The two major party candidates for Arkansas Attorney General tout their experience as positives for voters to consider this fall, but don’t worry — this race also has its fair share of controversies.
Republican Leslie Rutledge of Little Rock and Democrat State Rep. Nate Steel of Nashville, who are joined by Libertarian Aaron Scott Cash of Springdale in the race, recently sat down with Talk Business and Politics to talk about their campaigns.
The position has been a steppingstone for individuals seeking other offices. Democrats Mike Beebe and Mark Pryor parlayed their terms as attorney general into higher office as did one-time AG Bill Clinton.
Rutledge, a Batesville native, is seeking to become the first Republican and first woman to be elected to the post, while Steel is seeking to become the fourth consecutive state legislator — joining Pryor, Beebe and current occupant Dustin McDaniel — to be elected.
In recent days, there has been controversy over an ad being aired by the Republican Attorney General’s Association (RAGA) in which Rutledge appears. The commercial, called the “salt shaker” ad, has Rutledge sitting at a table, talking about issues involving state and federal government.
Critics of the ad, including the pro-Democratic Southern Progressive Fund, contend Rutledge and RAGA are coordinating their efforts and may be violating the rules of independent expenditure spending.
Arkansas’ ethics rules define independent expenditure activity as “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate for office” that is made without “arrangement, cooperation, or consultation” with a candidate, committee, or their representatives.
The RAGA ad does not advocate voting for or against Rutledge. It also does not identify her as a candidate for Attorney General.
Rutledge says the interaction between RAGA and herself is above board.
She points to a 2006 Arkansas Ethics Commission advisory opinion that involves advocacy issues involving Arkansas Right to Life in defending the arrangement. The opinion quotes the 1976 Supreme Court case, Buckley v. Valeo, involving campaign finance issues and California Pro-Life Council v. Getman, a 2003 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case.
The 2003 ruling, reads in part, “Communications that discuss the record and philosophy of specific candidates, like the one before us, do not constitute express advocacy under Buckley and MCFL unless they also contain words that exhort viewers to take specific electoral action for or against the candidates.”
“I appreciate RAGA being willing to talk about important issues and where I stand on them. If this election is about issues, then I will win,” Rutledge said.
When asked if she views the ad as coordination between her campaign and RAGA, she added, “Yes, legally.”
Steel said he has questions about the ad, but is unclear on if it violates any particular rules.
“I can’t answer that just by seeing the ad,” he said. “It certainly suggests some kind of coordination. I don’t know how it would be possible to produce an ad and speak directly into the camera without coordinating, but I don’t know how it was produced or aired. I would just be speculating.”
A new RAGA ad out this week as a follow-up to the “salt shaker” ad is more aggressive in its message. It seeks to attach Nate Steel to President Obama, calling him a “lap dog” for the administration. The ad advocates for Rutledge saying she’ll be “a guard dog” against the President as Arkansas Attorney General.
The ad follows the traditional formula of using footage and photos obtained in the public domain and does advocate for and against the candidates in the race.
The Democratic Attorneys General Association has not aired any commercials on Steel’s behalf or against Rutledge, but a group known as the Committee For Justice And Fairness has spent six-figures in support of Steel in an ad that touted his toughness as a prosecutor. The Justice and Fairness group is based out of Denver and supports Democratic attorney general candidates nationwide, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
ISSUES, RECORDS & PHILOSOPHIES
The Arkansas Attorney General’s race has already been heavily influenced by outside group spending. In the GOP primary, Rutledge was assaulted with an estimated million dollars in negative campaign ads and mailers by the Judicial Crisis Network, which promoted the candidacy of Republican David Sterling.
The ads attempted to link Rutledge’s positions to those of Democratic President Obama and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Many political observers contend the attacks backfired and helped propel Rutledge to her historic run-off victory.
And while third party ad spending may influence the AG’s race, there are plenty of issues and philosophical approaches to the office that define these two major party candidates for the state’s top legal post.
During a recent campaign appearance in Jonesboro, Rutledge said she would like to expand the current Cyber Crimes unit with the AG’s office, going after internet predators and scam artists.
She said that local departments often do not have the funding to handle major cases and that her experience as a deputy prosecutor will help. She said the program is one place where the AG’s office can do some work.
Steel said he supports the Cyber Crimes Unit and wants to see the program succeed.
“I carried the enabling legislation in the state House to give the Attorney General the authority to subpoena,” said Steel, who is a former prosecutor. “It is a great investigative tool and does not meddle in the local affairs. It is not a top-down approach and it utilizes the resources that are out there.”
Rutledge also said she wants to work to support efforts on pushing back on the overreach of the federal government.
A perfect example is Obamacare, where 28 attorneys general filed suit or amicus briefs on the federal law when it went to the Supreme Court, Rutledge said.
“We have to make sure people know it is the role of the Attorney General. It is not a Republican or Leslie Rutledge thing,” Rutledge said.
Also during her recent Jonesboro stop, she touched on questions about the Environmental Protection Agency.
“The EPA has its foot on the throat of farmers and business owners in our state,” Rutledge said. “We also need a fair business environment.”
For his part, Steel said there are plenty of state issues to deal with.
“I am frustrated with Washington as much as the next guy. But the parole and child predator problems in the state are big. It is a huge disservice to just focus on D.C.,” Steel said.
Steel has rolled out a multi-point plan that he says he’ll take to the state Legislature on Day One.
“My opponent said there is no need for the Attorney General’s office to have a legislative package for this upcoming session,” Steel said in a late August press conference. “Because your legislature convenes every other year, that’s a long time for the many problems I’ve mentioned to go without resolution. We can’t look to a national agenda for marching orders.”
Rutledge says while she doesn’t have plans to bring a package to the state capitol, she will work with state agencies to help educate officials on the law’s boundaries.
“We need an attorney general to work to make sure that state agencies do not go beyond the scope of the statutes. From what I am hearing, I am hearing it is a big problem,” Rutledge said. “We need a strong governor and a strong legislative branch. We do not need a Big Brother or in my case, a Big Sister. But we need to review the scope.”
Rutledge also questioned a 2013 legislative vote by Steel involving Level 3 and Level 4 sex offenders being allowed in state parks. Steel said he voted present on the bill until a park in his district could get further information.
“The Crater of Diamonds State Park had concerns over it, on whether they could patrol the area,” Steel said. “There was not a single no vote on it and I expressed my support. I voted present until I could hear from Crater … she is trying to make my record something that it is not.”
Rutledge said the record stands for itself.
“It is not a misrepresentation of his record. He was the only representative to vote against prohibiting Level 3 and Level 4 sex offenders in state parks,” Rutledge said.
Steel said he believes public safety is the top priority for the attorney general’s office.
“It does not matter if it is consumer protection, consumer advocacy, victim protection or cyber crimes, it is all about public safety,” Steel said.
Steel said his experience as a prosecutor has helped him in his job as a state legislator as well as in the AG’s race.
“I personally prosecuted murder, rape, child predator and drug cases,” Steel said. “That is the major distinction between us. It is the major difference.”
Rutledge countered that her experience as a deputy prosecutor in Lonoke County, dealing with cases involving foster children, as legal counsel to former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and working in the Arkansas Court of Appeals are examples of her work experience that will guide her in the AG’s role.
Her work with foster children as an attorney at the Arkansas Department of Human Services has come under scrutiny from critics calling on her to release her personnel files with the agency. A partial release of her personnel file indicated that her status for rehire was changed nearly 10 days after she departed the agency.
Rutledge argues that this manipulation of her personnel file is troublesome and something she’ll seek correction to, if elected.
“I have not seen those employment records other than what’s been released to the media,” she said. “I have no confidence in what is in those files. That practice and that policy is something I’ll look into as Attorney General because a state agency does not need to have a policy or a practice of altering someone’s employment records after they have left, particularly after they have left voluntarily.”
Steel said Rutledge should okay the release of her personnel records, noting that he has not put any restrictions on his.
“Everything I have has been released. I’ve claimed no exemptions to FOI. If there’s anything that hasn’t already been obtained through FOI by the press or anyone else, I would be happy to release it,” he said. “She’s manipulating my record. The least she can do is disclose her own.”
Both candidates said they opposed Act 570 – a 2013 law that revamped the state’s criminal justice system by changing certain drug-related crimes from being felonies to being misdemeanors.
“I am the only Democrat to vote against Act 570. It weakened the criminal justice system,” Steel said.
“I would like to overhaul Act 570,” Rutledge said, noting she would work with law enforcement and the Department of Correction to craft a new law.
Both candidates said they would support seeking more drug and mental health courts in the state. Rutledge said her father – a former circuit judge – helped create some of the first drug courts in the state, while he was state drug director.
“I would like to seek more drug courts and mental health courts as policy because it saves lives,” Rutledge said.
Steel said he believes funding those drug courts has to be a part of the equation.
“We talk about drug courts but we don’t fund them. Instead, we fund parole officers,” Steel said. “If we do more on the front end, it will definitely help at the end.”
Both candidates also said they have enjoyed meeting people on the campaign trail.
“I like to talk to people one-on-one. Like I have said before, Arkansas is one big small town,” Rutledge said.
“I’ve run with the support of law enforcement. I would say look at who is with us, it says a lot,” Steel said.
UPDATE: Add another controversy to the race. Late Tuesday, Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane, a Democrat, canceled the voter registration of Rutledge claiming she was still registered to vote in Washington, D.C.
Rutledge says she’s complied with directions given to her by Crane’s office when she returned to the state. She provided a copy of her voter registration card, approved by Crane, and she issued a lengthy statement on the matter early Wednesday morning. Read the developing story here.
Editor’s note: Talk Business & Politics’ Editor-in-Chief contributed to this article.