An emotional Clarke Tucker, joined by his wife Toni, denounced Republican oppo research involving his 4-year-old child at a a press conference this morning at his campaign headquarters in the Heights.
“My opponent in this campaign for state representative has come after my four-year-old son and my family in a way that is completely unacceptable in a political campaign,” Tucker said. Tucker, an associate in the Quattlebaum, Grooms, Tull and Burrow law firm, is running for the District 35 House seat against Republican Stacy Hurst, a Little Rock City Director. Tucker’s wife Toni was visibly upset during the event, crying several times as Tucker spoke.
The Republican Party of Arkansas sent two Freedom of Information requests to the Little Rock School District this month asking for correspondence with or regarding Clarke Tucker; the second FOI request specifically asked for information “regarding the placement of Everett E. Tucker [Ellis, Clarke Tucker’s son] in Pre-K.” Hurst said the FOI requests were prompted by “rumors” she had heard “in social circles and cocktail party conversations.” Last week, Hurst’s campaign consultant, Clint Reed, insinuated that a Tucker mailer about his experience trying to get his son into a public pre-k program was inaccurate.
“This goes beyond mere fact checking of a political ad,” Tucker said. “It’s investigating the educational records of a 4-year-old child in order to manufacture an attack using that child against his father. I would think that every parent and person in Arkansas, regardless of whether they’re Republican, Democrat or anything else would be offended by that. … I’m here obviously today in my capacity as a political candidate but until the day that I die, the number one priority for me on this earth is to be a parent to my children and as a parent to my children, I find this conduct reprehensible.”
Tucker also took issue with the specific inclusion of his wife and her parents, both of whom are school district employees (Tucker’s father in law is Ellis “Scooter” Register, football coach at Little Rock Central High School and his mother in law is Sandra Register, principal at Terry Elementary School).
“This is an abuse of the FOI process because it’s seeking private e-mails between my son’s parents and his grandparents regarding his educational status during what was a difficult time for us on that issue,” Tucker said.
Tucker called on Hurst to apologize. “Stacy Hurst’s campaign slogan is ‘people before politics,’ and I believe that anyone who believes that to be true will agree with me that launching an investigation into a 4-year-old in order to manufacture a gotcha moment against a political opponent is not placing people before politics. For that reason, I expect Stacy Hurst to denounce these campaign tactics, to publicly identify every person who was involved with the investigation of my family and my 4-year-old child, to discuss how they ever obtained information about my 4-year-old son before they received the response to their first FOI request and apologize to my wife, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, and to my 4-year-old son.”
Hurst said she had no reason to apologize and that the real issue was what she said was an inaccurate campaign mailer from Tucker. “Candidates deserve to be vetted,” she said. “We haven’t asked for anything that’s not a matter of public record. … We followed the correct legal procedure afforded to all citizens through the Freedom of Information Act.”
As to why the Hurst campaign sought information regarding the pre-k enrollment of Ellis Tucker, Hurst said, “This issue has been a topic of discussion in various circles for many months since the Tuckers were not provided their first choice for pre-k.” Hurst said that rumors had gone around “in social circles” that the Tuckers “were not provided their first choice and that they were upset about that.”
What is this whole kerfuffle about? The precise details are almost too tedious to dive in to, but here’s the gist:
The Tuckers applied to pre-k and requested Forest Park as their first choice and Fair Park as their second choice. On April 29,: “We were NOT able to assign your child to the Four-Year-Old Program for th 2014-15 school year due to limited space.” The Tuckers were told that their child’s name had been placed on a waiting list and that they would be informed if an opening occurred.
The rumors that Hurst refers to that the Tuckers were “upset” are accurate. Said Tucker at this morning’s presser, “We were very surprised and upset because basically since our son was old enough to talk, his mom and dad had told him that when he was old enough to go to big boy school, he’s going to Forest Park.” His wife followed up with LRSD and was told there were no pre-k slots available to them in the district; she continued to follow up to check and see whether they had moved up the waiting list. Eventually, they decided to enroll their son in the pre-k program at Episcopal Collegiate School.
According to Tucker, on Aug. 11, they printed a mailer that told this story: “Our oldest child, Ellis, is excited about starting pre-kindergarten this week. Unfortunately, we received a letter early this summer informing us that the Little Rock School District was not able to place Ellis in a pre-k program due to limited space.” The mailer goes on to explain that the Tuckers were able to find a private pre-k program for their son that they are happy with. The mailer’s key point: “No Arkansas child should ever be denied the opportunity to receive a quality pre-k education.” Tucker said this morning that his own experience “crystallized in my mind the issue that has always been at the forefront of my campaign for state representative next year, which is that no parent should ever receive a letter like we received on April 29, 2014. … We told a family story to make a public policy point.”
On Aug. 13, the school district contacted the Tuckers and told them that a spot was open at Fair Park. However, the news came just days before the first day of school and the Tuckers had already enrolled their son at Episcopal and paid the initial deposit. “More importantly we’d spent months building up that school to our 4-year-old son,” Tucker said, saying that his son had initially been looking forward to going to Forest Park. “We weren’t going to jerk the rug out from underneath him for the second time in a mater of months for reasons completely outside of his control.”
The went out Aug. 15, before the mailer was sent out or Tucker made any public comment about their own family’s pre-k situation. The mailer was sent out August 20. That same day, Reed took to social media to claim that the mailer was “misleading” regarding the Tuckers’ experience with pre-k. The was sent Aug. 22.
Got all that? The Hurst campaign argues that the mailer is inaccurate because the Tuckers were in fact offered a slot at Fair Park at the last minute and turned it down. If we’re really picking nits here, the sentence in question is actually accurate: “Unfortunately, we received a letter early this summer informing us that the Little Rock School District was not able to place Ellis in a pre-k program due to limited space.” Well, that’s true. I noted as much to Hurst, who said that I was using a “lawyerly interpretation.” Regardless, the Tucker campaign 1) says the flier was created two days before they found out about the Fair Park option and 2) their experience does speak to access issues for pre-k, since they were initially denied any slot and were only given an option days before school was set to start.
The Tucker campaign also notes that the initial FOI request came five days before the mailer was released. “There’s no telling how long they had been investigating our family and our 4-year-old child before we ever even spoke on the issue,” Tucker said.
So why was the Hurst campaign poking around on this issue? According to Hurst, it had to do with the rumors about the Tuckers being upset about not getting in to Forest Park (remember, a “topic of discussion for many months…in social circles and cocktail party conversations,” according to Hurst). Hurst said that the purpose of the FOI request was “clarification on rumors that I had heard.” When I specifically asked about the reason for the FOI request prior to the release of Tuckers’s mailer, Hurst said “it speaks to vetting, special privilege regarding the pre-k program.” Hurst thought it was “at least possible” that the Tuckers were trying to throw their weight around to get in to Forest Park. Hurst said she didn’t know whether there was any evidence of that (though of course the Tuckers’ child didn’t get in to Forest Park, so it’s not clear to me that the “special privilege” theory scans).
“We haven’t asked for anything that’s not public record,” she said.
Of course, the Tuckers chose to include the story of their child in a political advertisement, and checking the veracity of political ads is fair game. The most generous interpretation of the Hurst campaign’s argument is that the mailer, while strictly speaking accurate, could be read to imply that the Tuckers’ son didn’t get an LRSD pre-k slot when in fact, at the last minute, he was offered a slot off of the waiting list after the Tuckers already enrolled him in a private pre-k program. This seems like an incredibly small clarification to me, but there you go.
The real problem, though, is that “gotcha” moments like this work when they undercut the policy argument. That’s why, say, pro-Obamacare factcheckers debunk anti-Obamcare ads that turn out to use factually inaccurate stories. In this case, Hurst herself favors increased access to pre-k. The Tuckers were, at least initially, and spanning a period of four months, denied a slot. Who cares that they were offered a slot just before the school year began? Does that undercut an argument that “no child should ever be denied the opportunity to receive a quality pre-k education”? Why did Reed make this an issue to begin with (and he’s still at it today)?
Hurst said that the issue was about accuracy. “I’m not focusing on it, I am trying to correct the record,” she said. “I didn’t put the mailer out.” Hurst complained about mailers from the Democratic party that falsely suggested that she was opposed to the private option, increasing the minimum wage and funding for pre-k, when she had publicly voiced support for all three. “There has been a pattern,” she said.
“If you’re going to send a mailer out to 10,000 people, you need to be accurate and represent the facts,” Hurst said. “When I read the mailer it tells me that they were denied access to pre-k.” She said that Tucker made a “misleading claim…that the Little Rock School District was not able to place Ellis in a pre-k program when in fact my understanding was that they did get a spot. … I didn’t make it an issue about their child. They did when they sent that mailer out. And in my view it’s not about the child, it’s just about another misleading claim.”
As Max notes in the comments, according to the Little Rock School District, there were 1,181 pre-K slots available this year and 1,360 completed applications so far, leaving about 180 on the waiting list.