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Griffin, Gibson face off in lively debate for Attorney General of Arkansas

Arkansas PBS debate for Attorney General between Jesse Gibson and Tim Griffin on Wed. Oct. 19.

The Republican and Democrat hoping to be Arkansas’ top law enforcement official met Wednesday for a debate hosted by Arkansas PBS. Republican Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin and Little Rock attorney Jesse Gibson sparred over a variety of issues, including rising crime, abortion and suing the federal government.

Griffin highlighted his experience working with state lawmakers as lieutenant governor, saying it would serve him well as attorney general. Gibson, a Democrat, said he would seek to make the office the “top law firm in Arkansas.”

Griffin, a former congressman and federal prosecutor, was animated in his delivery, often being chided by moderator Steve Barnes for running over his allotted time. Gibson had a more restrained approach, but took a number of shots at his opponent. One of the more direct attacks came when candidates were asked about their motivations for running.

“Do you really want this job? Or do you just want to have some kind of role in government,” Gibson asked, referencing Griffin’s initial bid to seek the Republican nomination for governor before entering the attorney general race.

“This is personal to me,” Griffin responded. “If I were not serving in public office… I would still be extremely passionate and forward-leaning, because I live here! And I love my city, and I love my state.”

Griffin and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge originally sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination, but bowed out shortly after eventual nominee Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced her candidacy. Both are term-limited from running for their positions again, with Rutledge now running for Griffin’s current job of lieutenant governor.

Rutledge was discussed several times in Wednesday’s debate. When asked about her numerous lawsuits against the Biden administration, Griffin said he would consider litigation against the federal government on a case-by-case basis.

“You can’t discard that role. Attorneys general have a role in looking at what’s coming out of Washington, whether it be executive orders, regulations, laws coming out of Congress, and they’re part of the constitutional system. They’re part of the checks and balances to push back when there’s federal overreach, whether it’s from the Biden administration or the next administration,” Griffin said.

Gibson said most of Rutledge’s lawsuits are unnecessary and borne out of partisan political motivations.

“I know as a practicing attorney that making that determination before you know the facts and apply the applicable law, you get yourself into trouble. What we’ve heard from our current attorney general and from Mr. Griffin is that they are angling for the federal government,” Gibson said. “I won’t hesitate if there’s something that hurts Arkansans, but I won’t do it as a matter of course and as a matter of politics.”

Both Griffin and Gibson said they would end Rutledge’s practice of using funding from lawsuit settlements for public service announcements on radio and television.

When asked about abortion rights, Gibson said he believes the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court will likely use its decision overturning Roe v. Wade as precedent to roll back past decisions.

"There are many rights that have become ingrained in our society: interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, lots of these things that are based upon the similar rights to privacy in Roe,” Gibson said. “If you’re being intellectually honest about the reasoning in Dobbs [v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization], they are very much on the chopping block. And the question Arkansans have to ask themselves is, ‘Is that the way we want to go as a state?’”

Griffin said he believes Roe should have been overturned, but that cases surrounding marriage equality are a separate matter. Gibson also blamed Republican leadership in Arkansas for rising crime, while Griffin blamed years of Democratic control of the state.

When asked about an ongoing trial over Arkansas’ ban on gender-affirming care for trans minors, Gibson said the law should not have been passed in the first place.

“You’re not going to be able to go into court in the Eastern District of Arkansas and make a political argument, or grandstand, or talk about empty rhetoric or all things you can’t prove,” Gibson said. “You’ve got to come in with facts, you’ve got to come in with evidence, you’ve got to come in with medical testimony. I think [the law] is going to be hard to uphold, because a judge is going to make a decision based on the facts and the law, not politics.”

Griffin said he does support the law, arguing it’s necessary to protect teens from irreversible medical procedures. He also came out strongly against a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot which would legalize sales and use of marijuana for adults over age 21.

“If we’re going to have a bunch of poets in Arkansas, it may not matter as much if they’re all high. But if we want people doing high-tech jobs that they’ve got to pass a drug test for, we’re going to have a really hard time recruiting [for the] aerospace industry and car industry if they’re high on pot,” Griffin said.

Gibson said he is in favor of legalizing recreational cannabis in the state. Griffin said more should be done to reform the parole system in Arkansas to help cut down on violent crime, while Gibson said he’s in favor of expanding prison space while also seeking to address the root causes of crime.

Independent write-in candidate Gerhard Langguth did not participate in Wednesday’s discussion. According to Arkansas PBS, candidates must appear on the ballot in order to take part in debates.

Candidates for public office in Arkansas continue to debate throughout the week in the series hosted by Arkansas PBS. Candidates for Arkansas’ 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts will meet Thursday, while candidates for governor and U.S. Senate debate on Friday.

Daniel Breen is a third-year undergraduate journalism student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.