Every few months, news breaks that Sarah Sanders has made another round of government appointments. These range from replacements to her Cabinet secretaries to various boards and commissions responsible for managing the services we interact with in our day-to-day lives. 

Two, in particular, stick out to us: Jason Rapert’s appointment to the State Library Board last winter and Maria Sullivan’s appointment to the Arkansas Educational Television Commission earlier this month. Both are notably extreme examples of a common problem with these appointments: using them as political favors and stirring the culture war plot. 

The Background

A few weeks ago, Governor Sanders announced that she was appointing Maria Sullivan, wife of State Senator Dan Sullivan, to the Arkansas Educational Television Commission. The Commission governs Arkansas PBS, an essential public service that Dan Sullivan and his extremist Republican allies have repeatedly tried to defund over the past few legislative sessions and nearly succeeded in doing so at the end of this year’s fiscal session

It seems this appointment was a shock even to the appointee; the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story linked above notes that both she and her husband, a staunch ally of Sanders, didn’t expect the honor. 

Jason Rapert, after a stint in the Senate as a championship contender for the most embarrassing Senator – no small feat – received an appointment to the State Library Board last winter. His nomination was not without some controversy even within his own party. After all, they famously gerrymandered him out of his own district in 2021. Sen. Greg Leding noted that he was the only nominee in that slate that required a separate vote. Not a single female Senator voted in favor of his confirmation – neither Breanne Davis nor Jane English cast an Aye vote for a man they worked beside for years (Sen. Missy Irvin missed the vote). 

Since his appointment, Rapert has managed to climb under the bar already set underground, complaining that the staunchly Republican women on the Board have created a “hostile work environment” because he’s a white, Christian, conservative man while repeatedly putting forth motions to defund any library that is party to the lawsuit against the state’s notorious book ban

Political Favors

I do want to be clear: For AR People has no hard evidence of horse trading, but given the general attitude of the Sanders administration toward accusations of corruption and wrongdoing, it’s not a stretch to read between the lines. 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, fresh off the heels of his preposterous book ban, has been leading the charge to defund Arkansas PBS over the last few years. When the House nearly defunded it at the end of the fiscal session, however, he was notably quiet and didn’t even object to its budget bill being batched with other appropriations bills. 

Maria Sullivan’s appointment to Arkansas PBS’ governing body was announced a week later. The math checks out, as they say. 

Maria Sullivan, the DemGaz reports, has a marketing degree and a career as a flight attendant. Excellent career choice as they go, but it hardly provides the experience necessary to oversee a multi-million dollar public service commission. 

Unlike Rapert, I don’t really have any evidence for Sullivan’s future plans on the commission other than her interview with the DemGaz. She stated she was a fan of the Governor and the LEARNS Act. She’s quoted as saying “It’s a big learning curve for me and I’m just willing to learn, you know, what is going on with our PBS Arkansas and [Arkansas Educational Television Network]. We’ve had some struggles, but I’m telling you, I’m a huge fan.” Otherwise, there’s not a lot of history to suggest what she might do.

This lack of experience in management is part of the reason I’m so worried, though, entirely aside from her husband’s ongoing efforts to defund Arkansas PBS. This is an essential public service and deserves someone who understands the complexities of the modern media landscape, the limitations imposed on media in a rural state like Arkansas, and the hugely positive impact a well-run PBS affiliate can have – and has had – on our state-wide community. A person with a “big learning curve” by their own admission shouldn’t be thrown into the deep end. But she was. 

So what gives? 

What’s the best way to hamstring a public service your extremist base hates? You can, of course, go the direct route: attempting to defund it, as the House did. But if that doesn’t work, you could, conceivably, play the long game. 

You could appoint someone to a position of power who is ideologically allied with you, whose inexperience will certainly have a detrimental effect on the organization, and who probably won’t push back when you continue to whittle away at the organization, slowly, with a thousand cuts. 

You could, in short, appoint Maria Sullivan. 

That’s the favor. All she has to do is sit on the commission, and Dan Sullivan gets what he wants: the slow erosion of Arkansas PBS. In return, I can only assume, he’ll continue to shill for whatever the Governor wants and lead the charge in the culture war, tacitly supported by the Governor and her cronies. 

Culture War Distractions

Let’s move to Jason Rapert. Jason is, unfortunately, a well-known fixture in Arkansas politics, and for all bad reasons. I won’t detail them all here, but all you have to do is pull the Arkansas Times’ search bar and put in his name. Suffice it to say Jason hates government, hates folks who are different from him, who believe differently than he does, and hates basically everyone who doesn’t subscribe to his precise Christian Nationalist ideology. 

Not a nice man. 

Since his appointment to the State Library Board, he’s embarrassed himself over and over again. His motions have repeatedly failed to pass, and as far as I can tell, he’s accomplished precisely nothing in the nearly six months he’s been on the board. 

I have to assume Governor Sanders occasionally reads the news and knew this would happen, especially given the reactions to his appointment from members of her own party. 

Sen. Jimmy Hickey did not mince words. He said after voting against Jason’s nomination: “It’s not just that I don’t like him. It’s that I don’t trust him, I don’t respect him, and I don’t think he’s the man for the job.” In the same story linked above, another Republican colleague, Sen. Breanne Davis, also weighed in: “Based on my experiences with him, I could not in good conscience vote for him and sleep well at night.” 

I shudder to think about what experiences are making Breanne Davis, of all people, lose sleep. 

But few other Republicans in the Senate have a spine capable of standing up against Sanders, so Rapert, alas, was confirmed. 

Here’s my theory: Sanders doesn’t like Jason either. She knows he’s a fairly useless excuse for a politician and is just as exasperated with his antics as the rest of us. She also, I suspect, doesn’t actually want him to get anything done on the library board. Despite culture warriors’ best efforts, libraries remain as popular and useful as ever

But Sanders is also a master of distraction, and having Rapert in the news every few weeks for his latest stupid stunt helps her conceal whatever mischief she’s cooking up. There’s only so much time in the day to stay abreast of the dumpster fire.  

For those in power, the culture war creates such distractions. They really don’t care about book bans or trans athletes; they care that pretending to care about those things lets them pass laws that will enrich themselves and their already-wealthy friends (can you tell I’m already furious about the impending special session tax cuts?). 

I suspect Sanders sees Jason as a useful stooge and not much else. While I think that she’ll rely on Sullivan’s quiet inexperience to cut away at ARPBS, she needs Jason to be loud and proud about how ridiculous he and his crusade are. 

The Big Picture

I don’t agree with Jane English very often, but when she’s right, she’s right. In a quote explaining her vote against Rapert, she said, “[State] boards and commissions ought to be doing their business quietly. I don’t expect to see them on the front page of the newspaper all the time.” 

These boards and commissions are essential features of government. For example, the State Library Board “administers state and federal funds appropriated for libraries and library development, and provides effective administration and leadership needed to improve public libraries and library services.” A short sentence contains a huge amount of responsibility. 

To have someone like Jason Rapert inserted in this cycle of government is a cynical ploy for distraction. Libraries don’t just loan books in our modern era; they provide resources for educators, tools and toys for low-income families, community gathering spaces, domestic abuse resources, programming for all age groups, and more. They are truly beacons of the best our state has to offer, despite what Rapert and his ilk say. 

The state deserves someone invested in continuing that proud tradition. As Judge Timothy Brooks wrote in his opinion striking down Act 372, the book ban, “The librarian’s only enemy is the censor who judges contrary opinions to be dangerous, immoral, or wrong.” Jason has chosen to target our libraries simply because he fears the free exchange of information and the community-building power libraries brandish. I, for one, do not think making enemies of librarians is a good idea, but Jason is giving his best shot.

The Arkansas Educational Television Commission is similarly tasked with overseeing Arkansas PBS: from their website, their duties and powers require them to, among other things: 

  • Establish and regularly review policies for Arkansas PBS and oversee the business of the Commission. 
  • Gain an understanding of Arkansas PBS’s finances in order to help the Commission fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities. 
  • Support actions and programs that will ensure Arkansas PBS’s long-term financial stability.

This is complicated stuff, and nothing in Maria Sullivan’s work history indicates that she’s trained to do it. Let’s briefly look at just a few of the other folks on the commission: Chairman West Doss, a lawyer who served as Chief of Staff for Asa Hutchinson when he was a congressman; Secretary/Treasurer Ann Cowie, a University of Central Arkansas scholar of leadership; Gary Newton (ironically another Sanders appointee), a former Little Rock Commissioner and a graduate from of the Institute for Organization Management and University of Oklahoma Economic Development Institute, and Annette Herrington, a Certified Public Accountant who’s also served in several executive roles in CALS and the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. 

These are all serious folks with serious experience. To be clear: Maria Sullivan is an educated woman who made a successful career for herself. But just as I wouldn’t step into a law office simply because I have an interest in law and demand the rights and privileges of a lawyer before the bar, someone not well versed in the complexities of managing a state organization with a $15 million appropriation should consider that they don’t have the experience necessary to do the job. 

Sarah Sanders has already gotten what she wanted with Jason’s appointment. Whether Sullivan will achieve her purpose of causing Arkansas PBS’ death by a thousand cuts remains to be seen, but it’s easy to imagine that she will. 

I genuinely hope my worries are unfounded, but nothing Sanders has done has convinced me she doesn’t have ulterior motives. It’s clear public services like libraries and PBS fall far down on the list of her priorities, and cutting their funding is an easy way to find a couple million here and there to try and keep up the LEARNS grift as long as possible without completely torpedoing the state budget. 

Government has a lot to do that’s hard and complicated. I don’t always disagree with folks who believe that the government has gotten “too big” or that bureaucracy has accrued too much power. At the same time, these particular boards and commissions that Sanders has targeted provide unequivocally essential services. 

It’s a real shame she’s sacrificing them on the altar of her own ambition and ideology.