By now, you’ve probably heard about this scandalous video of some Arkansas legislators entering the Capitol in the wee hours of the morning. From what’s seen in the video — and what’s been uncovered in email chains — we don’t know much about what happened. However, that hasn’t stopped one candidate for statewide office, Dennis Milligan, from making much ado about nothing.
Milligan, who currently serves as the Saline County clerk, is running for state treasurer. His only declared Republican opponent is State Representative Duncan Baird, one of the four legislators who had the audacity to — the wrongdoing here is so vicious and depraved that I can hardly bear to describe it — walk half a block from his legislative apartment to stroll around the Capitol in the early morning.
In fact, in the video, you can see footage of four young men — all lawmakers — entering the building; worse yet, they are accompanied by two women. The group walks around; they point at some stuff; roughly an hour later, they leave. Thus: SCANDATASTROPHE!
Since the video has been released, Milligan has seized the opportunity to try to paint Baird as, well, I’m not sure what. Something bad, that’s for sure! Now, it’s difficult for me to see how anybody who wasn’t there has any reason to believe that anything of any importance happened — but this hasn’t stopped Milligan from adding a gigantic dollop of smoke to his account of this visit.
What we know is that after Milligan got his hands on the video and emails, he initiated a meeting with Baird — because (according to Milligan), Milligan was just trying to be helpful. However, the candidates have presented very different versions of what was said in that meeting: Milligan says he let Baird know about the video and never asked Baird to get out of the race; Baird says Milligan actually did try to pressure him to get out of the race. Milligan then, after the issue had surfaced in the media, issued a statement that “the conversation between Duncan and I is hearsay.” At that point, Milligan was apparently blissfully unaware that Baird had recorded their conversation and was about to release it. Maybe it’s unfair to say that the recording shows that Milligan was lying — perhaps it’s better to say that the recording makes Milligan’s relationship with the truth appear highly casual, or perhaps coincidental.
But as for what happened that night at the Capitol? We don’t know. Dennis Milligan doesn’t know. Only Duncan Baird and the other people who were present that night know. There is no evidence of wrongdoing in the video that I can see. I mean, I guess I could see how some people could find it exciting to think about legislators running around the Capitol, potentially intoxicated and chasing women at 2:00 a.m. But even those who are excited by such things should be careful to distinguish between imagination and reality.
Let’s keep the context in mind here: this was during last month’s special session. In the wee hours of the morning, just 24 hours later, there were 135 legislators in the Capitol after midnight to carry out their duties for the special session — and they were spending our money like drunken sailors! If you bother to compare, there’s an argument that a couple of legislators walking around the Capitol corridors in the early morning is relatively inoffensive compared to what they did to our state budget 24 hours later. But Milligan is apparently too busy licking his lips and speculating about other people’s sex lives (or, more precisely, the possible appearance of possible impropriety of other people’s sex lives) to consider that kind of stuff.
Milligan has also alleged that, based on some emails he obtained from the Capitol Police, someone in the group of six acted rudely towards the Capitol Police officers, and that one of the group even threatened to complain to the Secretary of State because the officer stopped the lawmakers from going on the Capitol roof. Because of this conduct by someone in the group, Milligan is calling on Baird to “apologize to the people of Arkansas.” Well, rudeness is inexcusable, and rudeness always warrants an apology. But to blame Baird for the rude conduct of some unnamed person in a group of six suggests a belief in collective guilt. And when anyone operates on a theory of collective guilt, it suggests a profound lack of judgement.
Finally, Milligan’s assertion that he didn’t tell Baird to get out of the race is hard to take seriously. According to the audio tapes, Milligan told Baird “Here’s the bottom line, you’re finding a new career, you’re not gonna run for state treasurer. Ok. Unless you want to see this on the 7:00 news.” This is kind of like a mobster walking into a nice restaurant and telling the owner, “You know, this is a nice place. It’d be a real shame if anything happened to it.” I mean, I guess you could say that isn’t a threat — if, for instance, you’re really stupid. I guess Milligan’s theory is that he could defend himself by saying “I didn’t tell him to get out of the race. I told him he was getting out of the race” — as if the whole meeting wasn’t Milligan’s idea in the first place and Baird’s (hypothetical) future exit from the race was some sort of independent event that Baird was somehow predestined to endure.
Did Duncan Baird do anything wrong at the Capitol that night? Not according to the evidence we have. Does anyone besides Dennis Milligan care? I have no idea. I do agree generally that a person’s character and personal conduct are legitimate topics of discussion in political campaigns. How a person behaves before entering office gives a strong indication of how they might act once they’re sworn in. However, I don’t think this micro-controversy tells us anything about the character, judgment, and conduct of Duncan Baird. Instead, it tells us quite a lot about the character, judgment, and conduct of Dennis Milligan.