PRESCOTT, Ark. (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross announced Wednesday he's running for Arkansas governor, criticizing the Republican-led Legislature for enacting some of the strictest abortion bans in the nation and defending his record on women's issues as he faces a potentially bitter fight for the Democratic nomination next year.
Kicking off a statewide announcement tour in his hometown of Prescott, Ross formally joined a race that he had ruled out last year. Ross, who represented south Arkansas' 4th Congressional District for six terms, reversed that decision after Attorney General Dustin McDaniel dropped his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over questions about an extramarital relationship.
"I'm running for governor because I believe in our future and I want to use my experience of bringing people together to unite our state and move Arkansas forward," Ross told a crowd at an industrial park in Prescott, a southwest Arkansas town of about 3,300 people.
One of the most conservative Democrats when he served in Congress, Ross quickly moved to portray himself as an advocate for women and working families during his announcement speech. He touted his support in Congress for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which prevents restrictions on workers filing lawsuits over pay inequity, and for raising the federal minimum wage.
He also criticized the Legislature, which he said had focused too much on divisive social issues since Republicans won control in the November election.
"Here lately, it seems the only time Arkansas makes national news is when these divisive politicians succeed at pushing through their attacks on women and families," Ross said. "Attacks like these only serve to erase the progress Arkansas has made and they detract from our focus on the future."
Ross later said his remarks were focused on a pair of abortion bans — one prohibiting the procedure at 12 weeks into a pregnancy and another prohibiting it at 20 weeks — that were enacted after the Republican-led House and Senate overrode Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's vetoes. Ross said he agreed with Beebe's decision to veto the bills and said he also would have rejected the measures.
Opponents filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday to block enforcement of the 12-week ban.
"These were clearly nothing more than attacks on women," Ross told reporters after his announcement. "These were bills to give partisan legislators ammunition to use in their next campaign that in litigation is going to cost the state tens of millions of dollars. That's tens of millions of dollars they could be spending on education and economic development."
Ross' decision sets up a heated and costly fight for the nomination with former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln in 2010. Lincoln defeated Halter in a runoff but lost the general election to Republican John Boozman. Halter enjoyed the support of labor unions and others on the left that criticized Lincoln as too conservative.
Ross on Wednesday accused Halter of being behind automated phone calls some voters have received with a recording criticizing the former congressman's record on abortion rights and comparing him to the Republican sponsor of the 12-week ban. The recording cites Ross' past support for a measure that would have blocked federal funds to Planned Parenthood.
A spokesman for Halter's campaign said it hasn't made any automated calls about Ross, and the former lieutenant governor welcomed Ross to the campaign.
"There are real differences between us and voters will have a clear choice in this primary about the best path forward for Arkansas in creating new jobs, protecting our seniors, and providing world class education for every Arkansan," Halter said in a statement released by his campaign.
Beebe is term limited and unable to run for re-election next year. Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman are seeking the Republican nomination. Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter is also considering running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Ross was one of the leading members of his party to oppose President Barack Obama's health care plan in 2009 and early 2010. He touted his health overhaul stance and distanced himself from national Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during his re-election bid in 2010.
Ross said he supported a proposal legislators are considering to use federal funds to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents, a plan touted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid's enrollment under the federal health overhaul.
Ross had been widely expected to seek the Democratic nomination when he announced in 2011 he wouldn't seek re-election to his House seat. But last year, Ross opted against a run for governor and said he was "burnt out" after a 22-year career in Congress and the state Legislature.
"I was fed up with Washington. I'm fed up with the partisan nature of Washington. I'm fed up with the dysfunction of Washington," Ross told reporters. "I'm not running for president, I'm not running for Congress and I'm not running for Senate. I'm running to lead this state and I'm excited about that."
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