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Gubernatorial hopefuls debate at UCA

by I.C. Murrell | October 22, 2022 at 3:59 a.m.
Democratic nominee Chris Jones, left, and Libertarian nominee Ricky Dale Harrington, right, fist-bump before a gubernatorial debate Friday at the University of Central Arkansas' Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

CONWAY -- Sarah Huckabee Sanders arrived on the Reynolds Performance Hall stage five minutes before the start of Friday's gubernatorial debate with Chris Jones and Ricky Dale Harrington, ending suspense over whether she would skip out on a second debate before the Nov. 8 general election.

When asked whether the race to succeed fellow Republican Asa Hutchinson, who is term-limited, is actually a referendum on former President Donald Trump, whether she or her opponents can be trusted, and how to solve the economic crisis, Sanders relied on the topic of education for her answers. However, that was not before she called out the man who unseated Trump two years ago.

"These failures of the Biden administration certainly cannot be ignored," Sanders said, citing "record-breaking inflation" and "out-of-control" crime. "However, the reason I'm running for governor is because I think the places where we can make the biggest difference and transform our state, and impact and empower families, is at the state level, focusing on things like education, making sure every child in Arkansas has access to a quality education and we're putting kids on a pathway to prosperity."

Harrington, who unsuccessfully raced against Republican incumbent Tom Cotton for Senate in 2020, said he's running for governor because of "hyper-partisanship" in Washington.

"It's becoming very, very volatile. And my focus in that Senate campaign directly translates to right here in the state and helping the people of Arkansas," he said.

Jones responded that the race "has always been" about Arkansas.

"I'm a seventh-generation Arkansan who grew up in Pine Bluff," he said. "From the start, we set out to listen to Arkansans all over the state. We traveled all 75 counties and heard from Arkansans. What they're saying is they really want us to get back to the bread-and-butter of the issues that matter. That's why our agenda is pretty straightforward. It's about spreading PB&J across the state."

PB&J is Jones' acronym for preschool, broadband and jobs.


Friday's debate aired statewide on Arkansas PBS from the University of Central Arkansas, where the state network is based. Jones and Harrington, who fist-bumped before Sanders' arrival, debated Oct. 5 before ABC affiliate KATV cameras, where Sanders was a no-show.

Sanders, who is heavily favored in multiple polls, according to, also declined to participate in Friday's post-debate news conference.

"Freedom of press is incredibly important, but with freedom of the press also comes a great deal of responsibility," Sanders said. "When they don't live up to their end of the bargain, it forces us to go outside the box, which I have done every single day for the last two years. I have traveled all over the state of Arkansas. In fact, I'd be willing to venture that I've met with more Arkansans directly, face-to-face, than all of the other candidates running for this office both in the primary and general election, combined."

Jones countered Sanders' answer, calling it "a crowd-size response" and defending the role of the media.

"The media plays a critical and important role in our society," Jones said. "They allow us to get into tough questions. They allow us to see behind the veil and to know what's going on, because I can say things on this stage, but the real question is, what's in the details? What's behind what I'm saying? And who's it going to be beneficial for?"

Harrington joked that he would livestream his days as governor and answered that the press is supposed to keep government in check.

"We've got to be forthright with one another," Harrington argued. "If we want to have a free and safe society, we have to be forthright. We have to be truthful with one another. We have to tell it like it is and also be gentle with one another when telling it like it is."


Sanders, who was Trump's press secretary, is vying to become Arkansas' first female governor. Her father Mike Huckabee held the office from 1996-2007. Democrat Jones and Libertarian Harrington hope to become the first Black person to win the office.

All three have strong connections to Pine Bluff. Sanders said she lived in the city, where Huckabee was a minister and founded a low-power Christian TV station, until she was 5. Jones, a physicist and minister, is a Pine Bluff native and Watson Chapel High School graduate. Harrington, who grew up in east Texas, is a prison chaplain who resides in Pine Bluff.

The candidates also faced the question of why Arkansans should trust them to be the governor, since none of them has held public office.

"Anyone can talk about specific policies and the things they want to do, but the real test of a leader is when they're tested with challenges they never see coming," Sanders said. "I've been tested at the highest level of government under the most intense criticism you can possibly imagine, and never once backing down from who I am or what I believe, but also rising to the moment, facing every challenge head-on, never changing who I am or what I believe in and knowing exactly who I am or looking to the critics who define me."

The office of governor carries multiple roles, Jones said.

"The reality is, even with plans and even with bringing folks together, and even with understanding the challenges -- and I certainly understand challenges and how to solve problems -- what Arkansas needs right now, as I traveled the state and heard from Arkansans, is not only someone who not only has the plans but someone knows how to execute those plans and has done it before, and I did it when I led the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub."

Harrington credited Jones and Sanders with having "wonderful resumes," but said he has spent a lifetime of serving people.

"What I want people to see about me is that I started with nothing, and I'm trying to do the best I can to run this professional campaign," Harrington said. "If you see somebody doing well with nothing, I wonder what type of government it could be when it comes with respect to the people's money."


All three candidates gave their own ideas for cutting taxes and accomplishing political goals at the same time. Harrington said he's talked a lot about cutting the remainder of grocery taxes from state law books.

"I can't even believe that Arkansas ever had a tax on the food that goes into people's mouths," he said, adding he would like to eliminate the sales tax. "That's an immoral tax. I can't believe that even happened. I'm dumbfounded by it."

Fifty-four percent of Arkansas' budget is spent on education, Sanders said, but she added the results are "unacceptable" and more needs to be done with the money already invested in the state.

"We have a number of programs that are not meeting the most basic standard," Sanders said. "If we are putting this much money in the system and our results are actually getting worse as we put more money in, that is not a standard by which we can operate."

Jones rebutted, saying "the math has to add up" when taxes are being cut, however.

"You cannot eliminate 55% of the state revenue and then not cut something, unless ... you end up like Texas, where property taxes go through the roof," he said. "So, what are we saying to our farmers?"

Following the debate, Jones and Harrington said they would accept the results of the election if they do not win, a common question asked across many midterm elections in America since Trump denied losing his reelection bid to Biden in 2020. Jones went a step further and took a veiled shot at Sanders.

"I'm concerned not everyone on the stage will," Jones remarked.

  photo  Republican nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders makes notes prior to the start of the gubernatorial debate Friday at the University of Central Arkansas' Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)
  photo  From left, Republican nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Democratic nominee Chris Jones and Libertarian nominee Ricky Dale Harrington stand behind their podiums before the gubernatorial debate Friday at the University of Central Arkansas' Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway. (Pine Bluff Commercial/I.C. Murrell)

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