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Divisive politics, renewable energy among topics in Arkansas Lieutenant Governor debate

 (From left) Libertarian Frank Gilbert, Democrat Kelly Krout and Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge participate in a debate for candidates for lieutenant governor on Tuesday.
Arkansas PBS
(From left) Libertarian Frank Gilbert, Democrat Kelly Krout and Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge participate in a debate for candidates for lieutenant governor on Tuesday.

The three candidates for Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas met for a debate Tuesday hosted by Arkansas PBS. Democrat Kelly Krout, Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, and Libertarian Frank Gilbert are all seeking the post, and, if elected, would preside over meetings of the state Senate and be first in line to succeed the governor.

Candidates discussed a number of issues, ranging from the role of government in Arkansans’ lives to the function of the lieutenant governor's office itself. Despite running for the job, Gilbert, the former mayor of the small central Arkansas town of Tull, admitted he believes the position is somewhat unnecessary.

“The Senate does not want a member of the executive body looking over its shoulder, and I think they have an argument to be made there,” Gilbert said. “The truth of the matter is, if we did it right and if we could, we probably ought to eliminate this office.”

Gilbert called for further downsizing state government, including abolishing the state’s public school system in favor of having exclusively private education. He also said the state’s $1.6 billion budget surplus is evidence of excessive taxation.

Rutledge agreed, saying, if both are elected, she would work with Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders to eliminate the state’s individual income tax. When asked about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, Rutledge said she does believe President Joe Biden won.

“But what we need to look at rather, when it comes to Joe Biden, it’s not when he was elected but rather what he’s done since he’s been president. And since he’s been president, I’ve taken over 100 legal actions against this president for his illegal actions as President of the United States,” Rutledge said.

Rutledge characterized claims that she is an election denier as political attacks. Democrat Kelly Krout implied Rutledge’s filing of lawsuits against the Biden administration as attorney general is a misuse of public funds.

“I find it really interesting that my opponent is really against frivolous political attacks because, as I’ve been watching, that is mostly what I have seen,” Krout said. “It is a use of our taxpayer dollars, and I wish people were paying attention to that because it’s not helping our state.”

Krout, a foster parent and social worker from Lowell, came out strongly against Issue 2 on the November ballot, which would raise the threshold for approving citizen-led ballot initiatives and proposed constitutional amendments to 60%.

"It’s very difficult to get something on [the ballot], and so for us to try to make it even more cumbersome to pass legislation through a citizen initiative I find very concerning. And I honestly see it as kind of an insult to the voters of Arkansas that the legislature doesn’t think that we can come up with good enough ideas that should be passed at the same 50% threshold that the legislature is able to pass,” Krout said.

Rutledge did not say she was for or against the proposal, but said it’s important for Arkansans to read all initiatives on the ballot. Krout also spoke on the need for more solar and wind power, particularly to boost the state's agriculture industry.

Rutledge disagreed, saying those in the agriculture industry know what's best for their business.

“To hear from [the] liberal, woke left about how my husband can be farming better and what he can do better, let me tell you: no one cares more about the land that they farm than our Arkansas farmers,” Rutledge said. “I encourage those who sit in their condominiums and apartments to come on out and enjoy Arkansas… and to see what we’re doing to protect our land, our livestock and our livelihoods.”

Rutledge also said she would serve as an economic ambassador for the state as lieutenant governor. Libertarian Frank Gilbert responded to questions about his past membership in the Oath Keepers, a group that’s been described as a right-wing paramilitary organization. He said he’s no longer a member, and hasn’t been for about a decade.

“It is a good organization, I stand by what I did when I joined it, I have no problem with the organization. What they did, some individuals on January 6th, is between them and the Attorney General of the United States,” Gilbert said.

In a news conference following the debate, Gilbert clarified the group did not ask him to renew his membership and said he would likely still be a member if they had done so.

Political debates hosted by Arkansas PBS continue throughout the week, with candidates for attorney general meeting Wednesday.

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