The Judicial Crisis Network has created a bit of a kerfuffle by inserting themselves into the Republican attorney general primary here in Arkansas, distributing mail pieces that are critical of candidate Leslie Rutledge. Rutledge has used the mailers as grounds for attacks against the group and her Republican opponent in the June 10th runoff, David Sterling. But are any of these attacks merited? Let’s take a look.
Last week, I received this mailer and this mailer from JCN. As you can see, both mailers hit Rutledge on her lack of support for a Stand Your Ground law in Arkansas, and place a picture of Rutledge next to President Barack Obama; the second card also includes a picture of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. According to JCN, “Arkansas is the only Southern state without a Stand Your Ground Law.” They assert that Rutledge “wants to keep it that way.” (They’ve also released this television ad.)
In response, Rutledge sent out a press statement that called the attacks “ridiculous, manipulative.” She also called the ads “lies” and accused Sterling of coordinating with the group, suggesting that he had somehow cut a “deal” with the group in exchange for the mailers:
If my opponent and his secretive supporters are willing to lie and distort reality to win votes, how can he be trusted as our Attorney General? Was there a deal cut to get an out of state group to lie and manipulate the truth in order to buy our Attorney General’s office?
This is a pretty serious accusation to make: not only would this “deal” likely amount to a quid pro quo, but Sterling is prohibited by law from coordinating with the group. Surely Rutledge knows this: she’s an attorney with significant professional experience in electoral politics.
The strangest thing about the Rutledge press statement is that it makes no mention of Stand Your Ground, which was the basis of the charge made by JCN. Her release makes reckless accusations (mentioned above), rambles on about endorsements, and declares her love for the Second Amendment — but it makes zero mention of the issue at hand. If JCN’s attacks are truly “ridiculous,” “lies,” and “distortions of reality,” why doesn’t Rutledge say what those “lies and distortions” are?
I reached out to Rutledge’s campaign for comment yesterday morning. Her spokesman, Wes Manus, told me that he or Rutledge would contact me before 5:00 p.m. yesterday. This proved to be untrue, so I’m left to my own devices to try and make sense of what exactly Rutledge is alleging.
The only time I know of that Rutledge has talked extensively about Stand Your Ground was during an interview with 5News’s Larry Henry in July of last year. This appearance is cited in the JCN television ad. In the interview, Henry asked Rutledge directly what she thinks about a SYG law. This was her response:
I think the law that we have…I’ve talked to prosecutors, I’ve talked to law enforcement — they are very comfortable with where the law is…I think that what we have now is fine.
Henry asked the question a slightly different way, giving Rutledge a chance to state her position more clearly. She emphasized that situations should be considered on a “case-by-case” basis and added:
We want people to be able to defend themselves, but at the same time, we don’t want laws so much that they leave it open for questions and I think right now the laws that we have on the books are good laws.
Finally, Henry asked Rutledge directly if she’s “comfortable with where our law is on duty to retreat.” She said simply, “Yes.”
Without even getting into the merits of Stand Your Ground itself, I have to say that — based on the evidence here — I don’t see anything that suggests Leslie Rutledge supports a Stand Your Ground law in Arkansas. Fine; that’s her prerogative. For many voters, this may not change their opinion of her one iota. And that’s fine too: every voter is entitled to make their own assessments of the candidates and choose which one they think best represents their interests.
But the fact that Rutledge has never stated support for SYG leads me to believe that her denunciation of this shadowy, “secret group” is rooted in the fact that she doesn’t like their message, rather than an indication that they’ve said something inaccurate. I can understand — if I was in a tight Republican primary race, I wouldn’t want to share a political position with Barack Obama and Eric Holder either. But unless or until her position changes, that’s where things stand. (And yes, that part of the ad is true as well: Holder, representing the Obama administration, has spoken out vociferously against SYG laws.)
Furthermore, why Rutledge is blaming Sterling for JCN’s message — a group that he cannot legally coordinate with — is a mystery of such great complexity that even this humble analyst cannot begin to comprehend it. State Rep. Mark Biviano echoed this Rutledge talking point on Sunday evening, claiming that Sterling “knows exactly where she stands on Stand Your Ground” and is “allowing an outside group to spend nearly a million dollars to misstate the facts.” It seems to me that David Sterling does know exactly where Leslie Rutledge stands on SYG — she’s against it. But the idea that Sterling is “allowing” any group to do anything is patently ridiculous. He cannot control that group, practically or legally. Biviano’s suggestion is really odd.
By the way, Rutledge has also created a new Twitter hashtag, “#DishonestDavid.” To be honest, I have no idea what Rutledge is accusing Sterling of being dishonest about; I haven’t seen her identify anything specific that he’s been dishonest about, and I haven’t seen him say anything dishonest. Perhaps if her campaign would return my calls, I’d better understand her concerns.
I understand the impulse for candidates to paint themselves as victims of grand conspiracies or unfair attacks. We see it all the time here in state politics. It can be an effective tool (unfortunately) for rallying support from voters who aren’t up to speed on the facts. But unless there’s something actually untrue or unfair being said by the “attackers,” I’ll remain unconvinced.