There might not be a starker contrast between two candidates seeking political office than the two in the Arkansas Senate District 20 race. Incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, and Democratic opponent Chenoa Summers debated Friday (Sept. 23) at the NEA Political Animals meeting in Jonesboro.
The debate was intense at times as those in the crowd cheered and jeered at the candidates’ answers. Sullivan, who was first elected to the Arkansas State House in 2014, has been a focus of statewide attention after comments he made about teacher pay raises and school district spending on sports facilities.
“Teachers rightfully & understandably complain to legislators about spending their own money on classroom supplies while districts spend big $$$$$ on uniforms, extracurricular activities, sports stadiums etc? Seems like that would be a local issue? I get many letters from teachers asking for a raise and most follow a similar form. Spending their own $$ on classroom supplies is a popular refrain. Why is this an issue for the state legislature? Should the legislature be regulating this or local districts?” Sullivan said in a Facebook post in July.
When asked about his stance on teacher pay, Sullivan noted he spent decades as a school administrator, and he thinks districts shouldn’t focus their spending on facilities and other expenses but should focus on teacher salaries.
“We heard, ‘Dan hates teachers’ and my opponent promoted that … we ended up, through the legislature, giving teachers a $5,000 raise,” he said. He later added, “Teachers are more important than facilities.”
Summers said she thinks the legislature should increase teacher pay scales. Often, teachers don’t even make a living wage. It was noted that teachers’ wages in the state are some of the lowest in the country. She also supports free community college. She said it could be paid for with taxes collected from recreational marijuana. Issue 4, which will be on November’s ballot does not single out higher education for dedicated tax revenue, but some general revenue is expected to be collected if the measure passes.
“Education is the path to prosperity,” she said.
If he’s re-elected, Sullivan said his top focus will be increasing the state’s energy capacity. He said transitioning from fossil fuels to greener forms of energy would drive some farmers out of business due to increased costs.
Other problems would emerge if all gasoline-powered vehicles were replaced with electric ones, he said. He said having electrical vehicles makes sense, but not a wholesale change. He asked rhetorically how people living in apartment complexes would all charge their electric vehicles at the same time.
“My opponent wants to end fossil fuels. That will be a death knell to our economy … Folks, it will put our farmers out of work,” Sullivan said.
Summers, who said she is a scientist, said that we are running out of fossil fuels. She thinks government grant programs will help citizens pay for green energy options such as home solar panels.
“Renewable energy is the future … we’re going to have to shift to renewable energy whether we like it or not,” she said.
Sullivan immediately fired back.
“Like it or not. That’s the progressive, Democrat way,” Sullivan said. “ … it doesn’t matter if you want solar panels or not. Like it or not, you’re getting it.”
One controversy that both candidates have been connected to is the ongoing saga on the Craighead County Library. Last year, the library erected a display celebrating those who identify as LGBTQ. Several board members, community leaders and politicians, including Sullivan, supported an oversight committee having final say on what is displayed at the library.
There have been national movements to ban certain books with LGBTQ themes and storylines. The controversy at the Craighead County Library has been so heated that the library director and assistant director have both resigned.
One member of the crowd asked Sullivan why he said on a podcast that he would support legislation that removes teachers and librarians from “protected class status,” meaning they could be criminally prosecuted for books in libraries and classrooms.
“I do favor making librarians accountable to the public … if I took material that is sexually explicit and distributed it (in public) I would face consequences for that,” he said. “I represent the people in Jonesboro and in Craighead County, and I know the people in Craighead County have grave concerns over the direction of the library.”
The people who have attacked the library are a small, but vocal minority, Summers said. Librarians should be free to put any books on their shelves.
“Librarians should be protected against people who are attacking them,” she said. “Librarians are for everybody.”
Both candidates were asked gender identity issues in the state school system. Currently, the Arkansas Department of Education has no policy in place to handle issues relating to issues of gender and sex, the questioner said.
Summers said gender and sex should be protected classes and if she’s elected, she would push for laws to codify protections. She noted there have been several laws passed and proposed across the country that would take away rights to certain groups.
“The government should not legislate that,” she said.
Sullivan accused Summers of “dodging” the question. He said he thinks the local school board, not the legislature, should develop policies to address the issue. The senator said he’s talked to several people who have concerns about overnight school trips and the dynamics that could play out in those situations.
“If I were a parent, I would be calling my local school to see what is your local policy on overnight trips? … Are they going to be grouped by gender or by sex? Parents are very concerned about that,” he said.
Summers offered a two-line rebuttal.
“Who is going to look at kids’ genitals? Who is going to do that?”
Sullivan admitted he’s made some mistakes as an elected official. He said he’s struggled to work with some of his colleagues, and several from his own party. He said he doesn’t think he’s ever been labeled an extremist.
“I care about our community deeply … my opponent and I sharply contrast on policy,” he said.
Summers closed with a plea to change the political direction of the newly formed Senate district which represents the city of Jonesboro and several adjoining communities.
“I’m obviously not a traditional candidate. I have purple hair and I have tattoos … part of who I am is caring about other people. That’s what my mom taught me. Dan Sullivan has made it clear he only represents people who look and think like him,” Summers said.
Sullivan and Summers both reside in Jonesboro.