Thousands of Helena-West Helena residents have been without water for over a week. Senator Bart Hester’s message: “Sorry, not sorry.”
In a recent meeting of the Arkansas Legislative Council an update on the water crisis was added to the agenda. That’s all that was happening— and update from the Division of Emergency Management’s Director AJ Gary.
While discussion about the crisis continued, Hester was recognized to speak. He offered no helpful input about the situation, nor compassion for the people suffering.
He took the opportunity to blame local leadership for the water crisis.
After the Chair recognized him to speak to Director Gary, here’s what was said.
Hester: It’s my understanding that we sent a significant amount of money to Helena earlier in the year, to figure out where they’re at, to study it, and they chose to do something different with that money. Were you aware of that?
Gary: No sir, I don’t have any information on that.
Hester: Okay, well, it is my understanding we sent a significant amount of money [to Helena/West Helena], they chose to do something other than what they asked for the money for, and now they find themselves in a really bad spot. Thank you.
There’s a name for behavior like this: victim-blaming.
We can’t believe we have to say this: the people of Helena-West Helena are not to blame for the failing water infrastructure causing their current crisis. They are suffering.
Another part of this update included information about supplies being rushed to the communities in need. Basic hygiene and clean drinking water are so lacking, the Division of Emergency Management is bringing in baby wipes until they can set up shower stations. The division is procuring containers for drinking water, because citizens don’t have what they need in order to keep the water safe for use when they take it home from the truckloads being brought in.
The situation is dire and devastating, and it’s a shame to see a legislator speak this way about Arkansans in need.
Political perspective: Sanders in charge
This is not the time for political games, but Senator Hester seems to have no limit on where he will play them.
When we see legislators stoop this low, lacking basic compassion or empathy for humans they are meant to protect, we have to ask ourselves why it’s happening.
We think we know the answer.
The Governor is taking a lot of heat, starting with #lecterngate and continuing into other issues like the drama with the Board of Corrections. Sanders’ criticism has been bipartisan, particularly around the issue of transparency. Even when fellow conservatives were saying “absolutely not” to the Governor’s FOIA fumbles, Senator Hester was a loyal pusher of her narratives. For AR People was there for the whole special session, where we snapped a pic of a flustered Senator Hester defending his loyalty to angry citizens who showed up to speak against him.
He diligently berated his own supporters for the purpose of staying in the Governor’s good graces. Other conservatives defected, seeing the wildly unpopular bill as a threat to not only transparency, but their own hopes of re-election.
There are plenty of examples of Hester standing with Sanders at every turn, no matter how low he has to go. Who knows if he even believes what he says? What matters is the Sanders stamp of approval.
This charade in ALC is no different. If Hester can normalize an inhumane position on Arkansans going without clean water for days on end, he will likely do anything to help the Governor.
Sanders benefits from Hester’s heinous hot take because she has no choice but to address the crisis in Helena. Addressing it publicly means she will be blamed by many. Sanders has an easier time spinning her missteps if most powerful legislator in the state is willing to publicly dismiss and minimize the real suffering she is trying to prevent.
Helena-West Helena’s people are in need of real solutions. They first need quick action to address the emergency they’re facing now. After that, longterm infrastructure must be built to prevent this crisis from happening again… and again.