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Grassroots politics

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ATTORNEY GENERAL LESLIE RUTLEDGE
  • ATTORNEY GENERAL LESLIE RUTLEDGE

Events last week illustrate that there's a lot more to politics than the presidential election. Down ballot, the consequences can be — to borrow a current popular word — huge.

For one thing, a presidential landslide can sometimes bring corresponding changes in Congress. I am too superstitious to predict that a Hillary Clinton landslide is possible, much less that the Democrats will regain control of the U.S. Senate.

Day in and day out, I'm more concerned with events closer to home. In Arkansas, I am much more pessimistic. No matter how badly Donald Trump falters, it seems likely that Arkansas will be among the last states in his camp. It follows that a state this regressive isn't likely to offer much relief in state legislative races or, in two years, in statewide races for elective offices.

Such decisions have real consequences and that isn't lost on big spenders.

I noted last week, for example, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge. She holds office today because of hundreds of thousands of spending in dark money by Republican Attorneys General Association on attack ads against a strong, well-funded Democratic opponent, Nate Steel.

We learned a little bit about RAGA's funding last week in an article by Think Progress. RAGA has raised about $19 million for the 2015-16 election cycle, a significant chunk from the fossil fuel industry. About $2.4 million came directly from industry companies like the Koch brothers and Exxon. Another $1.4 million came from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, essentially a Republican Party adjunct that enjoys heavy financial support from the energy industry.

Races for attorney general rarely get big headlines. But they are vital offices, often with important roles in utility and environmental regulation. In years past, Arkansas attorney general efforts on behalf of consumers against big energy companies and other major corporate interests were a political staple. Rutledge — supported by RAGA money, remember — has turned the political calculus upside down.

Just last week, Rutledge plunged into a couple of cases on the side of energy companies. She objected to tougher federal rules to reduce power plant emissions that cause haze. She's more worried about power company expenses than clean air. She also intervened against protecting an endangered frog in Louisiana and Mississippi because she said the federal designation infringed on the property rights of timber giant Weyerhaeuser.

These were only the latest legal shots from Rutledge, who seems to spend more time litigating in other states on behalf of corporations (and sometimes against women's medical rights and equal rights for sexual minorities) than she does looking after strictly Arkansas interests. She's been AWOL so far, for example, on reports that illegal payday lending — a target of her predecessor — had reopened for business in the state since she took office.

Rutledge is involved in at least 26 cases or regulatory proceedings, according to a recent count, on matters that include ozone and clean water. If you're a progressive thinker, be sure that in all 26 cases Rutledge is not representing your interests. The Kochs? They can find Rutledge positions to cheer.

Ultrarich conservatives like the Kochs have been smart in targeting state legislatures and state officials. They know they can get results quickly. Koch money played a big role in the Republican takeover of the Arkansas legislature. Big money is a key player in court races as well. A footnote to all this last week was the emergence of Arkansan Ronald Cameron, a poultry magnate who regularly joins Koch political pep rallies of the wealthy, as a $100,000 contributor to an ultraconservative candidate for attorney general in Missouri. Cameron's candidate, Josh Hawley, promises to fight the EPA Clean Power plan to reduce air pollution. If he wins, he need only call Leslie Rutledge to get a copy of her notes. She's already at work fighting for the Kochs on this.

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