When Democratic challenger Josh Mahony dropped out of the race to unseat Republican Sen. Tom Cotton last November, the door opened wide for Ricky Dale Harrington Jr. to compete in an unexpectedly strong fashion. As the Libertarian Party candidate, he found himself receiving a surprisingly high support in polling, finding himself behind Cotton by just 49 percent to 38 percent, with 13 percent of voters undecided, in mid-October.
While his path to victory may still appear unlikely, Harrington has been moving to take advantage of his notoriety. When Cotton declined to face him in a statewide televised debate on Arkansas PBS, Harrington showed up anyway and was able to introduce himself to voters with a full hour of discussion on his life and principles.
Harrington resides in Pine Bluff with his wife and three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. He attended Harding University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in ministry while serving at a psychiatric hospital and developing insights of the inner workings of our healthcare system.
He has since served in various pastoral roles and spent an additional two years as a missionary in China as a university teacher and university hospital consultant. In 2016, he took a position as a chaplain and treatment coordinator at the Cummins Unit in Lincoln County.
Harrington spoke with Arkansas Money & Politics about his campaign, how his faith shapes his sense of political mission and what he would do if given the opportunity to serve Arkansans in the Senate.
AMP: You have the chance to get the highest percentage for any Libertarian ever in any election. How’d you decide to run, and did you pick Libertarian because someone else had been Democrat and this was the one remaining avenue open, or do you align yourself as a Libertarian?
RH: I’ve always held some Libertarian leanings, and then mainly making sure the government does not overstep its Constitutional parameters and violate Constitutional rights. That’s just been who I am, and I’m anti-authoritarian. People in power should wield the power for the good of the people. I did take the leap of faith and join the Libertarian Party officially when I came back from being a missionary in China. That was in 2016. I just know that we need more voices in the political process.
You know, none of us agree 100 percent with the parties we are affiliated with, and in saying that, there’s something a person might agree with with the Democrats, and something they might agree with with the Republicans, and I know there are some people who agree with the Libertarian Party on some things. On the campaign trail recently, I went and talked with a lot of Arkansans, and they are saying things that are Libertarian talking points. To me, that’s encouraging.
AMP: Being a minister, faith is obviously a key part of your life. How did your faith inspire you in running? How do you feel your faith will play a part in your decision-making if you win?
RH: For me, my faith comes into the parts of me running to keep a humble attitude and keep humility at the forefront. It’s easy for people running for these positions to kind of get drunk on power, and my faith says that the meek shall inherit the earth. To follow the person of Jesus Christ, He embodied what human beings should be like: caring for others, making sure they have what they need, and I think about the woman that was caught in adultery.
Everyone was bringing up this issue, and yes, she was breaking the law, but Jesus turned it around on everybody and said he who is without sin cast the first stone and everyone started leaving, from the oldest person down to the youngest people until there was nobody left. He asked her “Where are the people who condemned you?” She said “They left,” and He said “I don’t condemn you either. Go and don’t do the same thing you did before.”
How that will influence me as a senator is that we have to work on trying to help people, and some people may feel apprehensive about that because of how some previous people have acted going around proclaiming that they’re a person of faith but their actions don’t match up with that and they’re really only about power for themselves. I’m not interested in my own power; I’m interested in trying to help people. Even when I was working in prisons, I had a lot of authority in dealing with staff and in dealing with inmate population, but I never wielded that power for my own benefit and definitely didn’t let it go to my head and go on some power trip.
AMP: Senator Tom Cotton wouldn’t take the time to debate you. Anything you’d like to say about that, and about having the experience of having the stage all to yourself?
RH: I don’t understand the logic myself. Especially with him showing up to the exact same place the next day, I’m mystified by the logic of that because it puts me in a very strong position. It went by like a blur. It seemed like a 20-minute conversation I was having with the panelists. When I was told it was time for some closing statements, what hit my mind was “It’s over already?” It went by so fast. I’m not saying it was easy at all. It was difficult for me. But I’m glad I got the chance to speak to the people of Arkansas and I’m deeply appreciative that Arkansas PBS had the integrity to host the event even when Senator Cotton didn’t choose to be part of it.
AMP: Who are some of your heroes?
RH: Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower are people I look up to politically speaking. Winston Churchill was the leader Britain needed at that time. Our leaders should just do that thing: lead. Not be rulers, kings, queens, or oligarchs. Be servant leaders.
AMP: What do you feel your experiences working in prisons influence your opinions on prison reform?
RH: I was a state employee of the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Our duties were in dealing with difficult situations of death, and having to inform either the inmates that one of their relatives passed away, or inform a relative that an inmate passed in prison. I moved up from that to dealing with a lot of the rehabilitative services of inmates, helping them with legal issues and pointing them in the right directions for the recreational activities they had there in prison.
My opinion on the criminal justice system boils down to this: that we shouldn’t send innocent people to prison, that we shouldn’t execute innocent people, and those who have the derived authority that the government has placed to enforce the laws cannot harm innocent Americans, that they don’t overstep Constitutional boundaries, do not abuse the power and the office that they have and don’t abuse it for their own gain.
When it comes to police reform, we want police officers to come home to their families and to do the job well, we just don’t want them to be judge, jury and executioner. I know these are difficult situations that our law enforcement officers are involved in, and I understand the situation that they are in, especially working in a maximum security prison with extremely dangerous men who have done terrible things. The only thing we have to protect ourselves is our wits in prison. I understand that. There’s a lot of violence that goes on there, and I don’t think correctional officers get enough credit for the jobs that they do.
AMP: Economically, as the country is trying to recover from COVID-19, what are some of your key ideas?
RH: Economically, we have to pay attention to how much our budget is expanding, and how much money we are spending. Down the road, it will be harder for future generations to weather storms like we’re weathering right now, with COVID-19. We know that there needs to be some sort of relief, but with debt so high, it makes it difficult to recover from that level of spending. What the president has called for is not something we would typically do. Most leaders would be opposed to that type of stimulus spending because there’s a high chance of inflation and that $1200 is not going to last like a usual $1200.
Economically, we just want to be able to spend within our means and give future generations a fighting chance in case something like COVID-19 or something worse happens. Essentially, we have to be pragmatic about things. We want to make sure we’re helping people, and not bailing out corporations over and over and over again. It’s the people’s money. We understand that corporations supply jobs and are about that bottom dollar but we want to make sure people have a fighting chance.
AMP: What would you do differently about the coronavirus?
RH: I think we need to create a plan for future leaders to build upon, so that it doesn’t get caught up in the realms of politicization, the way that this virus has. We need to be objective and pragmatic about the solutions. I want to come up with legislation policy-wise that if B happens we do this, if C happens we do that. We need a concrete plan for our government to behave whenever this situation arises and is not stuck in the limbo of political agency.