturday nights. Peck, who was aware of the case, says see initially saw their friendship as a way for Davis to relax and put the case out of her mind. Then Davis started opening up to Peck.
Davis told Peck the story about how she had seen “Paradise Lost,” the HBO documentary about the case in 1995. At the time, Davis, a West Virginia native, lived in New York where she worked as a landscape designer. She became fascinated with Echols and began writing him in prison. Two years later, she moved to Arkansas. In 1999, they married.
Through that time, Davis has fought to get legal and financial help for the cause. She has become friends not only with Peck but Vedder, who has visited Echols numerous times in prison, and Depp.
“It’s not so much my own stress, but the stress of what Damien has had to live with,” Davis says. “It’s horrible to see people you love suffer, to watch their life slipping away.”
Peck says she’s watched the “emotional strain” take a toll on Davis as she tried every avenue to get Echols – and also Misskelley and Baldwin – free and keep focus on the case. Davis never takes a vacation because she doesn’t want to miss her weekly visit with Echols. They talk every day on the telephone.
Some would call Davis crazy for falling in love with a man on Death Row. She dismisses it.
“I felt this kinship with Damien,” she says without further explanation.
Peck realized that while celebrity and global netroots support existed in the case, few in Arkansas seemed to care about the issue. Davis, too, had very little community support, even after she began seeking it. Peck, along with a handful of friends, began Arkansas Take Action to educate the public on the facts of the complex case and generate a grassroots push for a new trial.
The West Memphis Three case is a complicated one. The murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore rocked the small eastern Arkansas town of Robin Hood Hills, a wooded area near their home in West Memphis. Local and state police were pressured by the community to quickly find the murderer.
Some believed it to be a case of an occult killing. Echols was singled out because he wore black clothes, listened to heavy metal and read horror novels, although he did not know the three boys.
Less than a month later, Misskelley, who was later diagnosed as mentally handicapped, confessed to the crime and claimed Echols and Baldwin sexually abused, cut and beat the victims. The confession and facts of the crime never matched. No DNA taken from the crime scene matched that of the West Memphis Three.
In 2007, Peck and Davis invited Natalie Maines to a rally on the steps of the state capitol in Little Rock where they presented petitions and letters to Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe asking for a new trial. The governor does not have the power to do so, but can commute sentences and grant pardons. He has ruled out both. That rally spawned a controversy when Maines said then that new DNA evidence implicated one of the stepfathers of the dead boys. Maines also posted a note about the new evidence to the Dixie Chicks website.
The stepfather, Terry Hobbs, filed a lawsuit in 2008 against Maines for damages that included “loss of income, injury to his reputation and emotional distress.” The suit was dismissed in December. In April, the court ordered Hobbs to pay Maines’ attorney and court fees.
Peck, who says the last time she was involved in politics or a cause was George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, placed petitions and informational cards Trio’s, her popular restaurant, about the case. Her group held candlelight vigils, which seldom garnered any local press attention. She became friends with Echols and began writing letters to him.
“I am an eternal optimist,” Peck says. “I ultimately have faith in people. I believe that if we are adamant and vocal we can make a difference.”
The group recently sent a letter to former President Bill Clinton asking for him to lend support to the “tragic injustice.” Clinton’s Harlem office wrote back that the case was a local issue.
The August rally and concert, attended by 2,500 people, was a sell-out. Many had never paid attention to the case but are now involved in Arkansas Take Action, gathering signatures on another round of petitions to take to the governor. A video was also produced for the rally.
The event also focused on the new evidence that will be presented at Thursday’s hearing — new DNA found in one of the ligatures used to restrain one of the victims.
Experts believe that Misskelley’s confession was coerced. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, along with the Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, filed an amicus brief with the Arkansas Supreme Court asking the court to grant Echols a new trial. According to that group, there have been 257 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. A quarter of them involved a false confession.
Aside from DNA evidence, defense attorneys argue that the jury foreman engaged in “blatant misconduct” by having improper conversations with a prominent Arkansas attorney that led to Echols’ and Baldwins’ murder convictions.
If the Supreme Court refuses to grant a new trial, lawyers plan to fight the case in federal court. The Supreme Court will likely rule on the case in the next two to six weeks.
At the vigil Wednesday night, letters and journal entries by the West Memphis Three were read by activists. White candles were lit and a silent meditation occurred for 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 years that the three have “endured a grave injustice.”
Supporters – some of whom came from as far as Canada and California – plan to pack the courtroom Thursday morning as the state and Echols’ attorney present their two sides to the state Supreme Court justices, who previously upheld Echols’ conviction.
Peck and Davis take issue with those who say they are fighting a lost cause. “The tide is turning. Whatever happens tomorrow, our work is not over,” Peck says. “Regardless of what happens, we are not going to go away until these three young men are home.”
Davis echoes her friend. “The world is watching Arkansas and its judicial system and politicians now,” she says.