Making History: Sarah Huckabee Sanders is Arkansas’ first female governor


Sarah Huckabee Sanders is sworn in as the 47th governor of Arkansas on Jan. 10. Photo by Shealah Craighead Photography

Sarah Huckabee Sanders was sworn in as the 47th governor of Arkansas on Jan. 10.

On the very same day, Leslie Rutledge was sworn in as the state’s first female lieutenant governor. Arkansas and Massachusetts this year became the first states to have women in both governor and lieutenant governor roles.

Sanders is the daughter of Arkansas’ 44th Gov. Mike Huckabee and wife Janet. Sanders grew up in Pine Bluff and Texarkana, and graduated from Little Rock Central High School and Ouachita Baptist University. A former political adviser, she made history as the first mother to hold the job of White House Press Secretary from 2017 to 2019 under former President Donald Trump.And Sanders — wife to Bryan and mother to Scarlett, Huck and George — continues making history as the youngest governor currently serving in the country.

During the first icy week of February, not quite a month into her tenure, Arkansas Living interviewed Gov. Sanders about continuing her family’s legacy and creating her own.

At age 40, Gov. Sanders is the youngest governor serving in the United States. Photo by Amy Bell

Have you processed the historical significance of being Arkansas’ first female governor? What does it mean to you?

It is an unbelievable honor and an exciting time in our state, certainly, to be the first. But as I’ve stated before and pointed out in my inaugural address, my goal is not to make history because I’m the first woman or the youngest governor in the country right now. But it’s to move Arkansas to the top and to make history with what I think that we can achieve together serving the people of our state.

March is Women’s History Month. What woman or women do you most admire?

Certainly, my mom ranks at the top of that list. She’s about as tough as it comes and never backs down from a challenge. … She raised my brothers and me in a home focused on our faith. And my mom has certainly played a huge influence on my life and is somebody that I look up to.

You’ve outlined education as a main priority for you. What teacher or what subject in school had the most influence on you?

I’ve had several teachers that had a huge impact at various stages in my life. In high school, I had an amazing American history professor who really made history come to life and made me fall in love with the study of our history.

When I was in college, I had a communications professor who humbled me quite a bit. I turned in a paper thinking that I was going to get an “A,” and he was going to tell me how brilliant I was and how great of a job I did. And instead, he brought it back to me with so much red ink, he probably went through three or four pens and basically told me it was not good. It was so bad, but he had confidence I could do better, he was going to give me the opportunity to try again. He became one of my favorite professors, and I learned an extraordinary amount from him. I was always thankful that he was willing to give me a second chance on that paper and that he put me in my place, as I was probably a little bit of a young, cocky freshman. I think we can all use a little of that every once in a while.

You lived in the Governor’s Mansion during your youth. What has it been like for you returning as governor?

It’s interesting to go back to a place that holds so many memories for me and for my family. I’m pretty sure that’s the place that my parents have lived longer than any other house they’ve been in. We have a lot of really special moments that took place there for our family, both good and bad. And so, it’s very interesting to be back there and to share that with my kids. I hope that their experience there is as good as the one that I had there growing up. It’s an unbelievable place with great history. I’m excited about being back with my family and my kids getting a chance to grow up there.

Arkansas’ first gentleman Bryan Sanders with Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her parents, former first lady Janet Huckabee and former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Photo by Randall Lee.

What advice has your father given you in your new role as governor?

My dad’s really good about not weighing in too often unless I ask him, which I’m happy to do. You know, when you have a resource like that, it would be a shame not to use it. But probably the best advice my dad has given me, both in this role and any other that I’ve had, is just always be yourself. God created each of us to be special and unique in our own way, so don’t try to be anything other than that.

Less than one month into the job, what has been the best part of being governor and the hardest part?

The best part is the impact that I think we get to have on the state. Already, in less than a month, I feel like we’ve been able to bring about conservative reform to the state, signing executive orders, setting the tone, working closely with our partners in the legislature. I think we’ll have a very successful legislative session; we’re off to a really good start. Knowing that the things that we’re working on every day are going to bring about real change and reform, and hopefully transformational change that makes a generational impact on the state — that’s the driver and the motivation and the good part of the job.

The hard part is just the day in, day out and making sure that we’re making the best decisions possible to help the people of the state. With the opportunity that we have, there’s a lot of responsibility, and so making sure we live up to that and deliver is something that I really want to focus on and make sure we’re able to do.

As governor, how do you and your family maintain a “normal” life? What keeps you grounded?

I think being a parent can keep you pretty grounded. We’ve got a 10-year-old, a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old. They put us in our place pretty quickly. Kids certainly can keep you humble, and our kids are masters at that. So that helps keep us normal in a variety of ways. Attending their school events and sports events and being part of the everyday rigor of being a parent, I think, helps keep us focused too on everything that’s at stake. And the reason that my husband and I decided to jump into this in the first place is because we want to make sure that the Arkansas that our kids grow up in is the Arkansas I got to grow up in. I want to make sure that we are not taking any of those things for granted. And so, being parents, I think, helps keep our life in perspective and certainly normalizes things. We’re rushing out the door, and picking up messes from our kids and spilled syrup on our counters, and doing homework in the afternoons — just like every other parent in the state. That certainly gives us a very good and regular dose of reality every minute of every day.

The Cooperative Connection

The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas provide electricity to more than 600,000 members in Arkansas and surrounding states. Arkansas Living asked Gov. Sanders questions from President and CEO Vernon “Buddy” Hasten about power, broadband and bettering life for rural citizens.

Gov. Sanders delivers her inaugural address at the Arkansas state Capitol. Photo by Shealah Craighead Photography.

The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas’ mission is providing reliable, affordable and responsible electric power to our members. We know you are keenly focused on reliability and affordability. What can the cooperatives do to help you with those identical goals?

You guys have hit the nail on the head that the two biggest priorities are certainly making sure we have reliable energy for all of the citizens across the state and also the affordability component. We’ve talked a lot with your organization, Buddy and the co-ops about making sure that those two things are addressed. One of those things we’ve experienced (in early February) were difficult winter storms; we want to make sure we have good reliability. And so, I think one of the biggest and most important things is to have an ongoing relationship and constant communication with all of the stakeholders in providing that reliability and affordability to the people across the state. We have had that and want to continue to make sure there’s constant coordination and communication between the state, as well as all of the stakeholders that provide those services to the people.

The Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas seek to improve the quality of life for our members, rural Arkansans. Do you see areas where we can partner with state government to help us both better achieve that goal?

I think the partnership is key. That partnership is a big piece of the puzzle. And making sure that cooperation and coordination is constant and that there’s a good working relationship, I think, is going to determine whether or not we can really provide reliability and affordability across the state.

Arkansas is challenged from a broadband connectivity perspective, which limits rural Arkansans and puts them at a significant disadvantage. Do you see areas where we can partner better in making Arkansas No. 1 in this category?

Absolutely. My goal is to make Arkansas No. 1 across the board, whether it’s in energy, education or workforce development. We want to move Arkansas to the top and set the standard and be an example for other states around the country.

What else would you like to say to our members?

I’m hopeful that we can do amazing things for the state. We want to be a great partner across the board and really bring about that transformational change to the people of Arkansas, and we’re looking forward to doing it.

Read part two of this interview: Gov. Sanders: Food and Fun (and her pie recipe!)