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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Leslie's desperation play

by John Brummett | November 17, 2021 at 3:20 a.m.

Before I write that Attorney General Leslie Rutledge threw a Hail Mary pass, which fell incomplete, I should explain what a Hail Mary pass is.

The last time I referred in a column to a Hail Mary, dozens of readers wrote to ask what that was or whether I was mocking prayer, which I most certainly was not.

Apparently not everyone watches as much football as I do. Many lack awareness of the metaphorical bounty available in the game's popular terminology.

A Hail Mary pass happens when a team is trailing, a long way from the goal line and down to its last play. It is the trailing quarterback's heaving the ball as far as he can toward that goal line while a dozen or more players, most defenders from the opposing team, bunch together and wait for the ball to descend. The opposing team simply wants to swat the ball down. The trailing team hopes one of its guys miraculously catches the ball.

A Hail Mary thus is a wildly desperate prayer and almost-always unsuccessful tactic.

So, Rutledge was months ago a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, and a formidable one until Sarah Huckabee Sanders got in the race. Rutledge had devoted her public office in Arkansas to subservience to Donald Trump. But Sanders had been Trump's press spokesman and right hand. So, the big man endorsed Sanders, who raised obscene amounts of money out-of-state from his network.

Rutledge threw a Hail Mary. She announced that, while running for governor, she would lead a public initiative campaign to get on the ballot and pass a constitutional amendment to phase out the personal income tax.

The desperation was that Rutledge was getting routed by Sanders. The prayer was that her active leadership in getting income taxes eliminated would sustain and recharge her in the race.

Polls show that Arkansas people don't like income taxes. One recent poll says the support for getting rid of them drops only four or five points when you add the context that eliminating the state income tax could bankrupt schools and nursing homes and zero-out assorted human services.

It's horrible policy, putting budget constraints in a constitution. But, then, a Hail Mary pass is not exactly an intricately designed tactic. It's a play kids could draw up in the dirt on a playground: Everybody run way down yonder and I'll throw it as far as I can.

There has been no discernible movement on this constitutional amendment effort, which would be a very challenging assignment for a sitting officeholder also running a campaign. An initiative campaign requires legal composition, fundraising and the hiring of canvassers, then the design of a campaign message and the execution of a campaign.

The only discernible movement has been Rutledge's giving up on the governor's race and dropping down to the default race for lieutenant governor.

I have been unable to get an answer on whether the attorney general will keep throwing her Hail Mary in a race that shouldn't require it for lieutenant governor. She's probably the front-runner there. She likely can win by controlling the line of scrimmage against Doyle Webb and Jason Rapert. (It's another football metaphor.)

For that matter, the rationale for the desperation tactic was wholly in the context of running for governor against Sanders. It was that it might have moved Rutledge to Sanders' right on an issue important to anti-tax conservatives in a rightward-plunged state.

But now Rutledge seeks to be Sanders' No. 2, and Sanders' position on Rutledge's Hail Mary has been that she shared Rutledge's commitment to phasing out the income tax but felt it could be done responsibly without an amendment to the state Constitution.

If you're certain to be governor, then you'd like flexibility and options on funds available to you as well as on the pace by which you'd reduce those funds--or put them back.

Rutledge probably is trying to decide whether she might need a Hail Mary in the lieutenant governor's race. I'm guessing--but just that--that, in the end, she will do what Boss Sarah wants, which I suspect will be that Leslie leave the state Constitution alone so that the next governor can do any of the income tax-cutting that's to be done.

Rutledge would in the same position as the rest of us in Arkansas--waiting for Sarah, some with more dread than others.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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