Friday, October 31, 2014

TOP STORY >> Rutledge vs. Steel

Special to The Leader

The race for attorney general, between a woman who says she will protect the state from President Obama and a man who says he will protect us better from criminals, is an odd one by modern standards.

Only Bruce Ben-nett, back in 1956, pledged to use the attorney general’s office as a hammer against the feds—that time against the United States Supreme Court, which had ordered the integration of public schools. In office, Bennett did little except rail against the federal courts and write bills for the legislature that punished integrationists and promoted resistance to integration. It was the governor, Orval Faubus, who actually took up cudgels against the federal government in the integration fight and lost, ending the last big state challenge to the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.

But the precedent for Leslie Rutledge’s promise to take on outsiders, in the form of the president and the whole federal government, goes back to 1899, when the new attorney general, Jeff Davis, filed 126 lawsuits to stop out-of-state insurance companies fromdoing business in Arkansas because they fixed premiums through rating bureaus and then filed suits against all kinds of out-of-state corporations that did business in Arkansas.

He lost on every count, but the attorney general’s war on Wall Street launched the most colorful political career in Arkansas history.

Particularly since Jeff Davis, the attorney general has been viewed as the best steppingstone to governor—eight, including Davis, made it and others failed—so campaigns often have little relationship to the ordinary duties of the attorney general, which is to give legal advice to state agencies and public officials, represent state agencies in legal proceedings and handle appeals of criminals convictions from all the counties.

The office has expanded over the years to include a consumer-protection division and a unit to investigate Medicaid and nursing-home fraud, and a few AGs have joined national suits against industries, like tobacco, that have been seen as harming people in the state.

The candidates in this race are Republican Rutledge, 38, of Little Rock who has practiced law in Jacksonville; Democrat Nate Steel, 33, of Nashville (Howard County), a state representative; and Libertarian Aaron Cash, 27, of Springdale.

If it were left up to Steel, a staid lawyer from tiny Nashville (he and his father are the county’s only lawyers), the race would have attracted little attention.

Steel, a former prosecutor, has talked almost exclusively about the need to fix the state’s criminal-justice and parole systems and packed prisons, which leave too many thugs on the street unpunished. While the attorney general’s role is to try to see that convictions are not overturned on appeal, Steel says he will offer bills to fix the system and work to see that they are passed.

He voted against a law passed in 2011 to relieve prison overcrowding through sentencing reforms because he said it would leave people unprotected and not solve prison crowding. He said experience had borne him out.

Libertarian Cash’s solution to prison crowding has been reform drug laws, which account for a large part of the prison population.

But the race has focused all year almost altogether on Rutledge, not wholly by her wishes. She had a bitter fight for the Republican nomination in the spring against David Sterling and Patricia Nation, in which a flood of dark money, from undisclosed donors, attacked her in the closing days.

Then another flood of money, again from undisclosed donors, attacked Steel on her behalf the last three weeks of the general election. She condemned the secret money in the primary but not the dark money for her.

The publicity turned negative during the summer when a blogger disclosed that when Rutledge left one of her many jobs, at the state Department of Human Services in 2007, her file noted “Do Not Rehire” owing to unexplained “gross misconduct.”

She has refused to give the agency her consent to release her personnel file to show what the misconduct was, but she said it was political payback because she had quit abruptly to work for Mike Huckabee in his presidential campaign in 2007-08.

She had worked for him in the governor’s office briefly, practiced law privately some, been a clerk for the state Court of Appeals and worked for the Republican Party in Washington, D.C.

Then Rutledge’s emails at Human Services revealed that she had transmitted a parody of a black family seeking benefits (she characterized it as “country” rather than racist) and sent other racy notes to her colleagues. An account circulated of her flinging her underwear at a male patron of the Capitol Hotel bar in Little Rock.

Her campaign finance reports revealed that nursing home magnate Michael Morton, who lost lawsuits over nursing-home negligence, had sent $70,000 to her campaign. The attorney general oversees Medicaid and nursing-home fraud investigations.

Finally, it was revealed that she had registered to vote in Arkansas, Virginia and the District of Columbia and seemed to have voted simultaneously in Virginia and in Arkansas by absentee ballot while she was working for the Republican Party in Washington.

In September, the Pulaski County clerk voided her voter registration in Arkansas because of her registration in other jurisdictions, and she had to register again.

In October, the Blue Hog Report, a Democratic blog, filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission alleging that she had violated state election laws by actively coordinating with the Republican Attorney Generals Association (RAGA) in a $400,000 television ad campaign attacking her opponent and boosting her election.

RAGA is a 527 Super PAC and the corporations and individuals that fund it are kept secret. Independent groups can spend unlimited amounts on a campaign against a candidate as long as it does not ask people to vote for the other candidate and there is no coordination with the campaign. It must be truly independent.

But Rutledge herself is the star in the ads, speaking and wielding a salt shaker. She admitted writing the narrative in the ad. She interpreted court and Ethics Commission rulings as permitting the coordination. The Ethics Commission is investigating but it will not report until after the election.

Flamboyance comes in Rutledge’s family. Her grandfather, Les Rutledge, for whom she was named, was a famous mountain man, farmer, moonshiner, trapper and rifleman in Independence County.

He ended the locally famous Rutledge-Beel family feud at Christmas 1952 by confronting the neighboring Beel brothers in a makeshift duel on Hutchinson Mountain and fired two shots, killing Joe Beel instantly and critically wounding his brother Frank.

He objected to the Beels crossing his property. Rut-ledge was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter. He took his horse and a long rifle with him to Cummins Prison and became a long-line rider, guarding other inmates in the fields.

Two years later, the new governor, Orval Faubus, commuted his sentence and he was paroled. He was convicted twice for making and selling illegal whiskey, but a jury acquitted him a third time in federal district court on his sworn testimony that he was guilty the first two times but, despite the evidence, not the third.

Leslie’s father, Keith, ran for judge in Independence County, unsuccessfully each time, but Huckabee and Frank White appointed him to vacant judgeships.

Rutledge has been the presumptive winner all year, first because of her Republican credentials in a year when voters tend to lean Republican owing to the unpopular Democratic president.

Rutledge seized on that advantage by attacking Obama and his health law every chance she got. She said the present attorney general, Dustin McDaniel, should have joined Republican attorneys general in several states in suits in 2012 to block the health-care law from taking effect nationally or in their states. They all failed.

She has said that as attorney general, she would stand up to Barack Obama and protect the state from regulations from the Obama administration. She has mentioned only the health-care law and the federal law that restored some federal regulation of banks after the financial collapse of 2008.

The Republican Party countered all the accusations against Rutledge by accusing Steel of serving simultaneously as the city attorney at Nashville, which the law prohibits. The state Republican chairman filed a lawsuit asking the court to declare his dual office holding illegal. Steel said the Republicans failed to cite a specific statute that permits small cities to contract with a lawyer in the legislature if no other lawyer in town was willing to take the job. The only other lawyer is his aging father.