FORT SMITH — Former 4th District Congressman Mike Ross entered the race for the Democratic nomination for governor Wednesday, promising a candidacy focused on education and economic development, and pledging to continue the policies of the term-limited Democrat he hopes to succeed, Gov. Mike Beebe.
Ross first announced his intentions in Prescott, his hometown, before beginning a statewide fly around. His schedule also included stops in Fayetteville, Jonesboro and Little Rock.
In his comments here, Ross underscored his reputation for coming home to Arkansas every week while in Congress, saying he is familiar with the challenges and opportunities the state faces because he never moved to Washington, D.C.
He also took a swipe at the Legislature’s new Republican majority, which focused the first weeks of the current legislative session on passing abortion restrictions and a measure requiring voters to show photo identification when they go to the polls.
GOP majorities in the House and Senate voted to override Beebe’s veto of a pair of abortion bills and the voter ID legislation, which critics likened to the poll tax of the civil rights era.
"Education and job creation must be this state’s top priorities," Ross said, complimenting Beebe’s efforts as governor to improve education and economic development, and chiding what he referred to as "some misguided politicians" at the Capitol "who have made divisive issues of the past their top priority."
Ross said lately Arkansas only makes national news when "these divisive politicians" succeed in attacks on women and families.
"Attacks likes these only serve to erase the progress Arkansas has made and they detract from our focus on the future," he told a crowd of supporters.
Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, who sponsored legislation, now a state law, banning most abortions at 20 weeks of pregnancy or later, said Wednesday the ban is not an attack on anyone.
"It is in fact protecting innocent babies’ lives, so I believe that it is very much a pro-family bill," he said.
House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said Ross cast the deciding vote in 2009 that allowed President Obama’s federal health care overhaul to proceed out of a House committee and eventually become law.
"I wouldn’t think someone that approved Obamacare would be saying a whole lot about divisive legislation," Westerman said.
Ross spent 12 years in the U.S. House as a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats after serving 10 years in the state Senate. He announced in 2011 that he would not seek re-election to a seventh term representing southern Arkansas in Congress, and in 2012 said he would not run for governor. He took a job in January at Southwest Power Pool in Little Rock.
Ross began reconsidering a race for governor when Attorney General Dustin McDaniel withdrew his candidacy in late January after acknowledging he had an extramarital affair. Ross recently resigned his private sector job, saying he would seek an opportunity in public service.
Ross joins former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter in the race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Halter announced his candidacy the same day McDaniel dropped his.
Halter welcomed Ross to the race Wednesday and said he looked forward to a vigorous discussion of the issues facing Arkansas families.
"There are real differences between us, and voters will have a clear choice in this primary about the best path forward for Arkansas in creating new jobs, protecting our seniors and providing world-class education for every Arkansan," Halter said in a statement his campaign released.
When asked Wednesday to say how he would differentiate himself from his primary opponent, Ross declined.
"The filing deadline is about a year away. I don’t know who the candidates will be. There will be a time to debate the issues and the differences, but today is about me offering myself to provide leadership to our state," he said.
However, in an apparent reference to Halter and former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, who is seeking the Republican nomination, Ross said he is the only candidate in the race who never left Arkansas, leaving Washington for Arkansas each weekend after the final House vote.
Halter served eight years in the Clinton administration in the Office of Management and Budget and Social Security Administration. Hutchinson, in addition to serving in Congress, was administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and served as an undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security in President George W. Bush’s administration. He lost to Beebe in a race for governor in 2006.
Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman is also seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Ross said he believes his experience as a small businessman and justice of the peace in Nevada County and his long service in the state Legislature and U.S. House make him the most qualified candidate to build on the foundation built by Beebe.
He said Arkansas has been good to him, and he wants to provide even greater opportunities to future generations of Arkansans.
"I’m running for governor because I love our state and the people who call Arkansas home," Ross said. "My desire to give back has never been greater."