Asa Hutchinson (1950–)

aka: William Asa Hutchinson

Forty-sixth Governor (2015–)

William Asa Hutchinson first gained national attention as the youngest district attorney in the nation in 1982. He went on to represent the Third District of Arkansas in Congress as a Republican from 1997 to 2001, resigning his post on August 6, 2001, to become the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Hutchinson left the DEA to become the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security, a post he held from 2003 to 2005. In 2005, Hutchinson began actively campaigning for the governorship of Arkansas but lost the race to Mike Beebe in November 2006. However, he was elected governor eight years later in 2014 and reelected in 2018.

Asa Hutchinson was born on December 3, 1950, in Bentonville (Benton County) to John Malcom Sr. and Coral Hutchinson. John Malcom Hutchinson Sr. was a grocer, farmer, and eventually mayor of Sulphur Springs (Benton County). Hutchinson was the youngest of six children. He attended grade school in Gravette (Benton County) and graduated from Springdale High School in 1968. Hutchinson attended Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, graduating with a BS in accounting in 1972. He went on to receive a JD in 1975 from the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville (Washington County). While at Bob Jones University, he met his future wife, Susan Burrell. They were married in 1973 and have four children.

Hutchinson first held public office as the city attorney of Bentonville from 1977 to 1978. In 1982, Ronald Reagan appointed Hutchinson as district attorney (DA). As the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, Hutchinson successfully investigated and prosecuted a group of right-wing extremists called the Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord (CSA) in 1984 and 1985. Hutchinson also prosecuted Bill Clinton’s younger brother, Roger, on charges of cocaine possession. After his service as the DA from 1982 to 1985, he made the first of several unsuccessful bids for public office by attempting to unseat the popular Senator Dale Bumpers in 1986.

Hutchinson was a partner in the Karr & Hutchinson law firm from 1986 to 1996 and was active in the Arkansas Republican Party. After an unsuccessful attempt to beat Winston Bryant in a campaign for attorney general in 1990, he became the co-chairman and later chairman of the Arkansas Republican Party from 1990 to 1995.

Hutchinson’s older brother Tim was also active in state and national politics, holding seats in the state House of Representatives and as the Third District congressman from 1993 to 1997. After two terms in Congress, Tim Hutchinson decided to run for U.S. Senate, thus leaving the Third District congressional seat vacant. Asa Hutchinson ran and won with fifty-six percent of the vote in a tough race against Democrat Ann Henry in November 1996. He was easily reelected in 1998 and 2000.

Hutchinson was quick to get involved in tough national issues such as drug abuse, bounty hunter reform, and campaign finance reform. He was soon appointed to the Bipartisan Freshman Task Force on Campaign Finance Reform and co-sponsored (with seventy-seven others) the base bill for campaign finance debate in the 105th Congress, the Bipartisan Campaign Integrity Act of 1997 (HR 2183). This piece of legislation sought to limit soft-money campaign contributions and other financial conflicts of interest on Capitol Hill. However, it was bombarded with amendments and did not become law, although it passed in the House.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee and, later, the Committee on Government Reform, Hutchinson was a key player in the investigations that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and was appointed one of the thirteen House managers of the Senate impeachment trial of Clinton on December 19, 1998. Hutchinson was a prosecutor during the Senate impeachment trial and worked closely with the other House managers as they prepared to interview witnesses and present arguments on the Senate floor. As House manager, Hutchinson achieved national and international acclaim and reinforced his reputation for being a level-headed and effective trial lawyer.

As a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Hutchinson worked to improve veteran healthcare, specifically through the expansion of the Veterans Administration clinic system in northwest Arkansas. For area active and National Guard military personnel, he worked to ensure that the Fort Chaffee base closure would be turned toward the most positive economic and social outcomes possible through working closely with the Fort Chaffee Community Trust. As a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he worked to fund major road improvements.

Through earlier experiences as a trial lawyer and district attorney in Arkansas, Hutchinson had developed a special interest in the effects of drug use on individuals and communities. He was nominated for the Speaker’s Task Force on Drugs on June 21, 1999. This task force was in charge of developing a legislative package dedicated to reducing foreign production, drug smuggling, and domestic drug usage. Hutchinson was integral in shining a national spotlight on the particular dangers of methamphetamines.

President George W. Bush nominated him for an appointment in the DEA in June 2001. Hutchinson accepted the job and resigned from Congress on August 6, 2001. He left the DEA to become the Under Secretary for Border and Transportation Security at the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, a position he held until he resigned in 2005.

In early 2005, Hutchinson founded a consulting firm, Hutchinson Group, LLC, in Little Rock (Pulaski County) and also accepted a one-year position with the Venable Law Firm in Washington DC. He drew criticism for negotiating his contract with Venable (the firm has many national and international legal specialties, including national security) while still working as Homeland Security Under Secretary, though he insisted that he complied with the law, working with the legal and ethics team of the Department of Homeland Security.

Hutchinson left Venable in March 2006 to focus on his campaign for Arkansas governor. Following a difficult race in which the national shift in public opinion about Republican leadership in the White House and in Congress played a role, Hutchinson lost to Democrat Mike Beebe. Hutchinson re-joined the Venable Law Firm in January of 2007. He split his time between Venable in Washington DC and the Hutchinson Group, LLC, in Little Rock before founding the Asa Hutchinson Law Group, PLC, in Rogers (Benton County) in 2008. Following the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Hutchinson was appointed the head of a National Rifle Association (NRA) task force that, the following year, issued a list of recommendations to combat school shootings, including the training and arming of school staff members.

Hutchinson again ran as a Republican gubernatorial candidate for the 2014 election, defeating former congressman Mike Ross with over fifty-five percent of the vote. His election was part of a larger Republican sweep of the state in which the party claimed all of the constitutional offices and solidified its majority in both houses of the Arkansas General Assembly.

The Republican supermajorities assured passage of Hutchinson’s key agenda items—significant tax cuts, a commitment to computer science education in the state’s schools, and (during the 2017 legislative session) separation of the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee state holidays. Hutchinson was also able to ensure the continuation of Medicaid expansion in the state that was key to balancing the state’s budget and to providing continued health insurance coverage to over 250,000 Arkansans through a combination of support from all Democratic legislators and most of the Republicans. To gain the necessary GOP votes, Hutchinson rebranded the program “Arkansas Works” and, after the election of Donald J. Trump as president in 2016, was able to obtain a waiver from federal officials that allowed a controversial work requirement that bumped thousands of participants from the program.

Over time, some factionalism did show itself among Republican elected officials, with an establishment wing (led by Hutchinson) pitted against a more populist wing grounded in the rural parts of the state with a particular affinity for President Trump. The conflict came to the fore on a number of social issues such as the 2015 battle over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Populists favored a more expansive version of the law called the “Conscience Protection Act” that would have allowed individuals and businesses to discriminate against others when state actions led to violations of their religious beliefs. Fearing a nationwide backlash, business leaders in the state raised concerns regarding the act, and, in response, Hutchinson demanded that the legislature revise it in a manner that was consistent with federal law. In the 2018 Republican primaries, establishment Republicans—including Hutchinson—generally fended off populist challengers, allowing the conservative pragmatism of the establishment to remain dominant in the state.

Hutchinson had in 2017 received even more national and international attention (and criticism) because of his attempt to carry out a series of executions unprecedented since the return of the death penalty in the United States in the 1970s. A combination of forces had kept Arkansas from executing any death row inmates for a dozen years. Driven by the coming expiration of one of the three drugs included in Arkansas’s lethal injection regimen, Hutchinson originally scheduled eight executions to be conducted within an eleven-day period in April 2017. Ultimately, four of those executions were blocked by courts, but the other four were carried out despite protests.

During the first Hutchinson term, a multi-faceted corruption scandal surfaced that resulted in convictions and indictments of a number of current and former state legislators and other state officials (including Hutchinson’s nephew, former state senator Jeremy Hutchinson). A thread through much of the scandal was the state’s General Improvement Fund, an allocation of excess state revenues to projects identified for funding by legislators. An Arkansas Supreme Court ruling deeming unconstitutional the process used in the funding as well as the worsening scandal led Hutchinson to advocate the elimination of the program in 2017.

Hutchinson was reelected in 2018 with about sixty-five percent of the vote. In that reelection campaign, Hutchinson focused on his success in implementing the computer science education program and the state’s general economic health. He also promised significant pay increases for teachers and a wide-ranging reorganization of state government if he were allowed a second term.

For additional information:
“Asa Hutchinson (1950–).” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H001014 (accessed September 18, 2019).

Asa Hutchinson Papers (Unprocessed). Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Barth, Jay. “Arkansas’s GOP Factions.” Arkansas Times, May 18, 2017. Online at https://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/arkansass-gop-factions/Content?oid=6824178 (accessed September 18, 2019).

Berman, Mark. “With Lethal Injection Drugs Expiring, Arkansas Plans Unprecedented Seven Executions in 11 Days.” Washington Post, April 7, 2017.

Greenblatt, Alan. “Patience and Pragmatism Dominate Asa Hutchinson’s First 100 Days.” Governing (April 2015). Online at http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/gov-asa-hutchinson-arkansas-first-100-days.html (accessed September 18, 2019).

Hardy, Benjamin. “Asa at Last.” Arkansas Times, January 15, 2015, pp. 14–18. Online at http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/arkansan-of-the-year-asa-hutchinson/Content?oid=3618228 (accessed September 18, 2019).

Felicia Thomas
University of Arkansas Libraries

Jay Barth
Hendrix College

Last Updated: 09/18/2019