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Ark. governor influenced by son sends religious freedom bill back to legislators

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson told state legislators Wednesday to go back to the drawing board to amend the bill that would have made Arkansas the 21st state with a “religious freedom” law on the books.

In the process, he thrust both himself and his son, Seth — a 31-year-old union organizer in Austin, Texas — into the spotlight when he highlighted the rift within their family over the measure.

“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” the elder Hutchinson said. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”

His son, he said, signed a MoveOn.org petition asking him to veto the bill — and told his father to feel free to make that information public.

In a Facebook post, Seth Hutchinson said he is “proud to have made a small contribution to the overall effort to stop discrimination against the LGBT community in Arkansas.”

“I love and respect my father very much, but sometimes we have political disagreements, just as many families do,” he wrote. “Most importantly, I hope that the groundswell of grassroots opposition to HB 1228 and other similar discriminatory bills around the country will energize more Americans and help create a long-lasting drive for change in this country, on many issues.”

The elder Hutchinson asked for changes to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill the state legislature passed this week, responding to a nationwide backlash against a similar Indiana law that was threatening to whip through Arkansas. He said he wants Arkansas’ bill to more closely mirror the federal RFRA, which is notably different from the Indiana law and doesn’t face the same criticism that it could allow discrimination.

So who is this governor who appears to have narrowly escaped the still-brewing controversy?

Hutchinson only took over the governorship this year, but he’s been a mainstay in Arkansas and national politics for nearly two decades.

Hutchinson won a seat to the House of Representatives in 1996 after serving more than a decade as a successful U.S. attorney and lawyer in Arkansas.

His background as a federal prosecutor would rocket him into the spotlight just two years later, when he was tapped as one of the 13 managers — effectively, prosecutors — of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial.

Hutchinson has since said he has no regrets despite initial reluctance to take the job because it wasn’t good politics in Arkansas, where he took some flack for his leading role in prosecuting the state’s former governor and the only Arkansan elected president.

Hutchinson even took heat from his opponent during last year’s gubernatorial campaign over his role in the impeachment.

But Bill Clinton isn’t the only Clinton he’s gone after. Hutchinson had more luck with Clinton’s brother, Roger, whom Hutchinson successfully prosecuted and sent to jail on drug charges in 1984. He even led the Drug Enforcement Administration for two years under former President George W. Bush.

Following his unsuccessful run for governor in 2006 and before his successful bid in 2014, Hutchinson was publicly known for his work as a spokesman for the National Rifle Association’s school safety program.

How does this all fit in with the RFRA bill?

Hutchinson is a proud conservative, so the bill definitely fits within his ideological spectrum.

But the Arkansas governor is also known to be more pragmatic than ideological and won praise for his fairness during Clinton’s impeachment trial.

But Hutchinson’s decision to opt for pragmatism rather than ideology will be at odds with elements of his state party’s staunchly conservative base.

Arkansas is a deep-red, conservative state that has only gotten more conservative since Hutchinson won his first election there nearly two decades ago. The GOP base in the state definitely wants Hutchinson to OK the measure.

But it’s not just gay rights advocates and civil rights groups who have called on Hutchinson to veto the bill.

Hutchinson faced the same reaction from the business community that pushed Pence to reconsider making changes to his RFRA law — and Hutchinson needs to consider one very big business based in his state: Wal-Mart.

The giant multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation is headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas, and CEO Doug McMillon came out against the law Tuesday, urging Hutchinson to pull out his veto pen.

“[The RFRA bill] threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold,” McMillon said in a statement. “For these reasons, we are asking Gov. Hutchinson to veto this legislation.”