CONWAY, Ark. — Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended her avoidance of local media in her bid for Arkansas governor on Friday as she appeared in her only debate ahead of next month’s election.
Sanders, the Republican nominee who is heavily favored in the November election, has conducted few local interviews during her bid for the state’s top office. Sanders had agreed to only one debate with Democratic nominee Chris Jones and Libertarian Ricky Dale Harrington.
Sanders said she’s been speaking directly to voters by campaigning around the state.
“Freedom of the press is incredibly important, but with freedom of the press comes a great deal of responsibility,” Sanders said. “When they don’t live up to their end of the bargain, it forces some of us to go outside the box, which I have done every single day for the past two years.”
Public polling has shown Sanders leading by double digits and she’s shattered fundraising records in the predominantly Republican state. Early voting begins Monday in Arkansas.
During her two year term as former President Donald Trump’s chief spokeswoman, Sanders scaled back televised news briefings after repeatedly sparring with reporters who aggressively questioned her. Sanders often sought to justify the lack of formal briefings by saying they were unnecessary when journalists could hear from Trump directly.
Jones, an ordained Baptist minister and nuclear engineer, said voters deserve to hear more from Sanders.
“The more we have leaders who are unwilling to show up and answer the tough questions in front of crowds that don’t agree with them and with media that don’t agree with them, the further we’ll get away from the strength of our democracy,” Jones said.
Sanders’ comments come a day after outgoing Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who held more than 200 news briefings during the COVID-19 pandemic, praised the role of the press. Hutchinson, who has endorsed Sanders, is leaving office in January due to term limits.
“While it is challenging for those in public office, your work is essential,” Hutchinson said Thursday night at the Arkansas Press Association’s Press Freedom Gala. “And it is an incredibly important part of the checks and balances that we have in our society and in our freedoms.”
The hourlong debate held by Arkansas PBS didn’t include questions that have dominated other campaigns nationally, including abortion access and the Capitol riot.
Sanders, who has vowed to use the office to fight President Joe Biden’s policies, repeatedly invoked an education plan she recently released that calls for improving literacy rates. She also said she believes the state can afford her plan to phase out the income tax. Sanders hasn’t released a detailed timeline for the tax cut plan.
“We have to do it responsibly but we do it with growing our own economy and cutting out the waste and fraud and abuse that exist in our government spending as it is now,” she said.
During the debate Jones touted his “PB&J” platform that he says stands for preschool, broadband and jobs. Jones said he was worried about the impact eliminating the income tax could have on state services.
“The math has to add up,” he said. “You cannot eliminate 55% of the state revenue and then not cut something.”
Sanders also said she would have signed into law the state’s ban on gender affirming care for minors, a prohibition that is the subject of a federal trial this week. The Republican Legislature last year enacted the ban, overriding a veto by Hutchinson.
“Kids are not capable of making life altering decisions like that,” Sanders said, comparing the prohibition to minimum ages for drivers licenses, drinking or smoking.
Arkansas was the first state to enact such a ban. Multiple medical groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, oppose the bans and experts say the treatments are safe if properly administered.
Jones and Harrington said they both opposed the ban and that parents should have the right to make that decision.
“Are my children my children or do they belong to the government?” Harrington said.
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