In his bid to oust Sen. Eddie Cheatham, Ben Gilmore says voters should choose him in the Nov. 3 election because his views are more closely aligned with the conservative values of southeast Arkansas.
Cheatham counters that voters should reelect him based on his legislative and life experiences. He also said that most people in the district are middle income and blue collar and he relates to them better than Gilmore does.
"I don't want to be a flashy politician or anything, but just do what's right," he said in an interview last week.
Both men are from Crossett.
Cheatham, a Democrat, and Gilmore, a Republican and a former aide to Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, are vying for the Senate District 26 seat. The Senate has 26 Republicans and nine Democrats.
District 26 includes Ashley, Bradley, Chicot and Drew counties and parts of Cleveland, Desha, and Lincoln counties. Early voting begins Oct. 19 and absentee voting has already started.
Gilmore said Cheatham has proved that he doesn't have "a conservative voice" based on his votes on abortion and tax bills and his grade of "C" from the National Rifle Association. Gilmore adds that he has been endorsed by the NRA.
Cheatham said he believes his votes on tax measures have been conservative and "it depends on who you ask" about whether his votes on abortion legislation have been conservative.
The incumbent said he is an NRA member who owns many guns for hunting, recreation and self-defense. He voted in 2017 against an NRA-backed measure to allow concealed-weapons permit holders who have extra training to carry guns on college campuses and in some other public places.
Cheatham, 73, a retired educator, has been a senator since 2013. Before that, he was in the House of Representatives from 2007-13. He also served 10 years on the Crossett City Council. He is married with two children.
Cheatham, who said he has lived for 48 years in Crossett, noted that Gilmore moved his voter registration from Little Rock to Crossett in March 2019 to run for the state Senate.
"I have been involved and Ben is a nice young man, but he hasn't been involved in the community," Cheatham said.
Gilmore countered, "The fact is, I have been involved and this is evident by my service on the Crossett Chamber of Commerce board, the Crossett Beautification Committee, the Crossett Committee for the Future, Ashley County United Fund Board and I currently serve on the Friends of the Crossett Library board." He also said he is a member and trustee of First Baptist Church of Crossett.
Gilmore, 28, is making his first bid for elective office. He is single.
He previously worked as an aide for Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman from 2015-17.
Gilmore said he resigned, effective Sept. 30, as an aide to Griffin to focus more on the race and to start a marketing and communications business called Gilmore Messaging.
Gilmore said Cheatham voted in 2013 not to overturn then-Gov. Mike Beebe's vetoes of bills that sought to ban most abortions after 12 weeks and 20 weeks of pregnancy.
He said that proves that "when he had the chance he voted against life and he voted with the Democrats" instead of with the voters of southeast Arkansas.
Beebe, a Democrat who is a former attorney general, vetoed the two bills after concluding they were unconstitutional. But the Republican-controlled Legislature overturned the vetoes. The federal courts ruled the 12-week ban was unconstitutional. The 20-week ban is in effect.
Gilmore said he is "100% pro-life, no exceptions."
Cheatham said he is "pretty much pro-life" and he opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest.
He said he voted against the bill to ban most abortions after 12 weeks because it was pretty clear it was unconstitutional. He said he doesn't recall why he didn't vote on the bill to ban most abortions after 20 weeks.
911 TAX BILL
Gilmore criticized Cheatham over his vote in 2019 for a bill to double a fee on cellphones to fund improvements to the state's 911 system.
The new law increased the fee on cellphones from 65 cents to $1.30 for each device, including tablets and other devices that use data. The tax is projected to raise about $12 million a year. The former fee structure affected landline users.
Gilmore said he would have voted against the tax.
"If I was a state senator, I would have presented the governor with other alternatives such as using near record surpluses," he said.
Cheatham said he voted for the bill because he wanted to upgrade the state's 911 system and the legislation was supported by the governor, law enforcement agencies and county judges.
"It was a no-brainer," he said. The bill handily cleared the Republican-majority Legislature -- 29-3 in the Senate and 85-0 in the House.
Asked whether he reviewed funding options before signing the bill, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a written statement, "in terms of the 911 bill that supports public safety, I signed it because it addressed some real needs in our state."
Gilmore chided Cheatham over his 2019 vote for legislation proposed by Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, to raise tobacco taxes. Hutchinson is Hendren's uncle.
"We need to find ways to lessen the overall tax burden" instead of always looking at a tax increase for "every solution," Gilmore said.
That bill narrowly cleared the Senate, but died in the House. It would have provided about $97 million a year in income-tax cuts targeted largely for low- and moderate-income Arkansans paid for by tobacco-tax increases.
"When you have never been in office it is easy to criticize," Cheatham said. "Sen. Hendren is pretty darn conservative."
The incumbent said he reaches across the aisle to work with Republicans when they have good ideas.
Cheatham said he voted for each of Hutchinson's proposals to cut tax rates in 2015, 2017 and 2019, and has voted for several hundred million dollars' worth of tax cuts during his 14 years years in the Legislature.
Cheatham said he will vote for Issue 1 because it's important for Senate District 26 to help maintain highways, roads and bridges, and because Issue 1 is backed by county judges and mayors in the district.
Issue 1 is the proposed constitutional amendment that would permanently extend the state's 0.5% sales tax that voters initially approved in 2012 for a 10-year period. Issue 1 was referred to this year's ballot by the Legislature.
State officials have projected that approval of Issue 1 will raise about $205 million a year for highways and about $44 million a year each for cities and counties for their roads.
Gilmore said he hasn't decided how he'll vote on Issue 1. He said he'll continue to look for ways to fund highways and roads and lower taxes.
In 2019, Cheatham voted for legislation signed into law by Hutchinson to add a wholesale sales tax on gas and diesel; increase registration fees for hybrid and electric vehicles; and use about $35 million a year in state funds to raise $95 million a year more for highway funding and $13 million a year more each for city and county roads.
That law and Issue 1 are the two prongs of Hutchinson's $300 million-a-year highway funding plan.
Gilmore declined to say how he would have voted on that 2019 legislation.
Gilmore said his top priorities if elected would include creating jobs, fighting for fiscal responsibility, reducing regulatory burdens in occupational licensing and improving education and reading.
Cheatham said his top priorities if reelected would include improving education. He noted he is the only member of the Senate Education Committee who resides south of Little Rock. He also said he supports district-oriented goals: expanding broadband access; supporting its five hospitals; and working to reverse the decline of pharmacies in his district.
Gilmore said he supports vouchers to pay for children to attend private schools or home school. He said he also supports public charter schools and wants to make sure traditional public schools get the funding that they need.
"I would also say I would support whatever gives parents the freedom to choose what is best for their children," he said.
Cheatham said he isn't a proponent of school vouchers "as a whole," and he would look at each bill on its own and determine the impact on the state budget.
He noted that he voted for the Succeed Scholarship program to help pay for children with disabilities to attend private schools.
Cheatham said he supports Arkansas' version of Medicaid expansion called Arkansas Works that provides health insurance to about 285,000 low-income Arkansans. The federal government covers 90% of the cost of the program, while the state chips in 10%.
A federal appeals court, in affirming a lower court order, has ruled that the Trump administration unlawfully allowed Arkansas to impose a work requirement on recipients of coverage under the Medicaid expansion program. That ruling has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cheatham said he was the only Senate Democrat to vote for a bill in 2017 to allow for the Medicaid work requirement, but he would have to look at the details of any future work requirement to determine whether he would support it.
Gilmore said he supports the current Medicaid work requirement. He said he would look at the details of the program to determine whether he supports it if it doesn't have a work requirement.
Hutchinson backs Gilmore.
"I am supporting the GOP candidates in races across Arkansas," the governor said in a written statement. "This does not reflect a negative view of the incumbent, but simply support for Ben Gilmore."
Gilmore's brother, Jon Gilmore, is the governor's chief political strategist and former deputy chief of staff. He is president of Gilmore Strategy Group, a lobbying and political consulting firm.
According to Ben Gilmore's latest campaign-finance report, he raised $137,059.98 in contributions, and spent $89,490.49 through the end of August, leaving a balance of $47,569.49.
According to Cheatham's latest campaign-finance report, Cheatham raised $98,734 in contributions, and spent $54,060.35 through the end of September, leaving a balance of $54,060.35.