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Political Capital, Maneuvering Aided King Bill Win (Andrew DeMillo Analysis)

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LITTLE ROCK — It was an idea that seemed impossible two years ago: Arkansas would end its dual holiday for Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King Jr. A House committee in 2015 regularly rejected the proposal as opponents filled the room to complain that the move was an affront to their Confederate ancestors.

But that plan quickly became a reality last week, when Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law a measure removing the Confederate general from the slain civil rights leader’s day. All it took was a Republican governor willing to spend political capital, a provision that helped the bill maneuver through committees and a closing argument from a lawmaker whose great-great grandfather left Mississippi to fight for the Union.

With a stroke of a pen, Hutchinson quickly ended what he had predicted would be an uphill fight. He also ended what opponents of the dual holiday had called a regular reminder of the painful legacy of slavery and an embarrassment for the state.

“I expected this debate would divide us, but instead during the debate we listened to each other and the conversation brought us together,” Hutchinson said before signing the measure into law. “This is an education bill in which the discussion educated each of us, and we learned that history needs to be viewed not just from our own lens, but through the eyes and experiences of others.”

Hutchinson admitted he stayed on the sidelines during the debate over the bill two years ago, focused on his push for an income tax cut during a session that was upended by a religious objections measure in its final days. But he tried to make up for that, declaring his plans early last year to urge lawmakers to give King the day to himself. He also took the unusual step of testifying before both the House and Senate committees for the measure.

The plan was also boosted by its provision expanding what’s taught in Arkansas schools about civil rights and the Civil War. That language helped ensure the proposal would go to the House and Senate education committees and help avoid the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, where it stalled in 2015.

At the bill signing last week, Hutchinson singled out Democratic Rep. George McGill for the 12-minute speech delivered from the House floor urging lawmakers to back the move. Hutchinson said an unnamed House member who had initially opposed ending the dual holiday was swayed by McGill’s address.

The Fort Smith lawmaker told his colleagues the bill showed the governor recognized “Arkansas is much bigger than its footprint.”

“What we’re doing is creating some space where we can educate our children,” McGill said. “We’re going to leave it to the educators to talk about things we’re not sure of.”

The bill signing offered Hutchinson a victory lap as he heads into the final days of a session that could be overshadowed by other issues, including sweeping legislation he signed expanding where concealed guns are allowed, an unresolved fight over a “bathroom bill” he and tourism groups oppose and his decision to schedule an unprecedented eight executions over a 10-day period next month.

Hutchinson also signaled he’s not looking to re-evaluate any other symbols of the Civil War, including a star on the state flag representing the Confederacy, or Confederate memorials.

“My objective is not to change history, to erase history or to remove every remembrance of what our country has gone through, but it’s to use that history to reflect and understand all the different viewpoints that were represented during that difficult time in our history and use it as the learning point that this legislation is designed to do,” Hutchinson said.

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ademillo.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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