Republican lieutenant governor nominee Leslie Rutledge and Democratic nominee Kelly Krout view Rutledge's experience as the state's attorney general over the past eight years through different lenses as they vie for voters in the Nov. 8 general election.
Meanwhile, Libertarian candidate Frank Gilbert sees Rutledge as part of the "red tribe" and Krout as part of the "blue tribe" and says he provides an option to the many voters who aren't part of either tribe.
The three candidates are vying for state government's second-ranking elected post, which is considered part-time and carries a state-paid salary of $46,704 a year.
Republican Tim Griffin of Little Rock has served as lieutenant governor for the past eight years and is running for attorney general in the general election. Under the Arkansas Constitution, the position's duties are to preside over the 35-member state Senate with a tie-breaking vote and to serve as governor if the state's chief executive is impeached, removed from office, dies or is otherwise unable to discharge the office's duties.
Two of the state's governors during the past 30 years were lieutenant governors first.
In 1992, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton left to become president, clearing the way for Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker to be governor. In 1996, Tucker resigned because of felony convictions, allowing Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee to become governor.
Krout, a licensed social worker from Lowell, said voters should cast their ballots for her because, "I am advocating for pro-active policy that helps the average Arkansan, the majority of Arkansans, and a lot of what [Rutledge] talks about benefits our very most wealthy, our most elite, and there is a lot of just divisive politics coming out of her right now.
"I am out here trying to have a conversation with people, see how we can meet and move forward together," she said. "Even if we disagree a bit, I think we can still make a lot of progress."
Krout, who made an unsuccessful bid for a state House seat in 2020, said Rutledge advocates for state income tax cuts "that are going to mostly benefit our top 1 to 3 %," and spreads "a lot of fear-type communication, the 'liberal woke left agenda' that kind of stuff, that you hear often that is meant from the get-go to divide and get people on the defensive rather than see how we can bring people together."
She said she would be ready to pull together a team of experts to help lead the state if she became governor.
"We need leaders who are ready to do the right thing and that is not what I am seeing out of [Rutledge] right now."
Rutledge said she wants Arkansans to look at her record and accomplishments for the past eight years as attorney general and know that she is going to keep fighting for Arkansas.
"Over the last eight years, we have pushed back against federal overreach," she said. "We have rolled back regulations. We have protected constitutional rights, and I want to use that same zeal and zest [and] love that I have for our state in the role of lieutenant governor."
Rutledge, of Maumelle, said she wants to be known as the economic ambassador for Arkansas to help the next governor create more jobs in the state. She also said she wants to work with state lawmakers to roll back state regulations and to provide more school choice and more opportunities for workforce development to enable high school graduates to go directly into the workforce. She said she'll also work with lawmakers to protect the state's conservative values.
"I am the only person running for lieutenant governor who is prepared to be governor in the event that I would be called upon to do so," she said, pointing to her eight years of experience as attorney general.
Gilbert, the Libertarian candidate, said voters should vote for him "if you are tired of politics that has been dominating our state for a couple of hundred years.
"If you are not a member of tribe red or tribe blue, it's a way of expressing the fact that it's time for a change and neither the Democrats or Republicans offer any serious change," said Gilbert, of Little Rock, who is retired and a former mayor of Tull who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2018. He also has lost races for the 4th Congressional District in 2020, the U.S. Senate in 2016, governor in 2014 and the state Senate in 2012.
As lieutenant governor, Krout said her top priorities would include advocating for changing state law to allow for abortions in case of rape and incest as a first step. She said the vast majority of Arkansans support these exceptions for rape and incest.
"These are people who already have been through incredible trauma and should not be forced to carry a pregnancy against their will, if that's not what they want to do," she said.
The state's current law bans abortion except to save the life of the mother in case of a medical emergency.
"We are putting people in danger health-wise with a severe ban like what we have here in Arkansas," Krout said.
Rutledge said her June 24 certification of Act 180 of 2019, which bans abortion except to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency, is one of her proudest moments as the state's attorney general. Rutledge's action came hours after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion across the country.
"I think that it's important to note that we have had policy discussions over the last several decades before we passed this law," she said. "In the event that Gov. [Sarah Huckabee] Sanders and the Legislature wants to continue those policy discussions, we will have those. But that's going to be a decision for our Legislature."
In the Nov. 8 general election, Sanders is the Republican gubernatorial nominee. Sanders is vying with Democratic nominee Chris Jones and Libertarian candidate Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. to serve as governor for the next four years. Republican Asa Hutchinson has served as governor since 2015 and is barred from seeking reelection this year by term limits.
Asked her own position about allowing abortions in case of rape and incest, Rutledge said that "I think the law is clear and so long as I am the attorney general and defending those laws I think it is important to note that we we have had that policy debate whether or not to.
"That's why we have the trigger law in place," she said.
Gilbert said "I am pro-life," but he's not comfortable with only allowing abortions to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency. He said his late wife for 45 years lost a pregnancy early at a hospital and it was the most difficult time of his life at that time and an insurance claim was denied for the hospital stay.
Asked whether abortions should be allowed in cases of rape and incest, Gilbert said that "Politics is supposed to be finding what is possible, the art of the possible, and I am willing to explore anything to find an area where this state can quit obsessing over this issue.
"Other exceptions, a time limit of six weeks, a heartbeat law, all of those things are on the table for Frank Gilbert -- not that I think they are the best solution or even a morally correct solution. They are what should be possible to get us to quit hating each other," he said.
Rutledge said her plan to propose a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the state's individual income tax "is on hold," noting that Sanders has advocated phasing out the state's individual income tax.
For fiscal 2023, which ends June 30, 2023, the state Department of Finance and Administration projects the state will collect $3.9 billion in individual income taxes out of $8.3 billion in total general revenue and pay out $486.4 million in individual income tax refunds.
She said she hopes the state will eliminate the individual income tax in a timely fashion.
"Let's set a timeline and let's stick with it," Rutledge said.
Gilbert said that "whatever you have to do to end the income tax, I am for.
"It is immoral to take a person's labor and that is signified by dollars," he said. "To take a portion of that against their will is slavery."
Krout said she favors tax cuts that benefit more of the middle class and low-income Arkansans and boosting the salaries of teachers. She said eliminating the state income tax would largely benefit "our most wealthy."
As for the state's Medicaid expansion program that provides health insurance to more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans, Rutledge noted that she opposed the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010 and opposed the federal law in legal challenges before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The federal government pays for 90 % of the cost of the Medicaid expansion program and the state pays the rest.
"I think we have to look at the impact [the Medicaid expansion] has had on Arkansans and, more importantly, what impact it would have if it is no longer there," she said. The program has helped rural hospitals, she noted.
In 2013, the Republican-controlled Legislature and then Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe authorized the Medicaid expansion program for which state officials have obtained waivers under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Rutledge said state officials can't simply make a decision based whether the federal Affordable Care Act was the right thing to do in 2010, and should decide what's the right thing to do with the Medicaid expansion program in 2023 and its future impact on Arkansans in 2033 and 2043.
Gilbert said he would love to see the state eliminate the Medicaid expansion program in the long-term.
"I would love to see government back out of it so that we don't have insurance companies and state bureaucrats determining who gets what treatments for what diseases," he said. "It's an area that I would like us to move toward, but you don't want to harm tens of thousands of people to get there."
Gilbert said he favors less government involvement in health care to increase free market competition and reduce health costs.
Krout said she supports the state's Medicaid expansion program "so that everybody has access to the health care that they need."
As lieutenant governor, she said her top priorities would include bringing more awareness to the foster care system and advocating for more resources to better take care of families and children before they need the system as well as for more foster care parents and beefing up protective services.
Krout said she would like to see the state's stand-your-ground law repealed because information shows it disproportionately affects communities of color and it was pushed through the Legislature very thoughtlessly in the 2021 regular session.
Gilbert said he generally supports stand-your-ground laws to allow people, who are legitimately defending themselves, to do so.
As lieutenant governor, he said he would like to use the office to provide support for people who have outside-the-box ideas outside of Democratic and Republican party circles and promote their ideas and promote a proposed "Arkansas township" constitutional amendment.
As lieutenant governor, Rutledge said she would advocate for the state to provide economic incentives for long-time family-owned businesses in rural areas such as Mena and Pangburn to survive and grow.
Krout said Rutledge has made it her mission to file suit against Democratic President Joe Biden any chance she gets and spend taxpayer money on lawsuits that don't make sense for Arkansas.
She said Rutledge's lawsuit challenging the Biden administration over its plan to cancel some debt for those who took out student loans is "really hypocritical." Arkansas joined Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina in the lawsuit.
"We have got all these PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans that have been forgiven left and right, and [canceling some student loan debt] is something that would help a lot of Arkansans," Krout said. "I don't feel like it is looking out for a majority of Arkansans and it is wasting taxpayers' money on a frivolous lawsuit."
Under the proposal, borrowers could have up to $10,000 of their student loan debt forgiven. If the borrower qualified for Pell grants, the amount of debt that could be canceled could be as much as $20,000.
Rutledge said she is proud to have taken more than 100 legal actions against what she described as President Biden's federal overreach. She said Biden has demonstrated that he doesn't care for the rule of law and instead cares "for taking care of his political base.
"The student loan cancellation program is a violation of the law and it is patently unfair," to put $400 billion in federal debt on the backs of hardworking Americans, she said.
"I am standing up for those who perhaps are in our lower tax brackets, who will be saddled with the debt of those who have taken out tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans from colleges and universities."
Rutledge or Krout, if elected, would be the first woman elected lieutenant governor in the state of Arkansas. In July of 2020, Rutledge announced her own bid for governor before announcing in November 2021 that she would run instead for lieutenant to governor.
And, if elected as governor, Sanders would be the first woman elected as governor in Arkansas.
If elected, Jones would be the state's first black governor.
If women are elected as governor and lieutenant governor in any state, it would be first time that that's happened in the United States, said Chelsea Hill, data services manager for the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers--New Brunswick.
Women are running on a ticket in the same party for governor and lieutenant governor in Massachusetts and Ohio, and women of the same party are running separately for governor and lieutenant governor in Oklahoma and Arkansas, she said. In Rhode Island, women of different parties are running for governor and lieutenant governor, she said.