LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas’ Republican secretary of state irked state Democratic officials last week when he rejected their request to deny ballot access to a Democratic candidate who is a convicted felon.
It was only the latest incident in what has been a rocky relationship between Mark Martin and state Democrats since the former GOP legislator took office in January 2011.
Martin defeated former Pulaski County and Circuit Clerk Pat O’Brien in November 2010 to succeed term-limited Democrat Charlie Daniels, who is now state auditor.
Other Republicans who won constitutional offices previously held by Democrats in that election were Lt. Gov. Mark Darr and state Land Commissioner John Thurston, neither of whom has experienced as much friction with the Democratic Party as Martin.
Soon after Martin took office, he bought a $27,000 SUV and spent $25,500 to hire a redistricting coordinator and a consultant — both Republicans — from the budget of the state Board of Apportionment, on which the secretary of state served with Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, both Democrats.
When Martin also touted money-saving measures in his office, Democrats accused him of hypocrisy.
“How do you spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a new car and cushy contracts for your Republican friends while bragging about cutting costs in your office? Easy. Use another office’s checkbook,” state Democratic Party spokeswoman Candace Martin said in March 2011.
Mark Martin countered that the expenses were legitimately related to the Board of Apportionment’s duties and that he was only exercising the same authority that Daniels had exercised before him.
Still, after Beebe publicly called him on the unapproved spending at the board’s first meeting, Mark Martin moved the expenditures from the board’s budget to his office’s budget. The board hired a different coordinator to oversee redistricting.
The Democratic Party also criticized the secretary of state last year when he took his staff on a $54,000 retreat to develop a strategic plan for the secretary of state’s office, and when he named a 10-member committee to advise him on ways to make his office more efficient and stay true to “conservative values.”
Mark Martin and the Democrats were at odds once again last week when party officials asked the secretary of state not to place the name of Fred Smith of Crawfordsville on the ballot as a candidate for the District 50 House seat.
The party had allowed Smith to file on the last day of the filing period after he claimed that a 2011 felony conviction had been expunged, but officials later learned the conviction was still on the books.
Smith resigned from the District 50 seat he won in 2010 just days into the 2011 legislative session after he was convicted of felony theft in Chicot County Circuit Court. Arkansas law prohibits felons from holding public office.
The Democratic Party and the secretary of state’s office exchanged a series of letters last week in which party officials made their case for keeping Smith off the ballot and Martin’s office explained its reasons for refusing. Martin’s office said the party had already certified Smith, and that denying him ballot access after certification would deny his constitutional right to due process.
The letters from Martin’s office were addressed to Will Bond, chairman of the “Democrat Party of
Arkansas.” The term “Democrat Party” is a variation of “Democratic Party” often employed by Republicans to the irritation of Democrats.
Candace Martin said last week that “unfortunately, the decision of Secretary Martin means that further legal action will be required.” The party could file a challenge to Smith’s eligibility as early as Monday, she said.
“One would hope that it is merely a legal disagreement and not politically motivated,” Candace Martin said.
Martin spokesman Alex Reed said the notion that politics could be behind the secretary of state’s position was “utterly ridiculous”
“These are matters of the law, not anything politically motivated,” Reed said. “I certainly hope that any responses in this from the Democratic Party aren’t politically motivated.”
By refusing to deny Smith ballot access, the secretary of state has left it up to the Democratic Party to take Smith to court if it wants him off the ballot. Asked if Mark Martin is seeking to avoid being sued by Smith and let Democrats go to court instead, Reed said the secretary of state’s office wants to be sure it is in a strong legal position.
“If there is a lawsuit, we feel comfortable moving forward. We feel like we’ve followed due process and we’ve followed the law,” he said.