French Hill Criticized in GOP Debate Over Donation

LITTLE ROCK — Republican congressional hopeful French Hill fended off criticism during a debate Saturday as his two rivals highlighted the Little Rock banking executive's donation to a former Democratic state treasurer's campaign and his support of a local sales tax measure.

State Rep. Ann Clemmer and retired Army Col. Conrad Reynolds repeatedly focused on Hill as the three squared off in an occasionally testy debate held by the Arkansas Federation of Young Republicans. The three are seeking the GOP nomination for central Arkansas' 2nd Congressional District on May 20. Former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays is the only Democrat running.

Clemmer criticized Hill for donating to the 2010 re-election campaign of former state Treasurer Martha Shoffner. Shoffner resigned last year and was convicted last month on 14 counts of bribery and extortion for taking $36,000 in cash from a broker to whom she steered state investments.

"There were Republicans who would have liked to have your donations," Clemmer told Hill. "Why did you think it was better to give to a Democrat than a Republican in 2010?"

Hill defended himself, saying that he has backed Republican candidates for decades. He said he was disgusted by Shoffner's actions but noted that she did not have a Republican challenger in 2010.

"No one on this stage has done more to help build our Republican Party in Arkansas, Texas or across the country, than I have," Hill said.

Reynolds, meanwhile, criticized Hill for advocating for a sales tax increase approved by Little Rock voters in 2011. He also singled out Hill for requesting that a sidewalk in his neighborhood be among the projects funded by the tax increase.

"How on earth can you ask the people in this room or on TV to trust you?" Reynolds said.

Hill said he was among hundreds of people who responded to the city asking for projects that could funded by the new tax.

"It was not a petition. It's just people put on a website a place to build a sidewalk. Don't get your panties in a wad," Hill said.

Hill threw the spotlight on Reynolds' campaign, noting that he had donated $65,000 to his own bid. Aside from the loan, Reynolds has reported raising about $34,000.

"If we back that out, his campaign's in the red. How can the people of the 2nd District trust you to get up there and make the tough decisions about spending, a balanced budget, entitlement reform and you can't even balance the budget for your campaign?" he said.

Reynolds said the loan reflects his commitment to his campaign.

Hill and Reynolds also criticized Clemmer's vote last year for the funding measure for the state's compromise Medicaid expansion. Clemmer voted this year against reauthorizing the "private option," which uses federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor.

"One of my opponents supported to expand the newest (entitlement program) in the country, which is Obamacare, here in Arkansas," Hill said, without specifically naming Clemmer.

Reynolds also cited that vote: "You can't say I'm against the private option, and then vote for it."

Clemmer said her vote wasn't for the program itself and noted that other programs were included in the measure.

"There were different factors going in. We had time to change the budget, and that's why I voted no several times this past session," she said.

The private option also factored into the debate between state Rep. Bruce Westerman and Tommy Moll, who are seeking the GOP nomination for south Arkansas' 4th District. Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director James Lee Witt is the only Democrat running for that office.

Moll criticized Westerman for initially co-sponsoring the private option legislation last year. Westerman later pulled his name from the legislation and voted against it. This year, he led the unsuccessful push to halt the program.

"I think the biggest difference between us is I don't see any version of Obamacare that's right for Arkansas," Moll said.

Westerman defended his record as an opponent of the private option. His campaign later released a letter from 19 GOP legislators touting him as a consistent opponent of the compromise Medicaid expansion plan.

"The difference is I understand what happened with Obamacare in Arkansas and Tommy apparently doesn't understand it," Westerman said.

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