CONWAY -- U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton's only challenger, Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington, criticized the Little Rock Republican for skipping Wednesday's Arkansas PBS debate, saying the incumbent should have shown up to defend his record.
"He's on Fox News ... two or three times a week, but he can't come here to address the people of Arkansas. Why would you want to support someone who does that?" Harrington said.
The former prison chaplain from Pine Bluff also criticized Cotton for attacking The New York Times' 1619 Project, which the newspaper said seeks to reframe the country's history "by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."
Calling the 1619 Project "left-wing propaganda," Cotton introduced legislation that would withhold certain funds from schools that use it as a teaching tool.
On Wednesday, Harrington praised the 1619 Project for telling a story "that has not been told fully."
Students need to be taught about "the stain of slavery on this country that proclaims to be for liberty, equality and justice for all," he said. "And Sen. Cotton's comments on that, it maligns an entire group of people who have a history, that bear those scars in their soul."
Noting that his grandparents had grown up in the Jim Crow South, Harrington said: "These are stories that need to be told. Not to point fingers at someone or to place blame, but so that the family of America can come together and we can move past this issue of racism, injustice and inequality and move forward to the blessings of liberty and equality."
Harrington also condemned Cotton's stand on criminal justice, dismissing the lawmaker's claim that "if anything, we have an underincarceration problem" in this country.
"The United States holds almost 25% of the world's incarcerated population, and the state of Arkansas has one of the highest incarceration rates per capita," Harrington said. "Our criminal justice system has been monetized, and this is the main issue."
When people are locked up for possessing drugs, "they are subjected to being recruited by gangs, they are subjected to sexual assault, they are subjected to getting a Ph.D. in criminology. And I don't mean the academic criminology; I mean, being a proficient criminal," he said.
"My main goal on criminal justice reform is making sure that the people that we incarcerate are the ones that have harmed other human beings. We do not need to send people to prison when there is no victim, especially with drug possession charges," Harrington said.
Harrington accused Cotton of favoring pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong while calling for crackdowns on anti-police-brutality protesters in America.
Using U.S. troops to quell rioting -- an option Cotton has raised -- is also a bad idea, Harrington said.
"Our military is not deployed, domestically, to put down unrest, because they are trained to go out and crush the enemies of America," he said. "If we had the military out amongst the streets policing just like our civilian police force, the message that it sends is that the people are the enemy."
Harrington condemned Congress for failing to rein in presidential war powers.
"What we need to do is we need to reel back the executive branch from continuously engaging in military police actions and to bring our troops home," he said.
When the U.S. goes to war, it should be "for the defense of the nation," he added.
Asked how he differs from President Donald Trump, Harrington said "the most obvious" difference is rhetoric.
"We need a leader in the White House that is going to unite us," he said.
In his closing statement, Harrington called on Arkansans to work together to overcome covid-19 and other challenges.
"You are a resilient people, and you can overcome this just like we have overcome all the troubles in our past," he said. "But we can only do it if we work together."
With Democrat Josh Mahony dropping out of the race in November and independent Dan Whitfield failing to quality for the ballot, Harrington is the only challenger remaining.
On Wednesday, the Libertarian promised he'll do whatever he can to let Arkansans know they have a choice in November.
Given a chance to respond to Harrington's debate comments, the Cotton campaign issued a written statement regarding the senator's absence.
"Senator Cotton followed the precedent set by Senator [Mark] Pryor of only debating major party opponents," it said.
The campaign credited the senator with warning about the coronavirus, persuading Trump to ban travel from China, supporting the $1,200 covid-19 stimulus checks and voting to eliminate the "Obamacare mandate tax."
"Arkansans elected Senator Cotton to fight for Arkansas values and that's what he's done," it stated.