story by Michael Tilley
Mike Ross took time during the opening of his Northwest Arkansas campaign headquarters in Springdale to blast a new television ad from the Republican Governors Association (RGA) alleging that the 2007 sale of a pharmacy in Prescott owned by Ross and his wife, Holly, for $420,000 was “a sweetheart deal” paid for by a campaign contributor to Ross’ congressional campaigns.
Ross, the Democratic candidate for Arkansas Governor, is in a tight race with Republican Asa Hutchinson.
The 30-second television spot references the 2007 sale of the pharmacy to USA Drug, which became a topic in Ross’ 2010 re-election campaign for Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District. The new ad closes by noting that “some things shouldn’t be for sale,” suggesting that Ross and his wife would not have collected more than $1.2 million – $420,000 for property and around $800,000 for customer list and non-compete agreements – for the sale of the pharmacy and assets if not for his Congressional position. (The ad may be viewed at the end of this report.)
The complete ad voice over noted: “The only real estate appraiser in Prescott put it this way: ‘You can buy half the town for four hundred twenty thousand dollars.’ Yet somehow, Mike Ross sold his Prescott pharmacy to the company of a campaign donor, for just that amount. A sweetheart deal. ‘An eye-popping number.’ A call for a justice department investigation. And before it was done, Ross got another eight hundred thousand from the same buyer. Typical politician Mike Ross. Some things shouldn’t be for sale.”
Ross, who was visibly upset during his remarks in Springdale, said the ad is just as much an attack on his wife as it is on him. He also said the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct and an investigative report and subsequent editorials by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found nothing improper about the transaction. The Democrat-Gazette editorial called an article by proPublica – the publisher of the initial report suggesting Ross improperly benefitted from the deal – a “smear” and the associated fallout an “artificial tempest.”
The ad is the “lowest of all lows” because it attacked his wife for working hard to build a business and then sell it, Ross said.
“That’s an attack on all small business owners in Arkansas. … I’m calling on Asa Hutchinson to apologize to my wife,” Ross said, adding later that he would hope Hutchinson would ask New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to pull the ad. Christie, who is scheduled to be in Arkansas on Wednesday (Aug. 27) to campaign for Hutchinson, is the vice chair of the RGA.
“I would never attack Asa Hutchinson’s wife … and I received a text from Holly and she said she would never allow me to do that. I think that says a lot about the character of the people in this race,” Ross said.
Jon Thompson, a spokesman for the RGA, issued this response to Ross’ call for an apology and to withdraw the ad: “Congressman Mike Ross is a typical politician who can’t handle the truth. Arkansas voters have the right to know that Ross has a history of making sweetheart deals with campaign donors, including his family pharmacy. No amount of fake outrage from Congressman Ross is going to change the fact that he padded his pockets with the sale of his pharmacy to a campaign donor.”
J.R. Davis, spokesman for the Hutchinson campaign, issued this short statement: "Our campaign did not place the ad, has nothing to do with this ad, and we have no further comment."
NORTHWEST ARKANSAS PUSH
As to opening a campaign office in Springdale, Ross and Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, acknowledged that Northwest Arkansas – Benton and Washington counties – is typically considered a Republican stronghold in Arkansas.
Hutchinson was born and raised in Northwest Arkansas. He lived for several years in Fort Smith, but returned to Northwest Arkansas to operate a law firm with his son.
Leding, who introduced Ross to the audience gathered at the office opening, said Democrats in the region “need to end the myth of how we are outnumbered” in the area.
The region has a mixed electoral history in the past two gubernatorial elections. In 2006, when Hutchinson challenged then-Attorney General Mike Beebe in an open race for the Governor’s office, Benton County gave Hutchinson 58.7% of the vote compared to 38.6% for Beebe. However, Washington County was 50.7% for Beebe and 46.4% for Hutchinson.
In 2010, when Gov. Beebe ran for re-election against Little Rock businessman Jim Keet, Beebe captured 52.1% of the vote in Benton County and 60.4% of the vote in Washington County.
“We can absolutely win here in Northwest Arkansas and it is absolutely critical that we do,” Leding told the crowd.
Ross told the crowd he would win in November by continuing to push his message of education and economic development, and by reminding voters that his opponent is out of touch with Arkansans.
“I think Asa Hutchinson has spent too much time in court rooms and board rooms and not enough time in living rooms and break rooms,” Ross said.