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Candidates for Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District face off in debate

 (From left) Libertarian Gregory Maxwell, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman and Democrat John White speak in a debate for the 4th Congressional District race sponsored by Arkansas PBS on Monday.
Arkansas PBS
(From left) Libertarian Gregory Maxwell, Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman and Democrat John White speak in a debate for the 4th Congressional District race sponsored by Arkansas PBS on Monday.

Candidates for public office in Arkansas are meeting for debates throughout the week. The series of debates hosted by Arkansas PBS kicked off Monday with candidates for the state’s 4th Congressional District, which encompasses a wide swath of western and southern Arkansas.

Democrat John White and Libertarian Gregory Maxwell are seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman to represent the district. Westerman, who currently serves as the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, is seeking a fifth term in office.

Both Maxwell and White often sided with Westerman on policy questions during the debate, while Westerman devoted much of his time to speaking against Democratic leadership in Congress and the White House. A statement sent shortly after the debate by the Democratic Party of Arkansas said it does not endorse White’s stated positions and did not recruit him to run for office.

Perhaps the most stark break from his party came early on in Monday’s debate when candidates were asked about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. White, a disabled veteran from Stephens, said the election was “definitely stolen,” though he said he could not prove the assertion.

“This all could’ve been avoided if there [weren’t] powers involved that we all know that are running it. I don’t think Trump was one of the selected few that always gets selected,” White said. “I don’t think we’ve voted for a president in a long time. I think the last one that got voted in besides Trump was John F. Kennedy.”

Maxwell did not say whether he believes the election was stolen, instead suggesting members of his party are out of the mainstream political world and are unable to assess the situation. Westerman disagreed, saying he does believe Joe Biden is the legitimate winner of the election.

“That’s not to say there weren’t some anomalies," Westerman said. "Every state certified their election results, they were sent to Washington, D.C., and unfortunately Joe Biden has been the president for the last two years.”

A topic where all three candidates did find common ground was the national debt. Maxwell, a retiree from Dover, said he would support restrictions on entitlement programs to help address the growing national debt.

“They should be capped. Entitlement only entitles the entitled. People have to work, people have gotten out of the habit of working, sweating, making a product, making American products as opposed to those shipped from China,” Maxwell said.

Westerman agreed that spending on entitlement programs does drive the national debt, saying Medicare and Social Security are “on a path to insolvency.” He said he’s introduced his own legislation to help address rising healthcare costs, and said the Biden administration’s energy and COVID-19 relief policies are largely to blame for inflation.

“Natural gas is a key component in nitrogen fertilizer, which is the main ingredient in agriculture. Those prices are through the roof, we’re seeing increased input cost to farming, that’s why we’re seeing double-digit inflation rates on food which hurts people with low incomes and fixed incomes more,” Westerman said.

Westerman also said he does not support the proposed constitutional amendment which would legalize recreational marijuana in Arkansas, and said President Biden’s recent pardoning of those with federal marijuana possession charges represents his “weakness on crime.”

Democratic candidate John White spent much of the debate alluding to various conspiracy theories, and said he does not believe it’s fair to call the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol an “insurrection.”

“There was no insurrection. Anybody wants to call that an insurrection or the worst day in American history, they need to look back. It was a big demonstration,” White said. “You get 2 million Democrats up there to protest something, Antifa, the Brownshirts and the Black Lives Matter might just burn the place down.”

White also said, if elected, he would only choose to serve one term in office. Westerman said he does not condone the actions of the Jan. 6 rioters, but said the recent House Select Committee investigation was unnecessary.

When asked how he would go about bringing those with differing political views to the conversation, Libertarian Gregory Maxwell jokingly said “in a headlock.” Westerman cited his experience working with Democrats on a bill to protect giant sequoia trees, while White blamed divisiveness on the government and mainstream news media.

Debates for other statewide and national races in Arkansas will run throughout the week on Arkansas PBS and be aired during the evenings on KUAR 89.1. The only debate that will be aired live on KUAR will be with the candidates for governor, which is the only debate Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders has agreed to participate in.

Daniel Breen is News Director for UA Little Rock Public Radio.