The prize for Democrats

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett John Brum­mett, whose col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was in­ducted into the Arkansas Writ­ers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrum­mett@ arkansason­ Read his @john­brum­mett Twit­ter feed.

The big­gest po­lit­i­cal plum left for an Arkansas Democrat is an of­fice with lim­ited au­thor­ity and full re­spon­si­bil­ity in a trou­bled city.

Yes, th­ese are such great times to be a Democrat in Arkansas.

State Rep. War­wick Sabin, a fine young Democrat try­ing to man­age am­bi­tion amid gen­eral hope­less­ness, wants to give up vot­ing on the los­ing side in the Leg­is­la­ture. He wants in­stead to do, and re­de­fine, this job.

Mark Stodola, an old Demo­cratic Party reg­u­lar who holds the of­fice now, has­tened to an­swer Sabin by an­nounc­ing he wants to keep it. There is plenty of time for oth­ers to jump in, since the elec­tion isn’t un­til next year.

This is an of­fice that, in a dys­func­tion­ally hy­brid sys­tem, shares au­thor­ity with a hired city man­ager but ab­sorbs all the blame when crime rises.

I speak, of course, of mayor of Lit­tle Rock—once purely cer­e­mo­nial, now rudely un­cer­e­mo­nial.

This kind of thing is hap­pen­ing, or has hap­pened, across the coun­try. Ur­ban ar­eas are blue is­lands, mean­ing Demo­cratic. The spa­ces be­tween ur­ban ar­eas are red deserts, mean­ing Repub­li­can.

Repub­li­cans like to brag about how much ter­ri­tory they have. Democrats like to brag about how many peo­ple they have. It’s a dy­namic by which the na­tion’s an­ti­quated elec­toral col­lege elects a pre­pos­ter­ous sec­ond-place pres­i­dent based on va­cant land rather than hu­man be­ings.

May­oral­ties in th­ese ur­ban ar­eas have emerged as places for prom­i­nent Democrats to ef­fect pol­icy and feed am­bi­tions.

Rahm Emanuel was a top aide to Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, an Illi­nois con­gress­man, chair­man of the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee, then chief of staff to Pres­i­dent Obama. He stepped up from all of that to be­come mayor of Chicago, which, like Lit­tle Rock, is not a war zone gen­er­ally, but only in a con­fined pocket.

Mitch Lan­drieu, scion of a dy­nas­tic fam­ily and lieu­tenant gover­nor of Louisiana, stepped up to be­come mayor of New Or­leans. He made a na­tional name for him­self re­mov­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments in sen­si­tiv­ity to blacks and at risk of of­fend­ing the con­stituency still want­ing to glo­rify hu­man op­pres­sion and be­trayal of the greater Amer­i­can ex­per­i­ment.

Lit­tle Rock is a lit­tle different in that the mayor’s job is of­fi­cially non­par­ti­san—though we know bet­ter—and the city op­er­ates with a full-time and fully au­tho­rized un­elected city man­ager as well as a full-time elected mayor.

The city moved to a city man­ager sys­tem in the late 1950s os­ten­si­bly to get pol­i­tics out of city gov­ern­ment. It en­hanced the mayor’s job sev­eral years ago, but didn’t down­grade the city man­ager’s job. The idea was to put some voter ac­count­abil­ity back in, but not too much.

Sabin has talked of us­ing the city man­ager as the top ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fi­cer man­ag­ing the City Hall op­er­a­tion while the mayor func­tions as the more vi­sion­ary chief po­lit­i­cal force.

He’s right, of course. A gov­ern­ment should not seek to func­tion as a cor­po­ra­tion man­ag­ing peo­ple. It’s ap­pro­pri­ately a po­lit­i­cal en­tity an­swer­ing to peo­ple.

But we’ll see how that goes for Sabin, if he wins.

In the mean­time, Stodola and City Man­ager Bruce Moore will con­tinue to meet for cof­fee to con­tem­plate each other.

This new po­lit­i­cal dy­namic is one with com­pli­ca­tion and chal­lenge. Noth­ing much in Lit­tle Rock will ever be easy.

Lit­tle Rock is a re­li­ably blue city in pres­i­den­tial and con­gres­sional races. That’s be­cause it is dom­i­nated by the shared na­tion­al­ized views of the black com­mu­nity and the lib­eral white com­mu­nity.

But when the fo­cus turns purely lo­cal, such as to schools and now pre­sum­ably a mayor’s job of greater cur­rency, that coali­tion tends to frag­ment.

In the re­cent school mill­age elec­tion, black neigh­bor­hoods over­whelm­ingly voted “no” out of re­sent­ment of a white-dom­i­nated state gov­ern­ment act­ing in a pa­tri­ar­chal way in tak­ing over the lo­cal school district. But in the up­scale white pro­gres­sive neigh­bor­hood of the Heights, the mill­age was fa­vored by per­sons long ac­cus­tomed to an­te­ing up to the no­ble no­tion of vi­tal pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

That kind of divi­sion can and prob­a­bly will present it­self more broadly as mayor’s races be­come more con­tested and the mayor’s job more rel­e­vant.

Sabin or Stodola or some­one else— to be elected mayor and have any hope of ef­fec­tive func­tion­ing if elected—will need to bridge the busi­ness com­mu­nity, the west­ward flight, the white pro­gres­sives, the down­town re­vi­tal­iza­tion in­ter­ests and the ne­glected and ap­pro­pri­ately re­sent­ful black neigh­bor­hoods.

It will be good, then, if the mayor’s job takes on this new cur­rency, and tests tal­ented Democrats on whether they can nav­i­gate amid such peril, and then, hav­ing nav­i­gated, per­haps even lead.

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