Republican attorney general candidates face off in debate


LITTLE ROCK — The death penalty, open carry of handguns and abortion were among the issues discussed in a debate Wednesday between the three Republican candidates for state attorney general.

Lawyers Patrica Nation of Jacksonville and Leslie Rutledge and David Sterling, both of Little Rock, are seeking the Republican nomination for the office in the May 20 primary election. State Rep. Nate Steel, D-Nashville, is the only Democratic candidate. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel is prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term.

In a nearly 90-minute debate held at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s law school and sponsored by the Advance Arkansas Institute, the GOP hopefuls shared their views on issues such as what to do about the death penalty in the face of legal challenges and drug shortages.

All three candidates said they support the death penalty. Sterling, a former assistant city manager in Hope, said that if he is elected, he will propose changing state law to allow the use of pentobarbital in lethal injections.

“Until we get that going, under Arkansas law we will use the electric chair,” he said.

Rutledge, a former deputy prosecutor, said she would work to ensure that Arkansas can obtain drugs for lethal injections.

“What I will not do is offer irresponsible rhetoric to bring back the electric chair. The electric chair is in a museum, and that’s where it belongs,” she said.

Nation, a civil rights lawyer, said she would look to see how other states have been able to carry out lethal injections.

“As attorney general, that would be a No. 1 priority for me, to make decisions about which drug protocol we need to use,” she said.

Moderator Dan Greenberg asked the candidates how they interpret Act 746 of 2103, which concerns the right to carry a handgun in Arkansas while on a “journey.” Some have argued that the law makes Arkansas an open carry state, but McDaniel has said it does not.

Sterling said he believes the law does allow open carrying of handguns, adding, “I’m the only candidate actually that’s even participated in open carry walks that have been held throughout this state, basically celebrating the fact that we do have open carry and constitutional carry in the state.”

Nation said, “I do believe that we have constitutional carry in the state of Arkansas, and I don’t believe that the opinion that was rendered by the attorney general changes that.”

Rutledge said she carries a Glock 27 .40 caliber pistol, has a concealed carry permit and is a member of the National Rifle Association.

“I, too, read Act 746 to state that you may carry a weapon so long as you do so without the intent to unlawfully employ it against someone,” she said. “However, it’s clear that this is ambiguous and there’s confusion. … I want to work with our Legislature to make sure the law is clear.”

On the subject of abortion, all three candidates said they believe life begins at conception.

Nation said she supports Act 301 of 2013, which sought to ban most abortions at 12 weeks or later into a pregnancy. A federal judge last month struck down most of the law’s provisions as unconstitutional.

“I would support legislation that says life begins at conception,” she said.

Rutledge said she would look at other states to see what laws they have passed on abortion that have been upheld.

Sterling said he believes life would advise the Legislature to “find science that actually supports the viability of a fetus outside the womb” because a fetus is protected once it reaches viability. He also said he hopes McDaniel will appeal the ruling on Act 301 and said he hopes to be elected and take up the reins of the appeal.

Asked to discuss her agenda, Rutledge said she would advocate for stronger penalties for Medicaid fraud and laws to protect children, but she said her main role would be to give advice.

“It’s not my job to push policy to the Legislature,” she said.

Sterling said his agenda would include passing a “stand your ground” law, allowing teachers and school administrators to arm themselves, issuing an opinion clarifying that Arkansas is an open carry state and protecting Arkansas from “a federal government that is trampling state authority and individual liberty.”

Nation said she would uphold the Constitution, which she said is under attack from “an overreaching federal government,” and would work to reduce the overloaded dockets of the state’s courts and reform the juvenile justice system.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in next month’s primary, a runoff election will be held June 10.