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Gayatri Agnew of Bentonville just made a big difference in Arkansas politics before getting a single vote.

Agnew is running as a Democrat in a district against Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville. The last Democrat to run against Dotson was a well-qualified former member of the Bentonville City Council who did not quite manage to get three votes out of 10.

Agnew and her husband are parents. Sometimes, when an adult family member is unavailable, they have to pay someone to watch over their kids while campaigning.

Arkansas is a state where we still expect somebody running to represent us to introduce themselves in person. As a rule, you cannot successfully campaign for the Arkansas House without knocking a lot of doors. Even incumbents have to. And it does no good to knock on a door when nobody is home, so early evenings and weekends are the prime time for such things.

So, quite reasonably, the couple wondered if child care expense incurred while they were wearing out shoe leather was a legitimate campaign expense -- legally speaking. Of course such expenses are a legitimate expense in the sense they cannot be avoided. The question was whether such necessity was recognized by the law.

This was not a frivolous question. We had a former president pro tempore of the state Senate go to federal prison in 2016 for a year and a half for spending campaign funds to buy stereo equipment and such for his home. Now, there is a blatantly obvious difference between buying luxury items and being a responsible parent, but whether Arkansas law acknowledges that difference was an open question.

So kudos to the Agnews for finding out the right way. They asked the state Ethics Commission by filing a request for a formal advisory opinion. And kudos to the Ethics Commission for agreeing in a 4-to-0 decision that responsibly ensuring the care of your offspring is an allowable expense.

How many qualified candidates in this state never ran because they have young kids at home? I have no idea, but would venture to guess that number amounts to quite a few.

No one asked the question before. The fact someone finally did shows the times are changing. Throw in parents of young kids and the pool of qualified people who would consider a run for office gets a whole lot bigger. This is unequivocally a good thing.

I cover politics for a living. One of the first things I learned when I started doing that full-time 20 years ago is this: A campaign always has value. An unbeatable candidate still has to campaign when he or she has an opponent. Politicians in a campaign have to address issues raised and answer questions brought up. Questions get asked that should be asked.

This childcare decision is a small but good example of exactly the sort of issue that might never be raised if no one ever tried to beat the odds.

Politics is not a "winner-take-all" proposition. Having districts where everything is decided in the primary is bad for public life, whichever party's primary it was. Arkansas missed something important by having the state swing from one-party Democrat to one-party Republican in three election cycles. Both parties could have learned a lot from a longer, slower, more competitive shift.

It took some courage on the commission's part to open such a door even slightly, by the way. It would make the commission's life a lot easier to have simply closed that door by taking a very strict interpretation of what expenses to allow.

The commission laid down a record-keeping requirement on child care and noted the costs must be reasonable. They also note that regular child-care expense not related to campaigning, such as daycare while the parents are working, would not be allowed as campaign expenses. These kind of common-sense safeguards should warn against abuse in the future, such as overpaying a friend for hours of babysitting where there is not even a campaign-related event that night. Paying a close relative for such service anytime is specifically warned against by the commission's decision. The response letter is available at the commission's website, arkansasethics.com.

All in all, this was a good question given a good answer.

Commentary on 08/04/2018

Print Headline: Good question, good answer

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