Candidates for Arkansas statewide offices debate for first time
On Thursday (April 21), the Arkansas Press Association hosted “A Day of Debates” for four key races: Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Governor.
Each candidate running for office had the opportunity to provide opening and closing statements, as well as answer multiple questions with a chance for rebuttal to their opponents.
First up to debate were the eight candidates vying to be the next Arkansas Lieutenant Governor: Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Greg Bledsoe (R), Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R), former Arkansas GOP Chair Doyle Webb, Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway), Washington County Judge Joseph Wood (R), Chris Bequette (R), Kelly Krout (D) and Frank Gilbert (L).
All candidates agreed they would be able work with whomever is elected governor no matter the party affiliation.
One of the primary chief duties as Lt. Governor is to step in for the governor if he or she cannot perform the role.
“On day one, I would be ready,” said Rutledge. “I know what people need in the state of Arkansas. We know we have to eliminate the personal income tax.”
Webb touted that during two crises over the last few decades that two former Arkansas Lt. Governors relied on him for advice.
“The acting governor called on me for my advice,” said Webb, a former state senator and former chief of staff in the Lt. Governor’s office.
Rapert highlighted his experience in the legislature.
“Of all of the candidates that are here on the stage, I’m the only candidate that has been serving, working state budget for 12 years,” he said.
Bledsoe played up his non-politician label and stressed his medical background as an emergency room physician, a role he said prepared him to “deal with crises.” He said that if he had to pick one top issue to advocate for as Lt. Governor, it would be school choice.
“It’s not just an educational issue, it’s a moral issue,” Bledsoe said.
Wood said as a second-term county judge of Washington County he had the experience to handle various aspects of duties within the Lt. Governor’s office.
Throughout the debate, Bequette continued to state that Arkansas needed to have “a Ron DeSantis governor – someone who will go on offense when we have to.”
When asked why they were the best choice to reside over the Arkansas Senate as part of the constitutional office’s duties, all candidates argued why they would be a good mediator.
Krout said, “I have seven sons. Can I be a mediator? Yes.” She added that she’s comfortable walking in a room and remaining calm.
Bequette took a jab at Rutledge, Rapert and Webb saying they have been “around for eight to 10 years and not governing like real Republicans.”
Gilbert said he would handle that position with “courtesy and politeness, but firmness.”
When asked what the one legislative or policy agenda item they plan to pursue, Rapert discussed more support for law enforcement. He then brought up Rutledge’s legal record and demanded she answer questions related to a 2002 arrest in Batesville for interference with a law enforcement officer.
According to court records, that charge was later dismissed. Rutledge told KATV it was a “minor traffic stop” and she was a passenger in a parked vehicle.
“An officer came up and asked the woman driving to step out of the vehicle, and I was saying be sure and answer all the questions. I go to step out and say, ‘it’s fine, I’m a lawyer, we just want to make sure she cooperates’ and the officer unfortunately overreacted. It’s 20-year-old nonsense,” said Rutledge.
Secretary of State
Two Republicans, incumbent Secretary of State John Thurston and former State Senator Eddie Joe Williams, and two Democrats, former Pulaski County Election Commissioner Joshua Price and nonprofit director Anna Beth Gorman, are running to be the next secretary of state.
All four candidates stated why they want to be the state’s next top elections official.
“I’m not going to be a cheerleader or a referee, I’m going to be a CEO, and a CEO runs an operation,” said Thurston. He added that companies do not get rid of CEOs while the company is running smoothly – referencing the current status of the office.
“I have been working in 75 counties for the last 14 years, and quite frankly, I don’t think this office is doing a great job,” said Gorman. She pointed out that Arkansas has the lowest voter turnout in the country,
“C’s get degrees…You’re not doing your job, you’re failing,” Gorman said to Thurston.
Williams said being a CEO is not a part-time job. “You can hold me responsible to go to work every day,” said the former state senator.
Price continued to state that it was of the upmost importance to increase voter registration, make it easier on Arkansans, and “protect the right to vote for all Arkansans.”
All candidates agreed, including Thurston, that the office’s website needs to be revamped and made more user-friendly – especially as it relates to campaign finance reporting.
Just two of the three candidates running for the attorney general were present: Jesse Gibson (D) and Leon Jones Jr. (R).
Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin (R) could not make it to the debates due to prior engagements.
“I’m not a Washington insider or career politician, I grew up on a dead-end dirt road,” Gibson touted.
“I’m a public servant at heart, I’m a proven leader,” said Jones.
While both agreed the consumer protection division of the AG’s office is of upmost importance, they differed when it came to whether it was fair how the state legislature drew the 2nd Congressional District lines in the latest redistricting process.
Gibson said the lines drawn were not fair and mainly affected black and brown communities. “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said.
Jones said it’s not the Attorney General’s duty to take a position on such matters.
“The AG has the mandate to defend the laws that are passed by the General Assembly,” Jones said.
As far as having a policy agenda or legislative package, Jones said he will not have one.
“When I hear more legislation, I hear more laws…we need to stop spending the people’s money recklessly – whether it’s the governor’s office, the General Assembly, or the AG,” he said.
Jones added that he will work with legislators to modify or repeal current laws.
“What I would like to do is beef up the human trafficking office at the AG’s office,” said Gibson.
Gibson commented on Griffin’s absence, “’Missing Griffin’ – where is the Lt. Governor if he wants to run to be the people’s lawyer?”
“He’s not here to answer questions…real leaders show up to answer questions,” said Jones.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) and Dr. Anthony Bland (D) were no-shows for the gubernatorial debate on Thursday.
The other six candidates were present: radio personality Doc Washburn (R); the following four Democrats: Dr. Chris Jones, former State Rep. Jay Martin, James “Rus” Russell, Supha Xayprasith-Mays; and Ricky Dale Harrington (L).
Various topics were debated, including whether they support cutting the state’s income tax.
Xayprasith-Mays and Russell were both against cutting the state’s income tax claiming it would cut programs that many Arkansans rely on. “I’m in favor of us getting what we’re actually paying for,” said Russell.
Jones said he supports the idea of cutting taxes, “But you have to make the math work…do you cut police…do you cut schools…do you cut health care in rural areas?”
Harrington stated, “If we do that, we have to have to clear plan on how we execute repealing the state income tax.”
Martin said he’s not opposed to tax cuts, but as a small business owner, “I understand the burden of having to pay taxes…at the same time, we do have a balanced budget.”
Washburn listed several actions he would take to immediately cut the state’s income tax, including cutting each state department’s budget by 10% and auditing every state agency. “Same old story…we keep on being told that we can cut this little tax here. We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem,” said Washburn.
Another topic included what the gubernatorial candidates would have done differently than Gov. Asa Hutchinson as it relates to his pandemic response. The candidates also weighed in on racial strife, which erupted during the pandemic.
Some candidates argued that when protesters shut down I-630 in protest to the killing of George Floyd – it was their First Amendment right to do so peacefully.
“Legal or not, it was a First Amendment issue…but it was done in a peaceful matter,” said Russell.
Washburn disagreed, “Somebody running for governor endorsing breaking the law…is just remarkable to me.”
Martin commented on the racial divide in the country and needing to build bridges to end the divide, “but then if they’re going to break to law we have to lead by force.”
Several candidates also took the opportunity to comment on Sanders’ absence.
“Her ambition is to go to Washington D.C. People deserve better leadership…raising millions of dollars…she’s trying to exploit the citizens of this state,” said Mays.
“Sarah Huckabee Sanders is not showing up and answering questions,” Jones added.
“There is one very big name that’s not here today,” said Washburn. “Too many questions she can’t answer.”
Democrats and Republicans will face-off in the primaries in hopes of becoming their party’s nominee. Early voting begins May 9 and primary Election Day is Tuesday, May 24.