The prize for Democrats
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.