LITTLE ROCK — A former optometrist who has been in Congress for 15 years faces re-election challenges from a former U.S. attorney and a public school official in Arkansas’ U.S. Senate race.
The candidates are incumbent Republican Sen. John Boozman, who served in the U.S. House from 2001 to 2011 and is nearing the end of his first Senate term; Democrat Conner Eldridge, who served as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas from 2010 to 2015; and Libertarian Frank Gilbert, school suspension manager for the Bauxite School District.
Boozman, 65, of Rogers grew up in Fort Smith and played football for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks while completing pre-optometry requirements at UA. He graduated from the Southern College of Optometry in 1977 and started an optometry practice in Rogers that year with his brother, the late Fay Boozman.
John Boozman served two terms on the Rogers School Board before being elected to the U.S. House in a 2001 special election after Asa Hutchinson left Congress to head the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In 2010, Boozman won an eight-person GOP Senate primary with 53 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff, and went on to unseat Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln in the general election with 58 percent of the vote.
He and his wife, Cathy, have three children.
Eldridge, 49, of Fayetteville grew up in Augusta and later Lonoke. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1999 and a law degree from the University of Arkansas in 2003. In 2004 he went to work for Summit Bank in Arkadelphia, which was founded by his father-in-law, Ross Whipple, and eventually he rose to the position of CEO.
In 2009, Eldridge became a special deputy prosecutor for Clark County, and in 2010 he was appointed as the Fort Smith-based U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas. He left that position last year to launch his Senate bid.
He and his wife, Mary Elizabeth, have three young sons.
Gilbert, 66, of Tull graduated from high school in Van Buren and served in the Navy from 1968 to 1972. After completing his naval service he attended Ouachita Baptist University.
For more than 20 years, Gilbert worked for security company Guard Tronic in both its Fort Smith and Little Rock offices. He has served as Grant County coroner, constable of DeKalb Township and mayor of Tull. An ordained minister with the Universal Life Church, he currently serves as fellowship leader of the United Church of Peace in Little Rock.
Gilbert ran unsuccessfully as a Libertarian candidate for a state Senate seat in 2012 and for governor in 2014. He raised three children with his wife, Teresa, who died in August of pancreatic cancer.
The Arkansas News Bureau interviewed the candidates separately for this report, then allowed the candidates to respond via email to opponents’ criticisms.
Boozman said he has experience working on a farm, providing health care and serving on a school board, and in the Senate he serves on key committees on agriculture, the environment and public works, appropriations, and veterans’ affairs, all of which allow him to do things that help Arkansans.
“I represent the people of Arkansas with the conservative values that they’ve grown to expect,” he said.
Eldridge said he work hard to purse justice as a U.S. prosecutor and would work equally hard as senator to make things happen and not just “go along to get along.”
“Senator Boozman’s been in Washington for 15 years,” Eldridge said. “He hasn’t done a whole lot during that time. He hardly ever gives a floor speech. He’s not really an active participant in any significant pieces of legislation. His record is of just sort of showing up, getting five post offices renamed, and that’s about it.”
Boozman responded that his job is about solving problems and fighting for the people of Arkansas, not “getting attention for myself.”
“Take the very first bill I introduced in the Senate, the Veterans’ Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitative Services’ Improvements Act of 2011,” Boozman said. “I got it attached to the comprehensive VA bill and signed into law; it was never about me and my bill, it was about seeing a problem and working to solve it. I could list dozens of other similar bills that were folded into larger bills that became laws, along with the over 19,000 cases of Arkansans who have come to my office seeking help.”
Gilbert said he is the only candidate willing to take a hard line against budget bills that contribute to the “deficit and debt cycle that we’re in.”
“Of course one senator from Arkansas isn’t going to do it, but one senator from Arkansas can join with a few other Republicans and Democrats who understand what we’re doing to our country, to our children and our grandchildren, and begin the shaming process that might force some of the party tools to quit doing that,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert said he supports repealing the federal Affordable Care Act and replacing it with an approach that is health-care-based rather than insurance-based, possibly involving government-funded free clinics across the country. He said he would not have voted for the federal law if he had been in the Senate when it passed.
Asked about the more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans who would lose insurance obtained under Medicaid expansion if the Affordable Care Act were repealed, Gilbert said, “They didn’t have any insurance before, so it’s not like we’re creating a problem. The problem was already there.”
Boozman, who voted against the law’s passage and has voted multiple times to repeal it, said he supports replacing the law with an approach that would promote competition, limit “nuisance lawsuits” and give consumers more choice, which he said would lead to lower health-care costs.
As for the Arkansans who have obtained insurance under Medicaid expansion, Boozman said “they need to be helped” and said one idea would be to give states federal grants they could use to help low-income people obtain insurance, although he cautioned, “There is a finite amount of money. We are in debt $20 trillion almost.”
Eldridge said he opposes repealing the Affordable Care Act and said the focus now should be on new measures to lower health-care costs. He declined to say whether he would have voted for or against the law.
On the expanded Medicaid population, Eldridge said, “My opponent says he has no qualms about kicking 300,000 people off their health insurance. I have a major problem with that.”
Boozman responded, “Most Arkansans have seen skyrocketing premiums and co-pays with $5,000 to $10,000 deductibles. Obama, Clinton and Eldridge’s attitude toward hardworking Arkansans and seniors is that ‘everything is fine, you’re just not smart enough to realize it.’”
Abortion, Planned Parenthood
Boozman said he opposes abortion except in cases of rape and incest and to save the life of the mother. He said he supports cutting off federal and state funding to Planned Parenthood and has voted to do so on the federal level.
Eldridge said he is against abortion personally but believes the government should defend a woman’s right to choose. He said Planned Parenthood provides important health-care services outside of abortion and said he opposes defunding the organization.
Gilbert said he supports making abortion illegal earlier in a pregnancy than the cutoff set by the U.S. Supreme Court, — when a fetus becomes viable outside the womb, or about 24 weeks — but did not know what the cutoff should be. He said he supports ending government funding for Planned Parenthood.
Eldridge said he will vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton because she is the only candidates he trusts with the country’s nuclear codes. He said Boozman’s support of Republican Donald Trump “shows that he is going to toe the party line no matter what, and I have a problem with that.”
Boozman, who has occasionally criticized comments by Trump, said, “Not everyone has a trust fund to fall back on, and the people of Arkansas and their children and grandchildren can’t afford four more years of President Obama’s failed policies that my opponent, Hillary Clinton and (Democratic vice presidential candidate) Tim Kaine have embraced. “
Responding to Boozman’s “trust fund” comment, Eldridge said, “I am applying to the people of this state for the job of U.S. Senator because I want to work hard every day to make a difference in Washington for people like my mother, who raised me, my sister and brother on a $22,000-a-year teacher’s salary.”
Gilbert said he will vote for the Libertarian nominee, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, saying Clinton lacks executive experience and that he doesn’t want to think about Trump “being anywhere near the White House.”