by Caleb Talley
Mark West is on a mission. The Libertarian candidate for governor knows he might not take home the most votes this November, but he wants to make sure Arkansas voters know they have options and give them the opportunity to break out of the two-party trap.
West, a minister and office manager from northeast Arkansas, threw his hat into the race last month with the hopes of bringing the Libertarian message to new audiences. No stranger to the campaign trail, West sought the state’s 1st District U.S. House seat in the 2016 election. He lost to incumbent Rep. Rick Crawford, but took nearly a quarter of the vote.
“I want to take the Libertarian message that I shared in my U.S. House race and bring it to the biggest audience I can,” he says. “I believe the message is one that’s kind of new for a lot of people. We’ve tried, for years, to show that there’s a different approach to government. What I want to do is take that approach and share it. Libertarians aren’t wacky. We’re not a fringe group. We have a lot of good ideas that could be successful.
“We could get this state out of debt, lower taxes,” he adds. “We can build a state that is more unified and compassionate, a state that my kids could be proud to call home. Right now, my kids are of age and looking at schools outside of the state. I asked myself, ‘what can I do to make Arkansas a better place for future generations?’ I don’t want Arkansas to be the starter state. I want it to be the destination state.”
Third party candidates face an uphill battle when it comes to seeking office, regardless of level or location. In order to retain ballot access for the next election cycle, third-party candidates for governor and president must get three-percent of the vote. Libertarians have failed to do so in the state of Arkansas over the past four election cycles, but their numbers are on the rise.
Third party voters are often faced with the criticism that they are throwing their vote away. West bucks that notion. “The core of that argument is the problem, the notion that your vote has to be either Republican or Democrat,” he says.
“Those parties don’t own you or your vote,” West adds. “If you want government to work the way you want it to work, you cast your vote for the principles you believe should govern – Democrat, Republican or Libertarian… About half of the number of people who are registered to vote don’t vote. Why? Well, they don’t like their choices. Let’s give them another choice.”
The voting booth, according to West, is where citizens have the most power. “Put your vote where your principles are,” he says. “As a pastor, I always say that my actions are mine but the results belong to God. Make your actions line up with your beliefs, and trust God to bring the results.”
West says he aims to set himself apart from the field by committing himself to empowering liberty and Arkansas communities.
“A lot of the problems you hear about could be eliminated if we worked together in local communities,” he says. “Crime, poverty, these things exist because we have become a disconnected community. We stopped connecting with each other and dehumanized others. I’m the only one who wants to approach it from the standpoint that the individual Arkansan has the power to make Arkansas better.
“I don’t believe the government can make Arkansas better,” West adds. “Our choices shouldn’t be hijacked or directed by the government. The government likes to play favorites with corporatism in Little Rock, making sure corporate welfare is alive and well while debating whether or not social welfare should even exist. We need to reinvigorate the local communities.”
Invigorating the Arkansas Delta
A Delta native, West knows all too well the struggles East Arkansas communities face when it comes to poverty and joblessness.
“Delta poverty, for me, is one of the biggest issues we face. I was born and raised in the Delta,” West says. “The problems we have most often deal with the skills gap, which is huge in the Delta.”
To address the skills gap, according to West, schools should increase efforts to teach students worthy trades. That effort should be aided by local businesses who benefit from a more prepared workforce.
“Businesses are starting to get involved in the schools, teaching kids trades while they’re teenagers,” he says. “The more involved and engaged you can get students, they’ll realize they have options. Maybe college is not the way they should go. They may realize their career path is different. We need to find a way to help kids get better skills.”
West, a proponent of limited government, is no fan of Arkansas Works, the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion program. But unlike other opponents of the system, who often equate it to social welfare, West believes Medicaid is just another form of corporate welfare.
“I want to see us transition from what we’re doing with Arkansas Works,” he says. “I feel like the whole idea behind it is corporate welfare. These businesses, rather than paying their employees enough to take care of their healthcare, they’re relying on Gov. Asa Hutchinson and congress to craft Arkansas Works and take care of it for them.”
West believes the state should instead improve access to healthcare by addressing the costs associated with it.
“We need to transition from that system, and part of that is dealing with the costs associated with healthcare,” West says. “We have to get the regulations out of the way that are driving up the costs of healthcare. We have to remove that cost barrier and empower individuals to take control of their own healthcare.”
A perennial problem facing Arkansas lawmakers is funding for highway construction and upkeep. West says he hopes to see a fund dedicated to just that.
“It’s clear we need to have segregated funds to deal with highways,” he says. “That’s part of our limited responsibilities as a government, to take care of highways. Right now, the way we’re set up, the state pays for highways. We need to find a way to do that more efficiently and more effectively to fix the highways running through our state. It’s vitally important for our commerce.”
In recent years, the state has pulled from surplus funds to qualify for matching funds from the federal government for highway construction and upkeep. With surplus at a premium, some lawmakers have suggested a fuel tax in order to tie the funds with those who use the roads. West believes neither are sustainable.
“We have to transition from the concepts of involuntary taxation to concepts of voluntary taxation,” he says. “But when you do move towards volunteer taxation, you can’t do it in a way that hurts those in poverty. If you tax gasoline, it’s going to hit those with limited budgets the hardest.”
Despite large support from voters in a 2016 referendum, Arkansas is no closer to fully implementing a working medical marijuana program. Earlier this month, qualified growers were denied access to licensees as a result of a lawsuit that is likely headed to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
According to West, access to medical marijuana would allow Arkansans the opportunity to take control of their healthcare.
“I’m not an expert on marijuana,” he says. “No politician is an expert on marijuana. But there is a lot of research out there that shows it has medicinal qualities when you’re dealing with epilepsy, pain treatment, PTSD. They’re even now beginning to look into its impact on Parkinson’s disease. They’re finding all these ways in which it helps people, so we shouldn’t be making it more difficult for you to utilize your right to your healthcare.”
West also believes access to medicinal marijuana may relieve some of the state’s opioid problem, a problem he says is driven largely by pharmaceutical companies.
“I know everyone likes to make it the boogeyman, but it’s not what it’s been made out to be,” says West. “When you look at the roots of all that, you’ll see how big pharma has worked to keep it out of people’s hands. It starts with controlling your own healthcare. Big pharma would rather push people towards the opioid market. Don’t we already have an opioid problem? Marijuana can give some relief to that problem. We could begin leading the way, in this country, to solving that opioid problem.”
The key to improving the state’s education system, West says, is by empowering educators on the local level.
“Our state and the federal government wants to withhold funds because they have these standards, and these schools are trapped by them,” he says. “I went to a parent teacher conference recently, and I was told by a teacher that there were students who were struggling with something, but she couldn’t stop to focus on it because they had to get ready for a standardized test. The kids didn’t really understand it, but she had to move on.
“They’re having to send things home for the parents to teach to their kids because they don’t have the flexibility at school to do what they do best,” he adds. “Unfortunately, these standards and the money that’s tied to these standards are keeping them from the freedom to actually teach our kids.”
In a perfect world, West says he would like to see the state’s education system move away from an age-based to ability-based. Too many children, he said, are being left behind by the current system.
“I’d like to see our education system slowly transition into a system in which we are teaching kids based on their ability, rather than their age,” he says. “I feel like there are ways in which you can keep the age-based social constructs together, but at the same time, model the education based on the ability of the students. Just because a kid is 13 years old, it doesn’t mean he’s ready for all the things other 13 year olds are ready for. We have to have flexibility. We have to empower liberty so our children don’t get left behind.”
Where West believes the Libertarian message will most resonate with voters is taxation and state spending. If elected, he plans to implement a special agency devoted to cutting both.
“I want to see more tax cuts. We’re going to do COST – a committee on spending and taxation – if elected,” he says. “This is going be a panel of three or four people, already in Little Rock, to begin going department by department, regulation by regulation, to see where we have two things with similar functions. We’ll recommend those cuts to the legislature and put together a plan to reduce the size of government by getting rid of redundancy and overlap.”
With increased oversight, West believes remaining departments and agencies will be hold themselves to a higher level of accountability. The end goal, he says, is to lower income taxes in order to make the state more competitive with surrounding states for businesses and workers.
“This effort will be used to slash the budget in hopes that we can cut income taxes. We need to be competitive with the states around us,” West says. “I want Arkansas to be a destination state. And we make it a destination state by lowering taxes so that people and businesses want to come to Arkansas, rather than go to Tennessee or Texas. Right now, Tennessee and Texas are killing us as far as businesses going there. We have to create the incentives for them to come here.”
To learn more about Mark West and the Libertarian platform, visit markwest4governor.com.