Cook: Attorney General Dustin McDaniel Turns Around A Tumultuous Year

by Michael Cook ( 63 views 

Exactly one year ago today, news of a very personal nature broke publicly that ultimately caused Attorney General Dustin McDaniel to withdraw from the Governor’s race.

Since that time, McDaniel, a Democrat, has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments as he heads into his final year in office. From fighting ExxonMobil over the Mayflower oil spill, to an agreement with Oklahoma over a contentious water quality issue, to finally settling the decades-old Pulaski County public school desegregation case, McDaniel has a lot to be proud of.

I sat down with McDaniel Tuesday afternoon in his 11th floor office in the Tower Building in downtown Little Rock to discuss some of these issues.

The past year saw major upheavals personally, professionally and politically for the Attorney General. I hoped to get a sense of what happened behind the scenes once the news broke and how he dealt with it all since then. Plus, I’ve been impressed with all that he’s accomplished since leaving the Governor’s race.

One of the first questions I had to ask was related to events surrounding the news of his “inappropriate” relationship with Hot Springs attorney Andi Davis.

McDaniel was not aware that today was the exact anniversary of the news becoming public a year ago. I did not want to discuss any indelicate matters, just what transpired after the story became public.

However, McDaniel declined to discuss aspects of what caused him to leave the race for Governor and how it affected him:

“I think it’s a fair question for you to ask, but truthfully I’m not running for office and I’ve said what I needed to say about it. I’ve truly moved on, my family’s moved on, our life has moved on. I really just don’t have anything to say about it.”

It was clear that subject was a door he did not want to open in the course of our conversation, which is understandable.

Speaking generally, from a personal standpoint McDaniel did say he had a great year. His wife, Bobbi, and their kids made a few family trips over the summer and the couple was able to get away by themselves on trips. A big family trip to New York is in the works for spring break next year.

Since discussion of the factors that caused him to leave the Governor’s race were a dead end in our conversation, I delved into the topic of politics.

McDaniel is a political animal, in the best sense of the phrase, first elected as State Representative in 2004 and elected Attorney General two years later at the young age of 34.

In June 2012, he announced his intentions to seek the Governor’s office and by the end of that September he had already raised $1 million.

McDaniel was going to be the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee and had an excellent shot winning the general election.

But on January 25, 2013, McDaniel left the Governor’s race, citing the fact the race would likely become about him personally rather than issues facing Arkansas’s future. In my opinion, it was admirable how quickly and gracefully he left the race and didn’t allow the issue to fester for months, hurting both him and his party.

Considering all of this, I asked McDaniel if he still craved to run for public office again one day:

“If there’s one thing I do know is that you never say never. I wouldn’t say I’d never run for office again because you never know what the future might hold. But I don’t have any plans or aspirations to run for office. … I’m not somebody who just has to be in office, I’m not looking for some other office to run for.”

McDaniel said he was flattered by folks asking him to run for Congress, but he has no desire to do so.

McDaniel went on to say:

“I would have loved to have served as Governor and I think I would have been a good Governor. But if that’s not what the future holds, then I’m excited to support other people.”

McDaniel plans to remain active in politics, noting he’s helping Democratic candidates raise money and hosting fundraisers for various office-seekers:

“People are very gracious and still want me to be involved in their campaigns and helping them with their politics, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity to be involved in the political scene in Arkansas. … I don’t expect to disappear from the political scene, but running for office again, that may happen and that may not.”

Looking to the future, McDaniel is excited about the prospect of helping Arkansas’s former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, if she decides to run for President in 2016. McDaniel was one of her national co-chairs during her 2008 campaign.

I asked McDaniel what changes in Arkansas politics he’s observed from his vantage point during his time in office:

“The single greatest change in Arkansas politics has been the election of President Obama.”

McDaniel went on to say that if Hillary Clinton had been elected in 2008 the political scene in Arkansas would have been completely different.

McDaniel expressed frustration with President Obama, both over his policies and the fact the President has never visited Arkansas during his presidency:

“I have expressed at the highest levels my displeasure that the President has yet to come to Arkansas. The fact he is not popular here should be all the more reason why he should come.”

McDaniel believes Obama should visit the numerous Arkansas industries and companies that are in many cases the largest of their type in the world, such as our beef and poultry industries, to say nothing about America’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart.

McDaniel also lamented how he believes the White House has ignored Arkansas and not attempted to alleviate concerns people here may have:

“I don’t like how the White House does not consider Arkansas to be important in their scheme of things. And as a result of neglect and atrophy, and policies that the people of Arkansas just do not agree with, or like, some things we just don’t understand, but at the same time a lot of them we just don’t like or trust. They’ve made no effort to either hear those concerns or alleviate those concerns.”

McDaniel also took aim at the Tea Party and how their demands for absolute purity – my phrasing, not his – have caused problems in Arkansas politics:

“When you have legitimately strong conservative Republican members of the General Assembly who are worried, because every now and then they vote their conscience rather than a party line, and they’re scared to death they’re going to get Tea Party primaried back home, that is a whole new environment and one that I am not sad to be leaving.”

As I mentioned previously, McDaniel has accomplished a great deal over the past year. The Attorney General grapples with numerous complex issues often difficult to explain, which may be a reason why Arkansans are not fully aware of them all.

Here are issues we discussed in our Tuesday conversation. These are some of the big ticket items McDaniel handled in the past year. In each instance, McDaniel was successful:

Mayflower Oil Spill:  McDaniel has held ExxonMobil’s feet to the fire over the company’s pipeline rupture and oil spill in Mayflower earlier this year.

Desegregation Case:  The desegregation case of three Pulaski County school districts is an issue Arkansas has dealt with since the 1980’s. In November, McDaniel’s office reached an agreement with the school districts that finally ends this case.

Arkansas-Oklahoma Water Quality Agreement:  This complex issue of phosphorous concentrations in the Illinois River watershed had been debated between the two states for years. In February, McDaniel reached an agreement with Oklahoma’s Attorney General that saves Arkansans from costly litigation and protects the environment.

Tobacco Settlement:  Tens of millions of dollars owed to Arkansas by tobacco companies had been sitting in escrow for nearly a decade due to legal wrangling by the tobacco industry. Working with other AGs, McDaniel finally got these funds released to Arkansas.

McDaniel has just over twelve months left in office. I asked him what is one thing he hopes to accomplish before he leaves office in early January of 2015. McDaniel cited two things he hopes to finish before his term ends.

Johnson and Johnson Case: McDaniel said he is concerned the Arkansas Supreme Court has not yet given a date for arguments in the Medicaid fraud case over the company’s marketing of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal. This is a billion dollar case and winning a judgment on behalf of Arkansans would be a crowning achievement for McDaniel.

Internet Search Companies: McDaniel said this issue likely won’t be resolved in his remaining year, but he’d like to be involved in addressing business practices of those companies that monetize unsavory behavior. McDaniel said some search companies are taking advertisers money and associating them with searches they shouldn’t be associated with.

In the end, 2013 was a remarkable year for Dustin McDaniel.

The year began with McDaniel losing a golden opportunity to become Arkansas’s next Governor. It ended for McDaniel with an incredible list of achievements by just doing his job as Attorney General. And doing it very well.

Dustin McDaniel has politically redeemed himself and rehabilitated his image, in my estimation. He won’t be on the 2014 ballot, but he’ll continue to be a force in Arkansas politics, and more than likely, will one day seek political office again – just when and which office remain unknown.