Next up in debate before the Arkansas Press Association: The attorney general candidates — Libertarian Aaron Cash, Republican Leslie Rutledge and Democrat Nate Steel. To open:
* RUTLEDGE: Going to fight crime, protect consumers and fight “overreaching” federal government. Specifics? None given. She’s experienced, she said.
* CASH: A “pragmatist,” only a year out of law school. Looking for voters “tired of the two-party system.”
* STEEL: Said he adopted his mother’s philosophy of helping people. Noted his experience as prosecutor, from capital murder to child predators. Primary role of government is to “protect the citizens.” Focus needs to be on Arkansas: He named crowded prisons and a meth problem.
A slow start on questions. All promised to look after seniors, guard against cyber fraud and protect privacy. All promise to keep serious criminals in jail, but Steel and Rutledge emphasized drug courts for alternative sentencing.
Blast of candor: Cash favored legalizing marijuana and pointed out that the attorney general has nothing to do with sentencing. He said less focus on nonviolent offenders would free money for dealing with serious offenders.
Asked for specifics on the overreaching federal government, Rutledge fell back on the Affordable Care Act, whether filing amicus briefs or filing lawsuits “where necessary.” She mentioned Dodd-Frank, the banking law, as a potential target.
Cash said spending resources to fight the federal government on issues the state is likely to lose is a waste of resources. He said the focus should be in Arkansas.
Steel said he’s frustrated by federal actions, too, but, “I don’t think the solution to an overreaching federal government is an overreaching attorney general.” We send six congressmen to Washington, the attorney general doesn’t need to be the seventh, he said. It would be a disservice to have a state official focused on Washington, not local issues he said. Rutledge suggested the state should have been in the Hobby Lobby case allowing corporations to refuse to provide contraception under employee health coverage. Steel said he supported the outcome, but said it was a private case and not one in which the state had a role.
DRUGS: Cash said prohibition doesn’t work. Steel would have none of it. He said drugs cause problem and that prisons aren’t filled with people serving time for simple possession of marijuana. Rutledge reiterated her opposition to legalization of marijuana. Cash said it was an indvidual freedom issue. Government shouldn’t be able to come into a home and tell somebody they can’t do something that isn’t hurting someone else.
DEFENDING THE LAW: Rutledge said she’d defend even laws with which she disagreed, but it’s hard to figure what that might be given a Republican legislative majority. She made clear she favors discrimination against gays in marriage; limitations to women’s access to abortion and just about any gun law you could name. Steel said he’d defend laws passed by the legislature. He didn’t volunteer positions on the hot button issues that Rutledge mentioned.
THE LAKEVIEW DECISION: The candidates solidly support public education. Steel and Rutledge talked about their mommas, both special ed teachers. Cash said both his parents worked in schools.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: They’re for it. Steel said he wished the state Senate would televise its proceedings.
LEGISLATIVE PACKAGE: Steel focused on rewriting parole and sentencing laws. Rutledge was more general and said she’d work to see that law changes didn’t have unintended consequences. Steel seemed to characterize this as “doing nothing,” to which Rutledge responded that “doing nothing” was voting present on a tough legislative issue. She didn’t specify the issue to which she referred.
OPEN CARRY: Rutledge said the law is ambiguous, though she believes it allows open carry if the intent is not to do harm. She said the law needs to be clarified so law enforcement officers know for sure if open carry is allowed. Cash said the law clearly allows open carry without a license. Steel said there were some circumstantial factors that could allow charges for someone carrying a weapon. But he said open carry was generally a 2nd Amendment right. He did say open carry advocates didn’t need to “bully” law enforcement with demonstrations attempting to force arrests.
In conclusion: Steel said he’d be “objective and fair” and able to work with all parties. Cash said he was the alternative for those tired of the two-party system. Rutledge claimed greater experience, including as an aide to Mike Huckabee and working for the Republican National Committee. She said she’d fight overreaching government, including an overreaching state Department of Environmental Quality, an unexplained complaint and not much in evidence in underperforming oversight of fracking and of hog farming in the Buffalo watershed.
Instant impression: Steel is a smoother debater, perhaps a mark of his significant time in the courtroom. Philosophically, he demonstrated little difference with his Republican opponent. If word about the Libertarian gets out, he’ll draw some votes.
PS — Business lobbyists picked up on a brief mention by Nate Steel with big significance — limitation on use of outside counsel. This means these big-dollar class action lawyers that have won whopping settlements.