In an editorial on Thursday, the Democrat-Gazette chose a favorite in the Republican primary to replace term-limited Secretary of State Mark Martin, endorsing Rep. Trevor Drown of Dover over State Land Commissioner John Thurston. (Susan Inman is the only Democrat in the race.)
Both candidates are “outstanding,” the editorial said, but claimed Drown is the better of the two because of his military experience (the secretary of state is responsible for Capitol security) and chairmanship of the House subcommittee on elections. “It seems the last few decades of Trevor Drown’s life could have been job training for this position,” it gushed.
The newspaper didn’t mention the episode during which Drown attracted perhaps the most attention recently, though: His attempt last spring to strip funds from a department at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville after he and other conservative legislators were piqued by “Sex on the Lawn,” a sex education event sponsored by an LGBTQ-focused student group. A table at the event apparently contained sex toys that offended the lawmakers.
Drown, along with Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) and others, pushed an amendment to Tech’s budget that would have eliminated the university’s Department of Diversity and Inclusion. (Though the event in question was not sponsored by the diversity department, a flyer included its logo.) Tech students, faculty and others — including Russellville Mayor Randy Horton — traveled to the Capitol to object to the planned defunding measure. Eventually, the legislators withdrew their amendment when members of the board of Arkansas Tech reached out to placate them and issued a resolution that future flyers would not include the diversity department’s logo.
Drown’s unhappiness with Tech went deeper than the “Sex on the Lawn” incident, though, as evidenced by an interview he gave at the time to an online media outlet in Russellville, the Local Rundown. He listed a number of grievances with the diversity department, including “transgender-friendly bathrooms at a university that at the time had six transgender students out of 12,000,” and the school’s disciplining of “a young woman who made a bad judgment call” by wearing blackface. “She was literally drug over the coals and made to be the villain when all she did was go to a Halloween party and use bad judgment,” he said.
Drown appeared to feel there was a war on for the soul of the university. “We’re starting to see a lifestyle that is being forced on the institution’s population. If that’s the way you want to be, if that’s the lifestyle you want to live, so be it — but do not take students who are coming to Arkansas Tech University seeking out an education and forcing them to change the way they think based on your ideology,” he said.
The primary job of secretary of state is to oversee Arkansas’s elections, and a candidate’s opinions on cultural issues perhaps shouldn’t matter much in carrying out the office’s duties. But Drown’s attempt to use his power as a legislator to lean on local university officials — including the threat of withholding state funding — raises questions about his priorities, and his judgment.
(PS: For a side-by-side of Drown and his primary opponent, John Thurston, read Hunter Field’s recent roundup in the Democrat-Gazette.)