LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross and lieutenant governor candidate John Burkhalter endorsed each other's respective bids on Saturday, pledging to work on a united front focused on economic development as they seek Arkansas' Democratic nominations next year.
The pair announced they would back each other's bids days after Burkhalter opted out of a run for governor and said he'd seek the state's No. 2 office instead. The candidates both face contested primaries for the state's top offices next year.
"This is a winning team that's going to move this state forward and create jobs," Ross said at a news conference. "I think the more voters get to know us, the more they're going to agree."
Arkansas' governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, and it's rare for candidates to run on a ticket in contested primaries. The lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate and fills in when the governor is out of state.
Ross, a former congressman, is running against former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Burkhalter, a Little Rock businessman who sits on the state highway commission, and Little Rock School Board President Dianne Curry both announced Tuesday they were seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe is term-limited and cannot run for re-election. Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, a Republican, has not said whether he'll seek re-election next year and is also considering a run for Congress.
Burkhalter said his decision to not run for governor was not linked to the joint endorsement. Burkhalter said he had talked with Ross and Halter as he considered whether to seek the state's top office.
"In my opinion, there's only one candidate for governor who has the necessary experience, convictions and relationships required to lead this state and that's my good friend Mike Ross," Burkhalter said.
Ross said if they're both elected, he'd tap Burkhalter to lead a "governor's cabinet on economic development" that will include nonprofit groups and officials from state agencies such as the Department of Education and Economic Development Commission.
"If we are to put jobs first it will require an all hands on deck alliance," Ross said.
Halter declined to comment directly about the endorsements and said he's focused on his own campaign.
"I'm going to spend my time, attention and energy focused on the best possible policies for Arkansas, including the Arkansas Promise to provide better affordability of higher education for all Arkansans who work for it," Halter said, referring to an expanded scholarship program he's proposed.
Curry on Saturday dismissed the partnership between the two and said she doesn't plan to back anyone in the governor's race.
"I believe as the true blue Democrat in this race, we will let the people of Arkansas make these decisions, not some good ole boys in backrooms," Curry said in a statement released by her campaign.
Former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, state Rep. Debra Hobbs and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman are seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo