Arkansas District 77 candidates duel over guns, corruption, and school safety

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,098 views 

Arkansas Rep. Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith, met Stephen Edwards, a libertarian, and Luke Pruitt, a Democrat — his two challengers for the District 77 House seat — at a public forum on Monday (Sept. 17) from the main branch of the public library.

The 45-minute session, presented by the League of River Valley Voters, touched on a number of topics. But it was a volley over corruption, school safety, and the Second Amendment as well as one outburst over gender pay that stood out.

On priorities for Arkansas in the next term, Boyd championed the last four years of Republican leadership in Little Rock. He said conservative policies were important for moving people out of poverty, adding the two priorities Arkansas should be focusing on are to “continue to develop the business climate and work on the education system.” He touted Republicans’ gains on jobs with record-low unemployment, as well as the growth of wages and a surge in the number of new jobs.

“We have a plan in place. It is working, and I think we need to continue it,” Boyd said.

For Pruitt, the focus should be on urban design, creating walkability and incentivizing growth in the Fort Smith area. Pruitt said Fort Smith needed to be a city of 100,000 people, “and we need to do it soon.” He believed improving the quality of life “would attract more doctors per capita and make the state more competitive” in healthcare. Pruitt acknowledged Arkansans were “over-worked and over-taxed,” so the only answer to revenue problems was to grow the population base.

Edwards cautioned conservative voters that voting for someone “with an R by their name doesn’t mean you’re getting a conservative.” Edwards, who served in the Marine Corps and was deployed to Iraq in 2003, identified more strongly with the conservative side of libertarian politics, touching on issues like the Second Amendment and limited government. Cards he handed out at the forum stated he was a pro-life candidate as well, though the issue did not come up in Monday’s forum. He specifically took issue with the expansion of Medicaid supported by Republicans, stating it would mean rising healthcare costs with Arkansans paying over $200 million in the next two years.

Edwards was able to use one question — should fees be charged for gun licensing — to hit the size of government.

“Of course they shouldn’t be charging a fee,” he said, adding the government “has a bad habit of taking away your rights and then selling them back to you. They shouldn’t charge for that. Your Second Amendment right is your license as far as I’m concerned.”

Linked to the question was discussion over school safety measures, particularly guns in schools. Edwards was for arming willing teachers as a school safety component but noted the teachers should be qualified.

“This isn’t about shoving guns into their hands. It’s teachers who are comfortable. Teachers who have had experience. Former police officers, former military training. And when school shootings start, I hope that teacher isn’t still teaching. I hope that teacher is trying to protect my boy.”

Pruitt took a moment on guns to attack the Republican-controlled legislature.

“Whichever of us gets elected, please — don’t arm teachers. Let them teach. If we’re going to approach this, we need to make sure we’re only letting professionals handle guns in schools. Keep our public places safe. The gun bill that you guys passed,” he said to Boyd, “is irresponsible and reckless.”

Pruitt continued: “To allow guns in bars and on college campuses — and you can talk to anyone, I have not found many people who think that’s a good idea — it’s unsafe and it’s reckless, and I think it was a harmful political move. It was socially divisive, and it speaks to the balance of power issues that we have right now.”

Pruitt also linked the Republican-heavy legislature to recent corruption cases involving Republicans like former state Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, though he did not mention Files by name.

“There are 100 members of the Arkansas House. There are 76 who are Republicans and there are 24 who are Democrats. That’s why you are seeing a lot of corruption and so many things that aren’t good (like) C&H Hog Farm coming in and destroying the Buffalo River. We need a balance.”

Boyd addressed the corruption issue as something that started before Republicans took control and resented the attempt to make it a one-sided issue.

“The corruption in Little Rock that I remember started with (Democrat) Martha Shoffner and pie boxes,” Boyd said — a reference to the former Arkansas State Treasurer who was convicted of extortion and bribery, some of which was received in pie boxes. She was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison when Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe was still in office.

Boyd continued: “I resent that you’re taking aim at one party in particular when it’s clearly a non-partisan issue. And as far as the hog farm, that happened on Gov. Beebe’s watch. So before we cast stones, we should think about that.”

Back to the point of guns, Boyd called the Second Amendment a “natural God-given right to protect ourselves, and everything we do to erode the Second Amendment makes us more dependent on the government. What we need right now are more personal responsibility and less government dependence. On school safety, the focus should be local, it should be on response times, it should be on securing the facilities and using state government to get out of the way so local government can do what is right for reflecting the values in that community.”

The discussions stayed mostly civil during the forum except for one moment when Edwards was pushing back against the idea that women are paid 78% of what a man makes or a 22% “gender pay gap.” As Edwards started to explain, an unnamed woman in the back of the room shouted, “Bullshit!”

Edwards stayed the course and said studies indicate the gap is much narrower and that factors like women leaving the workforce to focus on family or women not going into as dangerous of career fields as men were major factors in any pay inequities.

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