City & County

Sanders, Rutledge square off in first debate for governor’s race

By Joel Phelps
The Arkadelphian

The absence of US Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) didn’t phase the atmosphere Thursday evening at the Lincoln Day Dinner, as Arkansas Republican gubernatorial candidates Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Leslie Rutledge took center stage for the rivals’ first-ever debate for the state’s highest position.

The Clark County Republican Committee’s annual event drew a sold-out crowd of some 500 people to Henderson State University’s Garrison Center. After an auction and ceremonial events, Sanders and Rutledge were given 15 minutes apiece to discuss their platform and vision for governorship.

Sanders, whose speech seemed polished and calm, drew attention to her role as former White House secretary for President Donald Trump, while a spirited Rutledge delivered an unrefined speech focused on her experience as the state’s attorney general.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former White House press secretary

Sanders recounted when she called Arkadelphia home 20 years ago, when the local Republican party would fill only two tables in a room. An heiress of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, she said she never tires of being called his daughter. Recently, she said, the two were speaking at an event where the former governor was referred to as “Sarah’s dad.” Sanders applauded Trump’s efforts as president, saying she was “honored” to be part of that administration.

Arkansas governor hopeful Sarah Huckabee (R) Sanders takes the podium at the Lincoln Day Dinner, hosted by the Clark County Republican Committee

During her time as WH press secretary, Sanders told a story of one of her three young children who, during a Take Your Child to Work Day event, pressed his face against a window. Only through this window a 4-year-old Huck Sanders was peering into the Oval Office. Sanders said an appalled Trump quipped that “at least he’s handsome.” Later that same day, among a crowd of reporters and their children in the Rose Garden, Huck ran from the crowd full-speed toward the Commander in Chief, side-stepped him and leapt into her arms. “For every other kid out there the only person that mattered to them was the President, and to my son the only person that mattered to him was his mom,” Sanders said.

“One of the reasons I’m running [for governor] is the path in front of my kids and every other kid,” she continued. “So that they can run full-speed to whatever they want. It doesn’t matter where you start. You get to decide where you finish.”

Sanders said the state needs someone in power to “take on the radical left in Washington.” She again reiterated her 2 1/2 years working at the White House, as well as a “secret trip” to Iraq in which she accompanied the President on a Christmas Day. 

She didn’t shy away from the fact she is nationalizing the race for Arkansas governor. “You bet I am [nationalizing it], because if you are not you are missing what is happening in America today,” Sanders said. “People want to take [our] freedom away. They don’t appreciate it and they sure as hell aren’t going to defend it. I can promise you every single day I will not only stand up for that freedom but I will make sure we protect it, and we preserve it so we have the ability to pass it down to the next generation.”

In her closing remarks, Sanders said her children are “three little reminders” she has to look in the face every day. “They not only remind me of what is important, but they will remind me that every decision I make as governor will have a direct impact on their life and every life of every kid growing up in this state, and that is not a responsibility I take lightly but one I take very seriously. And frankly it’s one I relish. I know i’m capable and competent of being the leader our state needs.” 

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge

Rutledge, a self-proclaimed “Christian, pro-life, gun-carrying, Conservative momma”, touted her seven years of experience fighting for Arkansans as attorney general. She touched on numerous issues that split lawmakers and political parties — from Second Amendment rights and tax reform to law enforcement funding and tort reform.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge takes her turn in the first debate between gubernatorial hopefuls in the Republican primary.

“I want [Arkansas] to be first in defending” gun rights, Rutledge said, noting that, when the National Rifle Association came under attack from the US attorney general, the NRA chose her before all other AG’s across the nation for their defense. 

She pledged to push for Arkansas to also become first in tax reform. “We can’t just simply complete. We need to beat our neighboring states of Texas and Tennessee. It’s time to permanently eliminate the individual income tax” in the state, “and that’s why I’m proposing a constitutional amendment to do so. It’s time for the people to decide — not the politicians.” As for making up lost revenue, Rutledge’s answer is to tighten budgets, as she boasted she decreased her office’s budget by more than 10 percent and called for every state agency to follow suit.

Rutledge also touted the convictions of Medicaid fraud her office has made during her first term. “In the first four years I had more Medicaid fraud convictions in the 16 years prior combined,” she said.

In terms of educational opportunities, Rutledge said a student “shouldn’t be beholden by their parents’ ZIP code or their parents’ income” and should be given a choice of where they attend school. She pledged to push for more workforce education in public schools to allow more trade workers in the state after high school graduation.

Religious liberty rights is another topic Rutledge touched on, saying she is presently “aggressively” defending a state law that doesn’t allow adolescents the right to change their gender. She applauded state legislators who in the past General Assembly passed a bill banning males from playing in all-female sports. 

After a brief spiel in favor of tort reform, Rutledge turned the attention to law enforcement and the notion to defund police. “Not in Arkansas,” she said. “In Arkansas, we defend the police.” Rutledge attends the funerals of every officer killed in the line of duty. “I’ve hugged those mommas and stood with those daddies [while] their son is laying in that casket behind us,” she said. “I took little TJ, whose daddy was killed in Helena-West Helena, and told him that his daddy was a hero. So don’t tell me we’re not going to stand up for our men and women in blue in the state of Arkansas. Because we always will.”

She said the nation is at a “crossroads of defending our liberties and freedoms.” Admitting that the COVID-19 pandemic has been a “difficult time” for the nation, Rutledge spoke out against mask or vaccination mandates, saying, “Get off Google and talk to your doctor!”

In her conclusion, Rutledge addressed the “elephant in the room” as Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, was the first contributor to Rutledge’s campaign for AG in 2014. “This is not an ideal situation,” she said, calling Sanders a friend. “But the good news is that the next governor of Arkansas will be a Republican … and … will be a woman.” Then she turned the tables on Sanders.

“The difference in our campaigns is not a difference of vision,” she said. “It’s a difference of experience. … Experience is not hereditary. … There’s a big difference in answering questions behind a podium versus making decisions behind a desk. I am the only candidate … who has seven years of experience making decisions on behalf of the state every single day.”

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