LITTLE ROCK — Lt. Gov. Mark Darr had the right message at the right time when he was elected Arkansas’ second-in-command in 2010 despite no prior political experience.
The former pizzeria owner vowed that, if elected, he’d fight President Barack Obama’s signature health care law — a message that played well in a state where the president was deeply unpopular. The reality, however, was that there was little Darr could do from his largely ceremonial office to limit the law’s impact on Arkansas.
As president of the Senate, Darr votes only if there’s a tie in a chamber with an odd number of seats. In his boldest move as the acting head of state when Gov. Mike Beebe is out of Arkansas, he signed a bill sealing the list of concealed weapons permit holders. It was a meaningless gesture because Beebe planned to let the bill become law anyway.
And now the Republican clings to office under increasing pressure to resign or be removed from office over 11 violations of state ethics and campaign finance laws. Beebe, a Democrat, keeps a wary eye, the state’s GOP congressional delegation wants him out and the Republican head of the House is poised to appoint a committee to draft impeachment procedures.
Fellow Republicans say they believe Lt. Gov. Mark Darr’s impeachment is inevitable if Darr doesn’t step down over the repeated campaign and office spending violations it determined he likely committed. Darr has said he has no plans to step down, but legislators say they believe there’s still a chance he could reconsider and leave on his own.
"I don’t see why he would want to go forward," said state Rep. Ann Clemmer, a Republican who said she’d step down if she were in Darr’s position. "I don’t think he’s going to have the outcome he wants."
It’s a quick reversal of fortune for someone who went from a political outsider to a key player in the Republican Party’s widespread gains in Arkansas over the past four years.
A 1997 graduate of Ouachita Baptist University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Darr vowed to use the mostly ceremonial and part-time job to fight President Barack Obama’s signature health care law. Darr, 40, touted his business background and cast his rival, a veteran Democratic state senator, as a career politician.
"I’ll fight the Obama agenda," Darr said in one television ad.
Running at a time when Democrats controlled all of the state’s constitutional offices, Darr argued he could be a strong advocate for Republicans at the state level.
"Right now, we have a one-party system," Darr said in 2010. "This allows some checks and balances. ... I think that’s necessary for the people of Arkansas."
Darr’s victory was among several for Republicans, who took three of the state’s constitutional offices that year and two years later won control of the state Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. Darr wasn’t shy about the role he saw for himself in the GOP’s rise, and openly flirted with the idea of a gubernatorial run six months after taking office.
"This is something that started the day after I was elected," Darr said in a 2011 interview. "It’s something you have to be prepared to do."
Darr took jabs at the state’s top Democratic figures, joking that he’d like to unseat then-U.S. Rep. Mike Ross with a congressional bid and then take on Attorney General Dustin McDaniel in the governor’s race. He also criticized a consumer protection campaign launched by McDaniel’s office as a thinly-veiled political move.
"I wish my office had millions at its disposal to run my campaign adds," Darr tweeted in 2012.
Darr’s approach irked Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe last year, who was out of state when the lieutenant governor signed into law a measure making secret the state’s concealed carry handgun permit list.
"I think people look at the lieutenant governor as the second person in charge," Darr said. "I think when history is written on this, I think people will be glad that I protected their privacy and stood up for their Second Amendment rights."
Beebe saw it differently, calling the move "totally inappropriate."
"He didn’t embarrass me. He embarrassed himself," Beebe said.
Darr’s ethical woes emerged last year, as he hoped to use his higher profile to mount a bid for a south Arkansas congressional seat. Three week after launching his campaign, he dropped out over questions about his campaign finance reports.
Those same questions are what’s prompting Darr’s standoff with members of his own party. Leaders of both parties in the House say there are enough votes in the chamber to impeach Darr if he doesn’t go. Darr, however, cast his refusal to step down as a stand for the office.
"Taking this stand is not about keeping this job. It’s certainly not about keeping this title or office," Darr said Tuesday. "It’s about telling average, ordinary citizens who want to run for office that you’re welcome here, and we don’t expect you to be perfect."