How similar are the two Democrats running to represent a state House district in the north-central part of Little Rock?
"There's not a paper's thinness between us on the issues," said Tippi McCullough.
McCullough, an English teacher, and Ross Noland, an environmental attorney, are running for the state House District 33 seat. With no Republican challenger, their Tuesday primary will determine the next representative for the district that includes Hillcrest and parts of downtown and midtown Little Rock.
The difficulty, though, is picking one over the other, voters in the central Arkansas district say.
Both candidates emphasize education and support for public schools; each opposes vouchers and the expansion of charter schools in the Little Rock School District footprint.
They support criminal justice changes to keep minor, nonviolent offenders out of prison, and they want stricter gun laws.
To separate themselves, the candidates from the Hillcrest neighborhood point to their backgrounds.
Noland, 37, grew up around the district, graduating from Central High School before attending undergraduate and law school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. He obtained a master's in environmental law from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Before returning to Arkansas seven years ago, Noland worked as a legislative counselor for then-U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, where he helped craft legislation, rules and regulations.
He also interned at the federal Environmental Protection Agency after college, and he represented part of the class of plaintiffs that sued Exxon Mobil after the Mayflower oil spill in 2013.
He now operates his own law practice and is executive director of the Buffalo River Foundation, a nonprofit land trust focused on conservation of the Buffalo National River's watershed.
"I want to bring that background experience to work for District 33," he said.
McCullough, 54, grew up in Hot Springs with a single mother, which she contrasts with her current life in Hillcrest. A first-generation college graduate, she attended Ouachita Baptist University on a basketball scholarship.
After college, McCullough began teaching and coaching basketball in a career that took her to a number of school districts around the state. She was the first female president of the Arkansas Basketball Coaches Association, and she swiftly quips that it shares a gender divide with the Arkansas Legislature.
She lurched into the public sphere in 2013 when Mount St. Mary Academy, where she taught at the time, fired her for marrying her longtime partner, deputy prosecutor Barbara Mariani. Same-sex marriage violated a morality clause in McCullough's contract, school administrators said at the time. The "traumatic" experience vaulted McCullough into activism.
Her experiences coming from a struggling family to teaching to being a member of the LGBT community make her well-suited to represent the district, she said. McCullough also pointed to the General Assembly's lack of women.
"We need more diversity -- whether more gender diversity or me being a member of the LGBT community," she said.
McCullough said the voters' largest concern is education and that she'd fight for adequate funding not just for standard kindergarten-through-12th-grade education but also for special education, after-school programs and pre-kindergarten.
To McCullough, better funding for education addresses many societal issues, whether crime, addiction or other problems.
"If we're going to have to pay sometime, right now it seems like we're paying on the back end, letting problems happen, then solving them," she said. "We could really fund a lot of this stuff on the front end."
Noland, too, emphasizes education issues, particularly helping public schools.
"We can't keep taking money and kids out of public schools and expect them to function," he said.
As might be expected, Noland has an abundance of ideas for environmental legislation. He'd like to make it easier for commercial and residential customers to utilize solar panels to deliver energy.
He thinks that those ideas have bipartisan appeal; even Republicans should be attracted to the idea of allowing residents to harness their own energy, he said. Plus, it has economic implications.
"The economy depends on clean air and water," Noland said.
He added that the Legislature lacks a clear leader on environmental issues, and he sees that as a void he could readily fill.
As for McCullough, she also has ideas for environmental work. She mentioned opportunities for more renewable energy, streets complete with bike lanes, and conservation of the Buffalo National River.
"I know [Noland] has a lot of experience and has done a lot of [environmental] work, and I admire him for that," she said. "But nobody owns that issue."
The two candidates are very complimentary of each another, and they have trouble mustering even the slightest of differences.
They both support the state's version of Medicaid expansion -- known as Arkansas Works -- that uses Medicaid dollars to buy private insurance for poor people, but they oppose the recently approved federal waiver allowing the state to impose a work requirement on some program beneficiaries.
Both oppose Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposed cut to the top income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 6 percent.
"We have too many underfunded needs," McCullough said.
Noland said any tax cuts should come in the form of an earned income tax credit. Such a credit would benefit lower earners and, in turn, the economy, he said.
"Wealthy folks will save that money," he said. "Low-income earners will spend it, and that infusion of money at the bottom is a positive."
SundayMonday on 05/21/2018
Print Headline: Hopefuls in District 33 aligned on key issues