One of the best things the voters in Arkansas Senate District 21 could do for the state is to make ethics a primary issue in the special election to replace an incumbent who resigned on ethical grounds. Since I’m one of those voters, here’s a start.
District 21 covers the western half of Craighead County, including my hometown of Jonesboro. Until Paul Bookout’s resignation on Aug. 20, the Bookout name had been magic in Jonesboro politics since the 1960s.
Paul Bookout’s father, the late Jerry Bookout, graduated from Arkansas State College in 1955 and was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1966. He was one of the original sponsors of the legislation that gave university status to A-State the following year.
He served three terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1972 and stayed there until 1997, took a short retirement from politics, then came back to serve four more years.
For a time he and Paul were both in the Legislature, with Paul serving in the House and Jerry in the Senate — believed to be the first father-son team ever.
After Jerry died in 2006, Paul was elected to fill the vacancy without opposition in what was then called District 14 and ran twice more uncontested. Paul also followed his dad in serving as president of the Senate.
You’ll understand why many people in the district were surprised to learn of the transgressions that led to his downfall. According to Ballotpedia, he had raised $267,350 for six uncontested elections since 2000. He got in trouble for spending campaign money, lots of it, for personal reasons.
After reading a recent column, a reader, Joel McCutcheon, raised an important question: "Why would political donors contribute to the campaign of a senator who was ‘termed out’ and had no political opposition in his last election?"
Indeed, Bookout raised some $80,000 for his unopposed 2012 election. And state law allowed him to keep about $17,000 — an amount equal to one year’s pay for the position — for official purposes.
I would therefore ask the seven men who have filed to replace Bookout: Is that the way our election campaigns should work? If you don’t draw an opponent — and you know that well before the May primaries and November general election — shouldn’t the candidate be required to give back any contributions not already spent on legitimate campaign expenses, such as the filing fee? Should any "carryover" money be allowed? What’s your solution?
Two of the Democratic candidates — former state Sen. Gene Roebuck and former state Rep. Ray Kidd — have legislative experience so they are somewhat familiar with Arkansas’ campaign finance laws.
One of the Republican candidates, John Cooper, benefitted from political action committee funds from outside the state in his bid to unseat incumbent state Rep. Butch Wilkins in 2012. Americans for Prosperity spent thousands of dollars on mail-outs intended to discredit Wilkins.
At the time Cooper, who lost the race by a 54-46 percent margin, disclaimed any hand in the AFP efforts. But it’s certainly relevant to ask him and the other candidates whether out-of-state political organizations should have unlimited and opaque ability to influence state legislative campaigns.
The other candidates are relative newcomers to politics — Democrats Radius Baker, a school superintendent, and Steve Rockwell, a businessman, and Republicans Dan Sullivan, a children’s health services agency owner, and Chad Niell, chief executive officer of a correctional services business. But they are now politicians, and they are involved in financing a political campaign.
The voters of District 21 should hear from each how he plans to finance this campaign. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until after the Oct. 8 primaries, when the first campaign finance reports will be due. The general election isn’t until Jan. 14, and it’s possible some candidates won’t have to make a formal report until after that.
Shouldn’t we reform the campaign finance reporting process?
I’d also be interested in learning each candidate’s position on House Joint Resolution 1009, which the Legislature is referring to 2014 ballots.
While it would not make drastic changes to Arkansas’ political ethics, it could help. The proposal would ban corporate and union contributions to political campaigns, increase the "cooling-off" period after a lawmaker leaves office until he can become a lobbyist from one to two years, prohibit most gifts to public officials and allow legislators to serve up to 16 years total.
We can expect some outside opposition because of the "loosening up" of term limits, which are now two 4-year terms in the Senate and three 2-year terms in the House — a maximum of 14 years. The proposed amendment would increase the total by only two years but stipulates no division between chambers.
That may not be the only ethics reform proposal on 2014 ballots. Regnat Populus, a citizens’ reform group, and several other organizations last week launched an initiative effort that would make it a matter of corporate charter law that corporations cannot spend money to influence elections. That is aimed at nullifying the Citizens United "personhood" ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which gives corporations greater freedom to influence elections than individuals.
The District 21 candidates should address all these issues, and so should all legislative candidates around the state next year.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.