In seeking her third term in the state Legislature, state Rep. LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello, faces a first for her political career: an opponent.
Howard Beaty, a 50-year-old bank executive and former county GOP official from Crossett, is attempting to unseat Burch, a 59-year-old retired brigadier general and attorney, by tying her voting record to state and national Democrats.
The Democratic Party once held a majority of legislative seats, but lost its grip on many of them to Republicans, including in south Arkansas.
Burch in turn has accused Beaty of misleading voters on her record, and touted her legislative experience working with Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation.
"What he's not talking about is public education and funding for teachers," as well as other issues such as support for veterans and lowering the cost of prescription drugs, Burch said in a recent interview.
In two recent mail ads, which Beaty shared with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, his campaign affixed Burch with a "Liberal Democrat" label in bold letters. Burch said she rejected the label -- as well as one of the mailers comparing her with two Democratic congresswomen from New York and California -- calling herself a "conservative" Democrat.
Beaty, however, said he believes there's no such thing.
"They're Democrats, they're all liberal," Beaty said, adding that he would be happy to be compared with members of his party, including President Donald Trump.
Voters in House District 9, which stretches north-to-south across portions of Drew and Ashley counties, have repeatedly sent Democrats to the state Legislature, including Burch and the late state Rep. Sheilla Lampkin, D-Monticello.
Both counties in the district have voted solidly Republican in presidential elections over the past decade, however. The last statewide Democratic candidate to win either county was gubernatorial candidate Mike Ross in 2014.
Lampkin faced a Republican general election opponent during each of her three terms, dispatching all of them by more than 10 points. Burch's lone Republican challenger was kicked off the ballot before the 2016 election over a hot-check conviction.
Beaty, who previously served as the chairman of the Ashley County Republican Party, said he originally considered running for state Senate this year against state Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, before deciding to file for Burch's seat. (Republican Ben Gilmore is running against Cheatham, with "100%" support from Beaty, the latter said.)
"Folks talked about running [against Burch], but nobody actually pulled the trigger and filed," Beaty said.
As of the most recent campaign finance reports filed earlier this month, the incumbent led the fundraising battle with $43,972 in campaign donations and $14,940 in expenditures. Beaty has raised $36,820 and spent $13,781, according to his most recent report.
Two mailers Beaty sent to House District 9 voters this month focused on the issues of abortion and funding for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, with his campaign casting Burch's support of the commission's annual appropriation bills as having "voted multiple times to spend taxpayer money in communist China." The ad features a picture of Burch overlaid with the flag of the People's Republic of China.
The Arkansas Economic Development Commission, a division of the state's Department of Commerce, has operated an office in China since 2008, according to spokeswoman Alisha Curtis.
The office, which aims to recruit foreign business investment to Arkansas, operates with an annual budget of $125,000 that is included within the commission's annual appropriation, Curtis said. Beaty's mail ad cites Burch's vote in favor of the commission's budget in each of the last three years as the basis for its claim of sending money to China.
When asked about the ad, however, Beaty backed away from his claims about the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, saying he supported Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson -- who signed all three appropriation bills -- and Commerce Secretary Mike Preston. (All of the funding bills also passed in the House without a dissenting vote.)
"It is something I would question and have discussions on," Beaty said when asked if he would vote against either the commission's budget or funding for the China office. "They [Hutchinson and Preston] could have expressed something to me and would have gained my support."
Burch called Beaty's position in the ad "anti-business," and noted that the Arkansas Economic Development Commission had helped recruit the manufacturer Cynergy Cargo 2 to open a new facility in Crossett employing 70 people earlier this month.
"If he's being honest, he's not a business guy," she said.
Burch also accused Beaty of misleading about her record on abortion in another mail ad. The ad highlighted Burch's votes against a pair of anti-abortion bills in 2019, one that prohibited the state from paying any costs associated with a women in state custody receiving an abortion, and the other to prohibit abortions in the state altogether if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
The ad also notes that Burch received an "F" grade in 2019 from the Family Council Action Committee, a conservative faith-based advocacy group.
Burch said she opposed those bills and other anti-abortion legislation based on the advice of attorneys who said they were likely unconstitutional and would cost the state "millions" to defend in court.
She noted that she voted for the Cherish Act, a 2019 law that banned most abortions after the 18th week of pregnancy, which she said "accurately" reflected her beliefs. (The Cherish Act, or Act 493, was later struck down by a federal judge in Little Rock; the decision is on appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.)
Beaty said his opposition to abortion was "unwavering" and that he did not support exceptions for cases of rape and incest.
"I am 100% pro-life, my opponent is not," Beaty said in a text message Friday.
AGREE AND DISAGREE
The two candidates managed to agree on some topics that have become divisive issues in other campaigns this cycle.
For example, both candidates said they support Arkansas Works, the state's "private-option" Medicaid expansion program that uses Medicaid funding to provide private health insurance to more than 280,000 low-income Arkansans. Beaty said he was undecided about whether he would support a program if the work requirement, added by the Legislature in 2017, is ultimately struck down on appeal in federal court.
Beaty and Burch also said they plan to support Issue 1, a proposed permanent extension of the state's 0.5% sales tax to fund highway construction.
Beaty said the similarities end with the "philosophical differences in the Republican and Democratic tickets."
The Republican touted his "AQ" rating from the National Rifle Association based on his responses to a questionnaire, in contrast to Burch's "D" rating from the group.
Asked whether he would support "red flag" laws, which allow police or other law enforcement officials to petition a judge to temporarily confiscate someone's firearms if they are determined to be a danger to themselves or others, Beaty said he opposes such laws, saying they carry "a lot of possibility for abuse."
Burch, however, said she remained undecided regarding red flag laws, noting that they have received support from some veteran groups as a way to reduce veteran suicides.
"If I just say I'm against something without seeing what it might be, then I'm not giving a voice to my constituents, I'm giving it away to someone else," Burch said.
During an interview last week, Beaty also criticized Burch's vote for a 2019 law that increased a monthly "public safety" tax on cellphones by 65 cents and added a 10% tax to prepaid cellphones in order to fund improvements to the 911 emergency response system.
The law, Act 660 of 2019, passed in the Republican-majority Legislature with broad bipartisan support and was signed by Hutchinson.
U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Little Rock, also criticized his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, over her vote for Act 660.
"We had surpluses at the time, and we had other ways to fund this," Beaty said of the legislation, which he referred to as the "cellphone tax."
Burch, however, noted that the bill had the support of many local officials in rural areas where 911 services funded by taxes on land-line phones had lost revenue.
"I cannot imagine saying you care about safety in rural Arkansas and not supporting this bill," she said.
Reflecting on her legislative record, Burch said her top accomplishment was the passage of "Jacob's Law" in 2019, which she sponsored along with Cheatham. The law clarifies that drivers of farm equipment and four-wheelers involved in deadly accidents must have their blood-alcohol levels tested.
The law was named after a 23-year-old man from Dumas who was killed in a farming accident in 2016.
Burch, who was first elected to the House in 2016, previously worked as an attorney at the Arkansas Department of Human Services and served in the military for more than 30 years, with deployments to Bosnia and Afghanistan, according to her legislative profile. She retired from the Army Reserve in 2016 having achieved the rank of brigadier general.
She is widowed and lives in Monticello. She has two adult children.
Beaty, a native of northern Louisiana, said he has lived in Arkansas for 17 years. He is the former president of First State Bank of Crossett, which merged with Commercial Capital Bank of Delhi, La., earlier this year. He is now a vice president at Commercial Capital Bank.
Before serving as the chairman of the Ashley County GOP, Beaty said he was the chairman of the Ashley County Election Commission. He is single and lives in Crossett.