Arkansas gubernatorial candidates debate importance of national politics, media access

The Arkansas PBS debate between candidates for Arkanasa Governor was held Friday morning October 21 at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway. The participants, from left, are: Republican candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Democratic candidate Chris Jones, and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122

Three gubernatorial candidates agreed they want to serve Arkansas, but differed on how much attention should be paid to what’s happening in Washington D.C. during a debate hosted by Arkansas PBS Friday.

The hyperpartisanship in national politics is one reason Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. said he’s running for Arkansas governor. It’s time to tune out Washington, remember Arkansans have neighbors who believe differently than national politicians and to treat each other “as human beings that have the right to self determination,” Harrington said.

The Arkansas PBS debate between candidates for Arkanasa Governor was held Friday morning October 21 at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway. Republican candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, left, and Democratic candidate Chris Jones shake hands following the debate.
John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122

There has to be a balance between federal and state politics because you “cannot ignore the failures that are coming out of Washington right now” like record inflation, Republican Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. Sanders is running for governor because you can make the biggest difference at the state level, she said.

Jones said this has always been about Arkansas and he’s heard from Arkansans who are saying “they really want us to get back to the bread and butter issues that matter.”

Jones and Sanders agreed education is one of those important issues and that all kids deserve access to quality education. As part of his PB&J — preschool, broadband and jobs — agenda, Jones wants to expand access to pre-K.

Through her Arkansas LEARNS plan, Sanders wants to improve literacy and empower parents with more choices for their children’s education.

Political experience

Sanders is the daughter of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. She gained national recognition serving as White House Press Secretary from 2017 to 2019. 

Sanders defeated Francis ‘Doc’ Washburn in the primary with 83% of the vote to earn the Republican nomination in May.

Sanders said it’s an important quality for leaders to be prepared for the unexpected. Sanders said she’s been tested at the highest level of government and won’t back down for who she is or what she believes. 

“I know I’m prepared to step in on day one and be both the fighter and the leader that our state needs, frankly at a time I think we need it the very most,” Sanders said.

The Arkansas PBS debate between candidates for Arkanasa Governor was held Friday morning October 21 at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway. Democratic candidate Chris Jones.
John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122

Jones is the former executive director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub. He defeated four other candidates in the Democratic primary this spring with 70% of the vote.

Being an executive is one of the governor’s roles and Jones said he’s the only candidate who has run multiple million dollar organizations.

“One has to know how to set budgets, how to manage individuals, how to set a vision and then how to set a plan to realize that vision,” he said.

Harrington is a Pine Bluff pastor who has done missionary work abroad. He ran an unsuccessful campaign against U.S. Senator Tom Cotton in 2020.

Harrington said while he may not have the resumes of his opponents, he has a lifetime of serving others as well as experience managing people. 

“In leadership it takes a milieu of different skills,” Harrington said. “Not only do you have to be strong, but you have to have compassion. Be firm, fair and consistent.”

If Jones or Harrington is elected, they would be the state’s first African American governor.

If Sanders is elected, she would be the first woman to serve as governor.  

Republican Asa Hutchinson was first elected Arkansas governor in 2014. He cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

Credibility and transparency

Credibility matters and Jones said it’s critical to inspect candidates so voters can determine if they trust the governor to spend their money wisely, show up in a crisis and “make the right decision” for them when they’re not in the room.

Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. speaks at the Oct. 21, 2022, governor's debate at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. speaks at the Oct. 21, 2022, governor’s debate at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Harrington said integrity is a key component of his campaign and if elected he would do his best to lead with integrity. Government needs integrity because there have been many times when people in power have abused people’s civil rights, he said.

Sanders agreed integrity and trust are important qualifications and said the people of Arkansas can trust her to do the best for her kids and theirs.

Jones and Harrington said they would be open to speaking with the media because the press plays a critical role in creating transparency and trust with the public. Jones said he’s heard stories of Arkansans who are frustrated because they can’t hear from Sanders.

While Sanders said she believes in freedom of the press, it comes with a great deal of responsibility. When the media “doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain,” Sanders said it forces some people to go outside of the box. Sanders said she’s done that by taking her message directly to Arkansans and cutting out the middleman.

Friday was the first time all three candidates have participated in a debate together. Sanders declined to participate in a gubernatorial debate hosted by KATV earlier this month. She also declined to participate in Arkansas PBS’ post-debate press conference Friday. 

Jones and Harrington participated in both events.

In a recent article published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that highlights all three candidates, the paper reported Sanders’ campaign declined to make her available for an interview, so the newspaper submitted written questions and her campaign provided written responses for her.

The paper interviewed Jones and Harrington separately at a local cafe near the state Capitol. Both responded to follow-up questions in writing, according to the article. 

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Trans rights 

A federal trial began this week challenging the state’s ban on gender-affirming care for transgender minors. Gov. Hutchinson vetoed the law, but lawmakers overrode him.

Jones and Harrington said they would have vetoed the law, while Sanders said she would have supported it.

The Arkansas PBS debate between candidates for Arkanasa Governor was held Friday morning October 21 at the Donald W. Reynolds Performance Hall, on the University of Central Arkansas campus in Conway. Republican candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate – 102122

Sanders argued it’s the role of government to protect those who can’t protect themselves like kids. Children are not capable of making “life-changing decisions” like this, she said.

Jones said while kids may not be able to make this kind of decision, he trusts parents to make the right decision for their families and they should be allowed to do so. Oftentimes issues like transgender care and health care are used “as divisive political punching bags,” Jones said.

Harrington agreed with Jones and said the legislation never should have made it out of committee.

“Are my children my children, or do they belong to the government?” Harrington asked.

Taxes

Harrington said he wants to cut the grocery tax because it’s “immoral” to tax people for feeding themselves. He would also like to cut the sales tax.

Sanders said she wants to phase out the state income tax so Arkansas can be more competitive with neighboring states. It would need to be done responsibly and that can be done by “growing our own economy and cutting out the waste and abuse” in government spending, she said.

Income tax accounts for about 57% of the state’s budget, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

Jones supports cutting taxes, but said “the math has to add up.” You can’t cut more than half of the state’s revenue and then not cut something, “unless you end up like Texas where property taxes go through the roof,” Jones said.

“There are resources there that we can leverage, but we have to do it in a measured, responsible way.”

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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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