Attorney General Leslie Rutledge looks like she will survive revelations from her personnel file that she was a very poor public employee a decade ago when she was supposed to be representing children caught up in family troubles.
For four years, she had kept the lid on her personnel file at the state Department of Human Services, which showed that she was let go for “gross misconduct.” An attached note said, “Do not rehire.” When a trial judge said most of the file should be made public, she read it and discovered that whatever she feared was not in it. Moreover, the superiors who were displeased with her were shown to be little more competent than she was. So she released the files before the department had to. It was sort of a political victory.
Now if only she can expunge her record as the state’s lawyer in chief, whose job is to see that the rule of law prevails in all the labors of civil government … .
In that little matter, it has to be observed that she is the first attorney general in the state’s 182-year history to be ordered by the Arkansas Supreme Court to stop violating the law.
It did so on May 23 when it ordered her to approve the ballot title for an initiated act to raise the state’s minimum wage or else write one for it forthwith. She had rejected 70 straight ballot titles for a handful of citizen-generated constitutional amendments and initiated acts, nullifying people’s right under the constitution to try to pass laws. But the two Republican justices on the court — Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood — sided with her, as they will always do for people of her political persuasion. The other five at least nominally adhere to the nonpartisan standard prescribed by the constitution. After the Supreme Court’s order, she approved all the ballot titles, although it left the backers little time to collect signatures to get them on the ballot.
The court never ordered even Jeff Davis or Bruce Bennett, her two predecessors whose styles and manners she imitates, to stop violating the law. A federal grand jury did charge Bennett with using the office to violate federal banking and conspiracy laws to enrich himself and his confederates, but a friendly federal judge postponed his trial for 10 years until he died.
Why do I compare Rutledge, the first woman to hold the office, to the flamboyant Bennett and Davis? Not because they were the two most colorful racists to Arkansas constitutional offices, although Rutledge did get a little recognition for some racist office-email taunts. She said her “country” talk was just misunderstood as racist.
When Rutledge ran for attorney general in 2014 it was to get rid of every vestige of the administration of the first black president. Much of the energy of her high-salaried staff since 2015 has been spent joining suits by Republican attorneys general around the country trying to strike down federal controls on big air and water polluters and to end health insurance for 300,000 Arkansans because they got it from Barack Obama.
It was vintage Davis and Bennett.
Davis ran for attorney general in 1898 by railing against Wall Street and the national Republicans. He spent his four years as attorney general filing 126 lawsuits to stop out-of-state insurance companies from doing business in Arkansas and by suing to stop all kinds of corporations from doing business in Arkansas. He lost every single suit, but the circus catapulted him into the governor’s office and the U.S. Senate.
Bennett ran in 1956 against the federal courts and the race mixers and, once in office, wrote a bunch of bills for the legislature that were supposed to prevent integration of schools, public services or private commerce and also to purge schools and colleges of teachers who were members of the NAACP or any group that was known to oppose discrimination. The state or U.S. Supreme Courts declared every one of the acts unconstitutional.
The historical analogies to Davis and Bennett are for using flamboyance as a political tool. Their grand legal battles against alien foes — Wall Street, federal judges, the NAACP, Barack Obama — did nothing for the people of Arkansas, but people love grandstanding, even when it gets a little risque, like Jeff Davis’ boasts about his drinking and about lynching black people to keep them in their traces. Donald Trump turned serial infidelities, bankruptcies and outrageous accusations into a fabulous but perhaps short political career.
Rutledge has been a trifle more circumspect. She may have gotten a little mileage out of the circulating story about her flinging her panties at a lobbyist in the Capital Hotel Bar while she was Gov. Mike Huckabee’s in-house counsel. His chief of staff was not supposed to be pleased about it, but she still landed a good job with the Department of Human Services and later on his presidential campaign staff.
It may be genetic. Her grandfather and namesake, Les Rutledge, was a famous and widely beloved mountaineer, rifleman, bootlegger and killer in Independence County. A rifle in each hand, he gunned down the neighboring Beel brothers in a mountaintop standoff in 1952, killing one instantly and mortally wounding the other. He got five years in the pen, where he deployed his rifles as a long-line rider, but as soon as Orval Faubus became governor in 1955 he commuted the sentence and sent him home to a hero’s welcome.
So it will be for Leslie Rutledge in November. She is a Republican and this year that is what it takes.