Eyeing the White House again, Huckabee can’t escape lifelong anxieties about money

·National Correspondent

Mike Huckabee could add a populist edge to the Republican field. (Photo: Jim Young/Reuters)

His detractors have said it looks like a glorified La Quinta Inn, but to Mike Huckabee, it is simply paradise.

The three-story beige stucco home the former Arkansas governor and his wife, Janet, had custom-built four years ago dwarfs many of the other houses overlooking the Gulf of Mexico along Blue Mountain Beach in the Florida Panhandle town of Santa Rosa Beach.

Huckabee and a close friend from Arkansas, David Haak, who owns the house next door, spent months combing the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida for the “sweet spot” where they could build homes they would eventually retire in. Nothing else compared to this tiny enclave an hour west of Panama City, where the warm ocean gleams a clear emerald blue against sand as white as sugar. For Huckabee, every day there is like magic.

“My wife and I grew up never even thinking we’d see saltwater … even put our feet in it,” Huckabee said in a recent interview. Owning a house next to the ocean, he said, “was something I had never even imagined.”

His beachfront enclave, valued at just under $3 million, is a long way from his hometown of Hope, Ark., where Huckabee grew up in a tiny rental house next to the railroad tracks on the poor side of town — not far from where Hope’s other famous son, President Bill Clinton, once lived. Huckabee’s parents, survivors of the Great Depression, which particularly devastated the rural south, worked multiple jobs and struggled to make ends meet. “I really do know what it’s like to eat all the food on your plate every night because you’ve got it right now and you aren’t real sure it’s going to be there tomorrow,” Huckabee has said.

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Mike Huckabee’s home in Blue Mountain Beach in the Florida Panhandle town of Santa Rosa Beach. (Photo: Manny Chavez/MCPhoto/ZumaPress for Yahoo News) 

Income inequality and the struggle of the nation’s poor have become major topics ahead of the 2016 presidential race. But Huckabee, who will announce his second bid for the Republican nomination on Tuesday in Hope, perhaps understands that struggle more than many of his political rivals because, as a boy growing up in rural Arkansas, he actually lived it.

The plight of the poor and the working class is an issue he talked about frequently in his 2008 presidential campaign. He accused his own party of having lost touch with ordinary Americans, trashing the Republican Party as a “wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street.” It was a populist message that sounded more like something you’d hear from a Democrat rather than a Republican, and it earned him the scorn of some conservatives, who accused him of unfairly attacking the rich.

Eight years later, Huckabee still sounds that populist message, and it’s expected to be a defining theme of his second White House attempt, as he again seeks to cast himself as a regular guy who understands the plight facing struggling families who simply want their piece of the American dream.

“We devalue people sometimes who are poor,” Huckabee said in a 2013 speech — a line that he’s repeated in variations recently on the campaign trail. “We do not deem them worthy of the same level of treatment we give those who are connected to the real axis of evil in this country — the axis of power that exists between Washington and Wall Street.”

But the issue of poverty is not simply a policy platform for Huckabee. People who grow up poor never really get over what it was like to live in want. They are often haunted by the memories and can’t shake the fear of somehow ending up back in poverty again. Huckabee’s anxieties about financial security — how easily it can come and go — have shaped his entire life and continue to influence his thinking as he plunges into the 2016 race.

“It’s personal to me,” Huckabee said of the issue of poverty. “It’s how I grew up. You never forget. Every day of my life I remember it.”

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Running for president is a pursuit largely reserved for the wealthy — or at least for public officials who have a taxpayer-funded salary to fall back on. But Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist preacher who had almost no savings when he left the governor’s mansion in 2007, gave up his most lucrative source of income in January — his position as a Fox News host and contributor, which reportedly paid him $500,000 a year.

A self-described workaholic, Huckabee has many other gigs to fall back on — including books, speaking engagements and real estate investments. Once a year, he leads a group of paying supporters on a tour of Israel. “I really have four or five full-time jobs,” he said last year. Though none are as well-paying or high-profile as his television gig. In recent months, the Republican presidential hopeful agonized over whether a second shot at the GOP nomination was really worth giving up his Fox News job and the financial security it afforded, particularly for an ex-public official whose top salary as governor was just over $74,000 a year. Huckabee, who turns 60 in August, was earning significant money for the first time in his life as a private citizen, and now he has walked away with no firm guarantee of what might happen next.

It wasn’t the first time Huckabee felt caught between his ambition to serve and anxiety about how to pay the bills. Four years ago, Huckabee didn’t think a race was worth it, and he skipped out on a 2012 bid early in the campaign. But still tempted by the memory of his second place finish to John McCain in 2008’s Republican primary and recent polls that show he could be a formidable contender in early voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, the ex-governor found it harder to resist the siren song of 2016.

Yet as he formally kicks off his campaign this week, in the back of his head is the same anxiety that has nagged at him his whole life. Will he be able to pay the bills, provide for his family and set up a nest egg for his retirement? Strikingly, one of the things he worries about most is making the mortgage payments on his beach house in Florida. It’s just a house, he insists. But it’s also a powerful symbol in his life, tangible evidence that despite years of public service and modest salaries, there is one financial safe harbor he can depend on. “I don’t know if we can stay there,” Huckabee said. “That’s what part of my risk is. I hope to be able to, but there’s no certainty. … You never know what will happen.”

Huckabee’s humble beginnings in rural Arkansas have been an important part of his political persona from the moment he walked into the public spotlight. His father, Dorsey, was a high school dropout who worked two jobs — as a firefighter and a mechanic — to keep food on the table. His mother, Mae, was a clerk at the local gas company. Still, they often struggled to pay the rent on their little house on East Second Street, and luxuries were nonexistent. Every fall, Huckabee’s mom bought her son two new pairs of jeans that were expected to last the entire school year — and while they did, they were often covered in patches by the spring.

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Mike Huckabee with his wife, Janet, at the 2007 Iowa state fair in Des Moines. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

When Huckabee thought about complaining, he remembered his mother’s stories of growing up during the Depression. As the oldest of seven kids, Mae lived in a house with dirt floors and no electricity or indoor bathroom.

“I’m a generation away from the abject poverty that plagued so many people of the Deep South who went through the Great Depression and World War II, but a part of what we often call the greatest generation, because they did not live for their own comforts,” Huckabee said in 2008. “They lived so their children would have a better life than them. And that’s why many of us live better today than we ever could have dreamed.”

It was his family’s struggles, in part, that gave him his drive to succeed. At age 14, he got his first job working at a local Penney’s department store — where he spent his days wiping fingerprints off the store’s glass doors only to see customers immediately smudge them again. (He says he still avoids touching glass doors because of that.) As a student at Ouachita Baptist University, Huckabee overloaded his schedule and finished his degree in just two years while he also worked full time at the college radio station. But Huckabee wasn’t your typical prodigy; he fretted that the money for tuition would run out.

On the campaign trail, Huckabee has often made light of his hardscrabble beginnings. He told voters of how his parents only stocked the house with Lava soap, the heavy-duty grease remover made with pumice. “I was in college before I found out it’s not supposed to hurt when you take a shower,” Huckabee told audiences at almost every stop in 2008 — a line that endeared him to voters in Iowa, who warmed to his folksy, down-to-earth demeanor. Though he was outspent by millions of dollars by rival Mitt Romney, whose well-to-do background became an issue in the campaign, Huckabee surprised everyone with a come-from-behind victory in the Iowa caucuses that year in spite of a shoestring budget and almost no staff.

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At the same time, Huckabee raised eyebrows when he halted his campaign in the middle of a heated primary with McCain to deliver a paid speech — something most candidates abstain from in the midst of an election to avoid the appearance of conflict. Huckabee, who has always been prickly about the subject of his finances, was angered by the criticism, insisting he was just trying to survive financially. He told reporters it was unfair that he was being picked on, since his three rivals — McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — were all still receiving their Senate paychecks while campaigning full time for the presidency.

“No taxpayers pay for me to have health insurance, to pay my mortgage, to pay my bills,” Huckabee declared at the time. He and his wife, Janet, were so strapped for cash that she admitted to the New York Times they were clipping coupons and counting their pennies. She’d even called to inquire about an electric bill at their home back in Little Rock that seemed unusually high given they hadn’t been there.

Though he ultimately lost to McCain, Huckabee’s increased name recognition made him a draw on the speaker’s circuit. And later that year, he landed both a radio show (which he ended in late 2013) and a job at Fox News. Huckabee, a man of the Lord, considered the jobs and their accompanying paychecks a gift from God, who has always provided in the darkest of moments.

While he was in the governor’s office, Huckabee supplemented his income as a state official with books and outside speeches — which often added up to more than he was making as the state’s top elected official. But according to David Haak, who has known Huckabee since they served together as preachers at a church in Texarkana, Texas, 30 years ago, it still wasn’t enough to keep up. Huckabee had paid for his three kids to go to college, and as he prepared to exit the governor’s mansion, he and his wife invested in a $526,000 house in North Little Rock, which ate into their meager income. A personal financial disclosure filed in May 2007 with the federal office of government ethics listed Huckabee’s overall net worth at between $350,000 and $900,000 — including the house and retirement funds.

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Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks with a woman displaced by Hurricane Katrina in Barling, Ark., in September 2005. (Photo: Danny Johnston/AP)

Running for president put even more pressure on Huckabee. Spending almost all his time on the campaign trail, he didn’t have time for a regular job. According to Alice Stewart, his longtime spokeswoman, Huckabee cashed in his life insurance and annuities to pay the bills and keep his campaign afloat. It left him, she says, “with almost no net worth.”

According to Haak, Huckabee, financially, “had to start all over again.”

In 2010, Huckabee and his wife officially became residents of Florida, a state that does not have an income tax. That summer, through a private trust, they purchased land along Blue Mountain Beach to build their dream home. At more than 8,200 square feet, the house has six bedrooms and seven and a half bathrooms — a design that offered plenty of room for the Huckabees’ three kids, their spouses and four grandchildren for holiday visits.

Huckabee’s house was built directly next door to Haak’s — and to save money, they did a “twofer,” as Haak describes it, using the same contractor and crews to build the houses at the same time. According to records, the Huckabees, through the trust, borrowed $2.8 million to finance the house. But unlike many home loans, which often give borrowers a decade or more to pay off the house, the Huckabees’ was a short-term agreement that originally called for the loan to be paid in full by November 2014.

In 2012, the trust, which lists the Huckabees as guarantors of the loan, pushed the due date back to November 2017. According to public records, they owed roughly $2.75 million on the house at the time, and the agreement called for a $16,800 monthly payment, with the balance of the loan due in fall 2017. If Huckabee has been making only the minimum payment, he will owe a single payment of more than $1 million for his final installment in a little over two years.

It’s unclear why a short-term loan was taken out for the house. Stewart declined to comment on her boss’s personal finances ahead of his presidential announcement. “Since he is a private citizen, it’s not necessary for him to disclose information about his finances,” she said. When Huckabee formally declares, “he will file the necessary disclosure forms as required.”

The Huckabees still own their North Little Rock house. A friend said the house was originally on the market when the couple first moved to Florida, but it was taken off after real estate values in Arkansas plummeted. The county assessor currently lists the appraised value of the house at $449,000 — about $75,000 less than they paid for it nine years ago.

Mike and Janet Huckabee are also listed as the principals of a limited-liability company — Blue Diamond Rentals — that purchased two vacation properties near his home in Florida in the past two years. Both Huckabees are listed as “managing members” of the company and both signed mortgage papers for the properties — one in October 2013 for $1 million and the second in April 2014 for $1.2 million.

While Huckabee made more money over the past seven years than he ever has in his life, friends say he and his wife haven’t changed much. They still subscribe to the modest lifestyle they lived back in Arkansas. Their closest friends remain the people they grew up with in Hope — high school friends who frequently stay with them in Florida. Instead of going out, Huckabee cooks for them — just as he did when he was a preacher living on a shoestring budget back in Arkansas.

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Gov. Mike Huckabee signs a Property Tax Payers Bill of Rights at the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock in 1999. (Photo: Mike Wintroath/AP)

While their home is large, it is modestly furnished. One friend said he was surprised to see almost no pictures or anything illustrating Huckabee’s long political career. “I guess Janet decorated,” he joked, referring to how his no-nonsense wife is known for keeping him grounded.

“Mike has never been the guy who hangs out at the country club,” says Lester Sitzes, a dentist from Hope who has been Huckabee’s best friend since they were kids. “You always hear people say, ‘Oh, money hasn’t changed him.’ With Mike, it’s actually true. He’s never been an extravagant spender. He’s never had airs of any sort. It’s not who he is.”

When Huckabee was with Fox News, he opted against living in New York City full time, instead choosing to commute from Florida for the weekly taping of his television show. He says living on the beach has been calming to him and that he feels more comfortable in that setting than he would have been in New York. Though he’s achieved more than he could have ever wished for, deep down inside, Huckabee still is that poor kid from Arkansas who is more comfortable mingling with average people. And that has been an advantage running for office in a party whose agenda has traditionally skewed toward the wealthy.

“I feel like I can go to the lowliest home in America and be absolutely at home sitting down with those people, and frankly I would be way more at home there than I would be in the finest Upper West Side penthouse,” Huckabee said in an interview.

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As he began to consider the possibility of a second presidential run, the former Arkansas governor reached out to several of his friends in recent months, asking their opinion about what he should do. Last fall, he spoke to Haak, who spent weeks at a time on the trail in Iowa with Huckabee during the 2008 campaign.

It was a brutal experience, but it also helped launch Huckabee’s lucrative career as a Fox News and radio host. But this time, Huckabee worried there might not be such an upside. If he were to walk away from Fox News, there was no guarantee he could go back or that there would be other gainful opportunities.

That concern, Haak says, contradicts insinuations from Huckabee opponents who say he’s running again only to stay politically relevant in hopes of landing an even bigger media deal. “He’s risking it all to do this,” Haak says. “I think he would be a great president, but as a friend I told him honestly that I worried about him doing this, about going through this brutal process again.”

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Mike Huckabee’s home in Blue Mountain Beach in the Florida Panhandle town of Santa Rosa Beach. (Photo: Manny Chavez/MCPhoto/ZumaPress for Yahoo News)

A few weeks before he announced he would give up his Fox News show, Huckabee called Haak and told him he was worried about what might happen to his house in Florida. “I might have to sell it,” he said. Haak told Huckabee he probably had other options but tried to lighten the moment anyway. “If that happens, you can always come stay with me,” Haak told him.

On the days when he’s home — and lately that’s increasingly rare — Huckabee can often be found in shorts and sandals sitting in a chair on the beach in front of his house overlooking what locals affectionately call the Redneck Riviera. Behind him, his house towers over the dunes. Flying high atop it are several flags, including the state flag of Arkansas, a reminder of how far he’s come.

Huckabee admits it would be tough to let the house go but insists his country is more important. “We knew going in that we were risking the house we built,” Huckabee says. “But it’s not what we live for.”

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