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Arkansas’ 1st District congressional candidates debate library, economic development

by Bill Bowden | October 21, 2022 at 3:13 a.m.
Supporters of a candidate cavort across the street from a polling place in Little Rock's Hillcrest neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, March 3, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/John Sykes Jr.)

Candidates for Arkansas' 1st Congressional District disagreed during Thursday's Arkansas PBS debate when the Jonesboro library came up.

An initiative to cut nearly half of the Craighead County Jonesboro Library System's funding will go before voters on the Nov. 8. The ballot issue asks that voters decrease the current 2.0-mill property tax for the library system to 1.0 mill.

State Rep. Monte Hodges, the Democrat running for Congress, said he is against it.

The incumbent congressman, Republican Rick Crawford, didn't specifically say whether he was for or against it, but he said people weren't hearing both sides of this issue.

"What brought this issue to the fore was the fact that the library in Jonesboro was engaging in LGBTQ story hour for children, things of this nature," said Crawford. "That is not an accurate reflection of the needs and desires of the community which it serves. And so the initiative to change that seems to have been met with resistance by the people at the library.

"And so, while I don't like the idea of cutting funding to institutions that I think are important, I also don't like the idea of being indoctrinated by those institutions that are being funded by taxpayer dollars. So it is incumbent upon this institution to make the appropriate changes, and we're not seeing that happen."

Hodges said some people have made the library funding political.

"There were people that had concerns about that issue, but you had those that didn't have a concern about that issue, so we have to be sure that we are speaking on behalf of all people, not just a certain section of folks that we represent," said Hodges. "We made it political, and we can't use our strong arms of politics and politicians to be bullies when it comes to issues like our libraries."

Later in the debate, when asked if popular opinion should guide library programming, Crawford said, "What I'm saying is popular opinion drives an awful lot."

"The reality is if you have an individual who likes pornography, should we put pornography in the library?" Crawford asked. "Well, my opponent says yes because we need to serve everybody, so let's put pornography in the library. No, I think we certainly do draw a line. I don't think it's appropriate to indoctrinate or sexualize children, so I think anybody would agree with that. So however you go about indoctrinating or sexualizing children, I would think that was wrong, and I think most people would agree with that.

"If that's the case here, why would you not try to reflect the wishes of the people you purport to serve? I think that's the heart of this issue, and that's not what's being talked about. So I think it's important that the folks at the library reflect on what their mission is to serve the broader community."

"To say porn is stretching it a little bit far," said Hodges. "I have a 13-year-old son, and I take him to the library. ... I'm not going to take him to an area that I know is inappropriate for my child because I'm the adult. We serve people. We serve all people, that's capital A-L-L, all people. For us to categorize, to section people off into categories, and to say this person is right and this person is wrong is not the way we should operate, and I think that that is the way of thinking when you have a group of people with narrow-minded views to come against the library, and that's not the way that we should operate."

Hodges addressed the library issue again in a news conference after the debate in Conway.

"I am a Christian," he said. "I don't have to pound you with a cross and a Bible. That's not my job as an elected official."

"It's called censorship what they're trying to do, and it's just not right," Hodges said in a telephone interview after the debate.

"Our system of government gives the people a say over how their taxpayer dollars are spent," Crawford said in response to Hodges' comment. "While this is a local issue with no federal nexus, my general observation is that the library's positioning has created an unfortunate firestorm that has put its own budget in jeopardy. The ultimate decision will be made by Craighead County voters in just over two weeks.

"The other issue is the library has a $6.4 million surplus and will have roughly $7.5 million at the end of this month, which can only be used for operations and maintenance according to county officials. I believe in a strong library, but they have more than sufficient funding at this time."

Crawford has been in Congress since 2011. He serves on the agriculture, transportation and intelligence committees.

Hodges has served in the Arkansas House since 2013, representing District 55, which includes portions of Crittenden and Mississippi counties. He didn't run for reelection there, opting to run for Congress instead.

Previously, Hodges was on the Blytheville City Council. He's senior vice president for commercial lending at Southern Bancorp, the largest community development bank in Arkansas.

Hodges touted the economic growth in Mississippi County since he took office, saying a corner of the state that was considered "economically dead" is now the largest steel producer in the U.S. with the highest weekly take-home earnings of any district in Arkansas. Hodges said he worked to get Amendment 82 incentives to attract Big River Steel, which built a $1.3 billion plant in the county. NUCOR Corp. also expanded its manufacturing operations in Blytheville. Hodges said Mississippi County now has three steel mills.

Crawford touted his agricultural background, saying not all economic development results in smokestacks.

"We need to look beyond Mississippi County at the whole 1st District and recognize the need of economic development," he said. "It's not always smokestacks on the horizon. Sometimes it's small mom-and-pop businesses that account for three, four, five employees that can help empower rural economies, and so I think that's important to note as well."

When asked about protection along the U.S. southern border, Hodges said, "I can't focus on issues like protecting borders when we have issues and concerns right here in our backyard, particularly in this 1st Congressional District, which is a poor district. A saying I heard coming up as a kid is 'Charity starts at home. Bingo is abroad.' So we need to focus on our issues here at home before we try to deal with our issues abroad at this point."

"Well, I think we need to walk and chew gum at the same time," said Crawford, responding to Hodges' comment. "We do need to worry about our border crisis. That's imperative. It's a national security imperative. We have to have a secure border. If we don't have a secure border, we don't have a country."

Crawford was asked about his vote not to certify the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States.

"There were two states addressed on the certification, Arizona and Pennsylvania," said Crawford. "In both those cases, there was demonstrable violation of the U.S. Constitution in that unauthorized individuals changed election law in cycle, while it was happening, whether that be a judge that extended the deadline for absentee ballots or where the secretary of state or commissioner that allowed for drop boxes in authorized locations, whatever.

"Article 1, Section 4, is clear. The authority to regulate elections resides exclusively with the state legislatures. Governors can't change the law. Secretaries of state can't change the law, and and neither can the judges. That was the basis for my decision and no other conspiracy theories or fraud theories were present."

During his final comment, Hodges touted his background growing up in Mississippi County, the son of a single mother who raised four children.

"She raised us to work hard, to go to church every Sunday and love God, to love family and love community," said Hodges. "I've served my district. They've sent me back to Little Rock five times to be their voice, and I ask them to send me to D.C. to be a voice for all people. I've proven in eastern Arkansas what can happen when you put the work in.

"I want to take that Mississippi County miracle that I've seen in my district throughout the entire 1st District so they can have all the opportunities. We in the Delta want all the opportunities. We want all the amenities and all the things that any other community has. We want good roads and bridges, good infrastructure, good rural broadband. We want good health care. We want our teachers to make a livable wage."

During his final comment in the debate, Crawford said Americans are living in difficult times.

"Our nation's facing challenges at home and abroad," he said. "Skyrocketing interest rates, rampant inflation. We have an overbearing, rising, belligerent China that's fueling our fentanyl crisis coming over our border unchecked. Ukraine at war with Russia. President Biden when he got elected promised to be a unifier. Instead, he's been a divider. He's driven our economy to the brink of collapse, and all along Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been his willing accomplice. We need to reverse course before it's too late."

Print Headline: Hopefuls talk library funding


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