There are times when, from her position as the governor’s special assistant for constituent affairs, that Barbara Duncan asks this question of callers who are seeking help: "Are you totally and permanently disabled, or do you have a situation that just keeps you from doing what you want to do?"
Which is kind of ironic coming from a woman who walks with a cane and reads braille.
Diagnosed with glaucoma at the age of seven, the Oklahoma native underwent eight eye surgeries until age 16 and doesn’t remember ever being able to see much. But she found her way to Arkansas and was hired by a young Attorney General Bill Clinton in his consumer protection division. When he was elected governor, he asked some of his staff members if they wanted to keep working for him.
"I said, ‘Bill, I’d like to go to the Capitol when you go,’" she said. "And I noticed he was taking notes."
"I could hear him writing."
Clinton assigned her to do constituent casework – dealing with people’s problems, in other words – in Room 11 in the Capitol. Thirty-three years later, she’s still on the job, though she has moved to Room 13. While four governors and thousands of legislators have come and gone, she’s quietly made her way each day through the Capitol to her office – accepting the arm of a police officer or a staff member if one is available but walking alone if necessary.
Working for newspapers, it’s part of my job to ask questions some would find inappropriate. I asked her if, during the early years before she became a Capitol fixture, she thought she was retained on her merits or because she’d been given a break because of her blindness. She’s confident she earned her position.
"I don’t want anybody to give me anything because I’m blind," she said. "I want them to give it to me because they feel that I’m worthy and I deserve it."
I worked alongside Duncan for a total of five years – two when I was a communications aide for Gov. Mike Huckabee, three as communications director for Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller.
If there’s a person more competent in their job anywhere, I don’t know who it is. People call the governor’s ofice because it’s easy to find or because they think the governor is the boss or because they don’t know who else to call. Child support cases, veterans needing help, folks behind on their utility bills – that’s who she talks to all day long. When I worked in state government, I often routed callers to her because she knows where to find answers to people’s problems – or at least knows who might have the answer.
Sometimes she can help, and sometimes there is not much she can do. The latter can weigh heavily on her. One recent case involved a man who had shot himself in the head but survived and henceforth will be a Medicaid patient in the care of the state. His live-in girlfriend of 16 years, who also is the mother of his child, asked if more could be done.
"He’s going to be most likely a lifetime total care situation," Duncan said. "And what can you say about that?"
Even after 33 years, she’s still amazed at the questions she’s asked. One person recently called the governor’s office because the city had not picked up the trash. Others call after seeming to have put little thought into how to improve their own life situations.
Most callers are genuinely needy, but more people are asking for handouts these days than when she first started. It’s a dead giveaway when she asks if they are disabled and there’s a pause while they try to come up with something.
Does she ever get frustrated with those folks? And has she ever told one of them that if she, a blind person, can make her way from home to the Capitol every day and become an expert in her field, then they can make a better life for themselves?
Yes to the first question, no to the second.
"I try to be courteous at all times, but if I feel like they’re really putting me on, and they’re not sincere, and they’re not honest, then I may confront them," she said.
As to using her own life story to shame undeserving constituents into doing better – no, she doesn’t do that. In fact, she tries to say as little about herself as possible.
"Normally, I do not give a song and dance about what I’ve done and how I do it," she said.
She’s thinking about retiring next year. That will be quite a loss. And it will be quite a change for Capitol regulars accustomed to seeing her walk each day – cane in one hand, police officer in the other – to her office, where she does her job. Ably.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org