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Oh, the Tangled Webs They Weave -- What's Right About Arkansas?

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Sure, Arkansas voters went overwhelmingly (638,017 to 422,310) for McCain over Obama, and yes, the state has two of the absolute worst and most reactionary Democratic senators, imbecile Mark Pryor and corrupt corporate pawn Blanche Lincoln. Chances are, you read about or heard the Arkansas state Senate's GOP whip and Republican Party U.S. Senate candidate, Kim Hendren last week. It was a national story. But you probably don't know much about state Rep. Kathy Webb, a Democrat representing downtown Little Rock, her party's whip, and the first ever openly gay elected official in Arkansas -- and the only one serving in the state legislature. She got some of that same ole Arkansas Republican treatment, but for some reason the national media isn't picking up on the homophobia the way they picked right up on the anti-Semitism.

A good Webb (left) and a really bad one (right)

Once Hendren popped the cork on GOP bigotry last week, it all started gushing out. Not only was Chuck Schumer "that Jew," suddenly Kathy Webb was "that lesbian." An editorial in the Arkansas Leader took it very seriously and urged its readers not to tolerate bigotry.

Escaping its growing reputation for religious intolerance and bigotry is going to be much harder than most devoted members of the Republican Party figured. The party's two leading figures in Arkansas, the only avowed candidate for the U. S. Senate and the party's state chairman, went to local party gatherings and uttered such nonsense that it won them national attention, the kind of attention no party wants.

State Sen. Kim Hendren of Gravette, who is running for the Republican nomination for the Senate and is so far unopposed, was trying to win over the Pulaski County Republican Committee, which did not like his vote for the cigarette tax increase back in March, so he attacked Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a liberal Democrat whose unflattering mention he thought would certainly get a good response from the Republicans. He could not think of Schumer's name, so he called him "that Jew."

Committee members fed the remark to a Republican blogger, a former campaign worker for Mike Huckabee, and it went on the Internet. Hendren said he was trying to make the point that he stood for traditional family values while the Jew did not. The Arkansas Young Republicans denounced the "anti-Semitic and derogatory personal attack." Other Republicans put some distance between themselves and the maverick senator. So Thursday Hendren apologized and said he never intended to derogate the senator's religion and that he had no antipathy for Jews. Ever the gentleman, Sen. Schumer said simply, "apology accepted."

Hendren explained that he was prone to stick his foot in his mouth, which he has demonstrated from time to time. His candor and independence sometimes are admirable. But the loose remark about a senator who is many things-- a Democrat, usually a liberal, a decent and intelligent man-- but who happens also to be a Jew betrays something disturbing about Hendren. He assumed that his audience would know the man primarily by his religion and would share his contempt for it.

He will have plenty of chances now to regain the esteem of tolerant people of all faiths in a party that actually does embrace different faiths, including Jews. He has virtually assured opposition in his own party, so there will be abundant opportunities for him to show tolerance for different religious beliefs, ethnic and social backgrounds and points of view.

Doyle Webb, the state Republican chairman and a former state senator, has more to atone for. While making the circuit of Lincoln Day Republican gatherings, Webb distinguished between himself and Democrats by saying he was for the Ten Commandments and the Democratic Party was not. Webb's own career has not been a particularly good example, but Democrats against the Ten Commandments? He described the Democratic Party as the party of lesbians and people who were not as good Christians as he was.

Webb went further and attacked a state representative from Little Rock, Kathy Webb, who is unrelated. In the Lincoln Day talks the Republican leader said there was a Democratic legislator who was a lesbian and, he implied, not a follower of the Ten Commandments or a devotee of family values. The day might be coming, he warned, when a lesbian would be "in charge of the state budget." He was referring to Rep. Webb, who probably will be co-chair of the Legislative Joint Budget Committee in 2011. Doyle Webb apparently did not serve in the legislature long enough to learn that the chairs of the Budget Committee are not "in charge of the state budget" but happen to have a vote the same as other committee members and other legislators. He may have merely been saying that lesbians are not good with arithmetic.

Ignorance and bigotry are a bad combination. They are the weapons of the demagogue.

Ms. Webb took the attack in stride. She said she would like to meet with Mr. Webb and share her own thoughts about family values. Let her describe them:

"First, my parents were happily married for 68 years, and my siblings and I get along very well. My Dad is a retired United Methodist pastor. I serve on the Missions Committee at First United Methodist Church, and chair the Green Team there. Last year, I spoke from the pulpit during Lent to help raise money for hunger relief. I am privileged to serve on both the Arkansas Foodbank Network and Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance boards.... Today, I was one of 10 legislators honored by the Arkansas Kids Count Coalition as a Legislative Champion. My parents raised me to help those who are less fortunate than I, that to whom much is given, much is expected, and to love my neighbors."

And Doyle Webb's values? Seven and a half years ago, the Supreme Court Committee on Professional Conduct rebuked and fined him for unethical conduct in his law practice. He was the attorney for an 86-year-old woman who was in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease. He arranged for a lawyer who practiced with him to change the sick woman's will to make Webb the beneficiary of $321,000 from her estate instead of her heirs. Three judges in Saline County, who seem to have been outraged, sent the case to the ethics committee.

We like Kathy Webb's family values better than Doyle's. Most Republicans do, too. They deserve leaders who share them both in word and deed.

I hope The Leader is correct about most Republicans liking Kathy's family values better than Doyle's. But I have no idea what they base that on. All I read is about how Republican leaders are determined to use hatred and bigotry for political gain. You've got to admire the strength and convictions of a woman like Kathy Webb to follow a career in public service in the face of the systemic ugliness that is today's Republican Party. Let's hope that when term limits ends her service in the Arkansas House in 2012, she decides to keep right on serving. Without men and women like Kathy Webb, we would all be at the mercy of people like Doyle Webb, Kim Hendren and Rush Limbaugh.