Attorney General says drugs big concern in Arkansas counties

Posted: November 18, 2017 at 4:29 a.m.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge sat at the center of an enclosed set of tables with local leaders Wednesday in Conway, as she completed her third annual circuit of the state's 75 counties.

According to her office, more than 2,200 people have participated in Rutledge's "round-table" discussions, which reached a total of 232 with the Faulkner County meeting. In her first year in office in 2015, she visited some counties more than once. Each year has had a different theme: In 2017, she has focused on meeting with civil, education and faith leaders to discuss topics such as the opioid epidemic, domestic violence, cybercrimes and scams.

At the Conway Area Chamber of Commerce, the conversation hovered on opioid and prescription drug abuse for the majority of the roughly one-hour meeting.

Pastors spoke about programs they were running in their churches, and Jim Baker, county judge of Faulkner County, recalled a conversation he had with the coroner about the rising body count caused by overdoses.

Rutledge said it's become the norm at her recent meetings to spend most of the time talking about drug abuse.

"We've certainly seen it build up, and I think a great deal of that has to do with the coverage from the beginning during the 2016 campaign, and the focus around the New Hampshire primary," she said. "From that point on, while this epidemic has been building ... people started talking about it on a large scale."

Beginning during the 2016 campaign, many Arkansans -- and the rest of the country -- saw Rutledge on television, where she frequently appeared as a supporter of presidential candidate Donald Trump, including a speech at last summer's Republican National Convention.

At home, Rutledge, a Republican, has faced some criticism for her media appearances and accusations that she's been unwilling to meet with activists who oppose her policies.

One group, Arkansas United Community Coalition, met with Rutledge's chief of staff in August as the group mounted a campaign to attempt to sway Rutledge's position against a policy by former President Barack Obama protecting young immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. At the time, Rutledge was holding round-table discussions in southeast Arkansas, according to a spokesman.

Rutledge later agreed to meet privately in person with two of the group's members, though her position on the program remained unchanged.

Rutledge said she's never turned anyone away from a round-table discussion. At one recent meeting in Texarkana, Rutledge said she heard from a pastor who was concerned about the young immigrants affected by Trump's decision to end Obama's policy of protection, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

"It's a conversation," Rutledge said. "Most people don't have the time or they think, 'I don't want to bother Leslie,' or they don't have the time maybe to go to downtown Little Rock."

Her office doesn't publish an advance list of when and where she is scheduled to hold the meetings. Rutledge said Arkansans who wish to attend should contact her office.

One religious leader who attended Wednesday's meeting, Conway Christian School President Jason Carson, said he found the discussion worthwhile, and praised Rutledge for spending most of the time listening to what the group had to say.

He said he hoped groups who attend such meetings would work together to combat opioid abuse. He also encouraged Rutledge to take legal action, something she said she was looking into.

"If it takes a lawsuit to wake people up and have that conversation, we need to do so with every means possible," Carson said.

Rutledge said she hopes to visit all 75 counties again next year, the final year of her current term.

Rutledge's predecessor, Democrat Dustin McDaniel, said he didn't know for sure how many times he visited each of the states' 75 counties while in office.

NW News on 11/18/2017