Columns » Max Brantley

Looking for differences

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I wrote last week that attorney general is the best platform from which to launch future races for governor. So it’s no surprise that an opening in that seat has drawn a dynamic field.

They’re all lawyers. That’s not a bad thing. Seven years of post-high school course work and passage of a bar exam promise — if they do not guarantee — a reasonable level of intellect.

All the candidates are proven politicians, which mean each possesses at least a degree of likeability.

Issues? They have their pets, but I’m having a hard time discerning bright-line differences and getting beyond impressionistic takes on the candidates.

Democrats: Paul Suskie, the North Little Rock city attorney? Nice guy, likes veterans, is a veteran. Robert Herzfeld, the Saline prosecutor? Righteous on some important issues such as the folly of tax increment financing and the need for stiffer ethics rules for lawmakers, but unsettling. He’s a little too noisy, not to mention crassly political. That money he spent from his drug task force on blatantly political polling was a bad idea. Who needs to poll about the wisdom of putting criminals in jail? Dustin McDaniel, the Jonesboro legislator? He’s the most charismatic of the bunch, but terribly wrong on tax increment financing, which he carried for a hometown moneybags. He’s also unconvincing to the point of intellectually insulting in trying to portray himself as having been misled into thinking his TIF legislation, a developer/bond daddy’s dream, was only a technical legal correction. Still, I can’t shake the feeling he’s the best candidate. Yes, there’s a Republican. Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith is a candid and engaging guy with an almost progressive record on worker and consumer issues but a caveman on too many others.

Searching for an issue on which I could decide a vote in this race, I took a page from the values crowd and asked the candidates a series of questions about abortion, no longer a settled issue in the U.S. None challenged a woman’s legal right to choose an abortion under current law. They tended to doubt we’d see a retreat from Roe v. Wade any time soon. But I asked a final hypothetical. If Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, would they then support a statute to make abortion illegal in Arkansas? The answers, after being stripped of varying preliminaries about personal opposition to or reservations concerning abortion, the hypothetical nature of the question and the differences between personal beliefs and the legal responsibilities of attorney general:

DeLay: “I think life begins at conception and should be protected from that point forward. If the court rules that states can limit abortions in the first trimester of pregnancy, I would hope the legislature would take the opportunity to do so.”

Herzfield: “… I can state that I would strongly oppose any statute outlawing abortions which did not allow exceptions in the event of rape or incest or to protect the life or health of the mother.”

Suskie: “If Roe v. Wade is overturned and the Arkansas Supreme Court found that the Arkansas Constitution did not guarantee a woman’s right to choose, I would support such a statute only if it contained an exception for rape, incest and when a woman’s life is in danger.”

McDaniel: “I would not support a sweeping prohibition on a woman’s right to make medical decisions for herself.”

By golly, I think I’ve stumbled on a difference.

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