Arkansas Lt. Governor, AG candidates debate in Hot Springs

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 113 views 

There were few fireworks in the Lt. Governor and Attorney General debates at the Arkansas Press Association in Hot Springs on Friday.

U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, the Republican nominee for Lt. Governor, did manage to turn a talking point for Democrat John Burkhalter to his advantage.

Nate Steel, the Democratic nominee for Attorney General, spelled out specifics for a legislative package he would undertake, while Republican Leslie Rutledge said she wasn’t against a package of bills, but would adopt a different approach to working with lawmakers.

Griffin, who left the debate near the halfway mark to cast votes on the floor of Congress, participated in the APA forum via Skype. He said he wanted to focus on jobs and workforce issues. Griffin added that his background in Congress, politics, small business and the military made him the best candidate for the Lt. Governor’s post.

“I have a varied background that has prepared me well to do that,” Griffin said.

Democratic challenger John Burkhalter touted his lack of government and political experience as an advantage. Burkhalter, a businessman and former AEDC and Highway commissioner, also said he would push for job opportunities and workforce reform if elected. He said more emphasis on non-college bound worker education, such as “votech” or “shop” training, was once out of style but was critical to economic progress.

“Folks, it’s always been in vogue with me,” he said.

Burkhalter also took a shot at drawing a distinction between himself and Griffin, saying there was a difference between a “career politician” and someone who has been “building businesses” for 30 years.

Griffin fired back, “I’ve been in office for four years, so it sounds like my opponent is attacking the Democratic nominee for Governor. If he’s talking about a career politician, he’s not talking about me. He must be talking about Mike Ross.”

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross, a former Congressman and State Senator, has endorsed Burkhalter and the two men are running as a ticket.

Christopher Olson, the Libertarian nominee for Lt. Governor, also shared the stage. He said with the troubles of former Lt. Governor Mark Darr, he would advocate for shrinking the office’s roughly $400,000 annual budget and would push to abolish the office.

“$400,000 is too much to spend on what is essentially a part-time job,” Olson said.  He added that he thought the duties of the Lt. Governor’s office could be handled by other constitutional offices.

While he played up his “everyman” roots, Olson also answered a question about whether he would be the best person for the Lt. Governor’s post.

“I would imagine there are better qualified persons to hold that office,” he said.

The three Attorney General candidates debated following the Lt. Governor’s forum.

Nate Steel, the Democratic nominee, played up his opposition to Act 570, a sentencing reform measure that many blame for parole problems that have now led to prison overcrowding. He also noted he co-sponsored a law that provided for non-partisan prosecuting attorney elections.

Steel said his first act as Attorney General would be to initiate a “comprehensive criminal justice review” in order to revise various aspects of the system. The former prosecutor also said he would bring a package of reforms to the state Legislature to deal with prison and sentencing solutions, limit outside counsel for the AG’s office, and expand the role of the position’s cybercrimes unit.

“We need an AG whose ready on day one,” Steel said.

Rutledge, who survived a brutal primary and run-off election, said she was hesitant to bring a legislative package in January, if elected.

“It’s not my intention to have a legislative package, but I’m not ruling it out,” Rutledge said. “I believe the AG’s role is to help the legislature write good, clean laws.”

Rutledge, who served as legal counsel to Gov. Mike Huckabee and has been a deputy prosecutor, played up her previous statements that she would use the Attorney General’s profile and power to fight federal overreach. Citing EPA rules and the Affordable Care Act, Rutledge said she would stand up to the federal government and join other state’s attorneys general in lawsuits to challenge rules, regulations and laws that may harm Arkansans.

“We have a crisis in America with an overreaching federal government,” she said. Rutledge combatted criticism that she would challenge everything.

“I’m talking about doing it when necessary, not just on a whim,” said Rutledge. “We’re going to go after the federal government when necessary.”

Aaron Cash, the Libertarian nominee, said the Attorney General was “not a lawmaker” and has “nothing to do with sentencing.”

Cash characterized efforts to get involved in federal overreach issues as a “waste of time” and said there are “other more important issues to focus on here at home.”