Political civility, school choice focus of lieutenant governor debate

A debate between candidates for lieutenant governor was held Tuesday morning at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, on the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. From left, the candidates are Libertarian Frank Gilbert, Democrat Kelly Krout, and Republican Leslie Rutledge. The debate was televised by Arkansas PBS. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

All three candidates for Arkansas lieutenant governor agreed there needs to be more civility in politics during a debate hosted by Arkansas PBS Tuesday.

As attorney general, Leslie Rutledge said she’s had the opportunity to work with the Legislature on difficult issues and she hopes to bring that civility to the role of lieutenant governor if elected. 

“Americans and Arkansans are tired of the divisiveness that they see in politics,” Rutledge said. “We need to be able to get things done and sometimes that means that we have to find the 80% of things that we agree on and leave that 20% aside.”

Because she “used to be very conservative,” Democratic nominee Kelly Krout said she feels like she has a good ability to communicate to both sides of an issue. 

“Even some of our most divisive issues, we can make a lot of progress together policy-wise that helps everyone without necessarily agreeing on the original issue completely,” Krout said. “There’s still room for growth.”

The country’s two-party system has created “tribal politics,” which leads to a situation where people are unable to disagree civilly, Libertarian candidate Frank Gilbert said. 

“We tend to objectify and demonize those that we disagree with and that has created a culture in Arkansas politics that has driven away the voters in hoards, Gilbert said.

Arkansas had the lowest voter turnout in the country during the 2020 election, according to a biennial report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Democratic candidate Kelly Krout (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Divisiveness and denial of the 2020 presidential election results led to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Krout said. It’s important to take responsibility for those actions and to develop a plan moving forward for safe and fair elections, she said.

Rutledge agreed there was unnecessary violence on Jan. 6. It’s important for Americans to move past it and for state leaders to stand up against violence at any time, she said.

Members of the far-right, anti-government group the Oath Keepers are on trial for sedition and other charges as a result of their involvement with the Jan. 6 attack. Asked about his ties to the group, Gilbert said he joined about a decade ago, but is not a current member because they didn’t follow up about renewing his membership.

However, if they reached out today, Gilbert said he’d probably join if the organization is still founded on the concept of not following “unconstitutional orders that are sometimes given.”

“The organization may have changed, I’d hate it if it did,” he said.

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Political experience

All three candidates are seeking to replace Republican Tim Griffin who was first elected lieutenant governor in 2014. He is running for Arkansas attorney general and his Democratic opponent is Jesse Gibson.

The official duties of the state’s lieutenant governor are to preside over the Senate with a tie-breaking vote, serve as governor when the governor is out of state, or when the governor is impeached, removed from office, dies or is otherwise unable to perform the duties of the office, according to the Arkansas Constitution.

Republican Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Rutledge was first elected Arkansas attorney general in 2014. She announced her candidacy for lieutenant governor last November, ending her gubernatorial bid, which she launched in July 2020. Rutledge won the Republican primary in May with 54% of the vote. She defeated five other candidates.

Kelly Krout is a licensed social worker and a former foster parent. She lost the race for Arkansas House District 90 in 2020 to Republican Kendon Underwood who won with nearly 63% of the vote.

If Krout or Rutledge are elected, they would become the first woman elected to serve as lieutenant governor of Arkansas.

Libertarian Frank Gilbert is the former mayor of Tull. He unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2018. Gilbert also had unsuccessful bids for the Arkansas Senate in 2012, Arkansas governor in 2014, U.S. Senate in 2016 and the 4th Congressional District in 2020.

School choice

On the topic of education, Rutledge and Gilbert said they support school choice while Krout said she prefers that “public funds stay with public schools.”

“All children should be able to have access to the same opportunities here,” Krout said. “The money is there. We’ve all seen the surplus.”

Rutledge advocated for school choice because children have different learning needs. For example, her niece “flourished in public schools,” while her nephew, who’s on the autism spectrum, does better with homeschooling, Rutledge said.

“The first order of business in order to ensure all children have a chance at a quality education, is to give their parents the choice in the education,” she said. “A child shouldn’t be held back by their parents’ zip code or their parents’ income.”

In a post-debate press conference, Gilbert said he would support eliminating the state department of education.

“Education is something that parents should do for their children and shopping that out to any level of government is dangerous because they teach what they want,” Gilbert asked. “And what they want is citizens who comply.”

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Ballot initiatives 

Libertarian candidate Frank Gilbert (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The three candidates were mixed on their opinions about the four ballot issues facing voters this year.

Krout is a strong no on Issue 2, which would change the Arkansas Constitution to increase the percentage of votes required to pass constitutional amendments and citizen-proposed state laws from a simple majority to 60% of the votes cast. It’s already incredibly difficult for citizen-initiated issues to get on the ballot and this would make it even more cumbersome, Krout said.

It should be difficult to amend the Arkansas Constitution, Rutledge said. However, in a post-debate press conference, she declined to say whether she would vote for Issue 2 and instead encouraged voters to educate themselves on all four ballot issues and make their own decisions.

Issue 4, which would legalize recreational marijuana for adults, is the most important ballot issue to Gilbert because of the impact it would have on people’s daily lives, he said.

Gilbert said he hates that a small group of people are likely to get rich if the issue is approved. However, he also hates seeing people getting arrested every day for possession. 

After the debate, Krout said while she supports legalizing recreational marijuana use, she’s undecided about voting for Issue 4 because “it could be better.” For example, she said it doesn’t deal with expungement of records. 

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Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate
Antoinette Grajeda, Arkansas Advocate

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.

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