Scouting the landscape John Brummett
Let’s begin with a sentence not written in a long time if ever about Little Rock. Here it is: Several prominent Little Rock political figures are thinking about running for mayor next year, and controversy has arisen 15 months prior to the election over one declared candidate’s fundraising exploratory committee.
For a half-century, Little Rock was run under a city manager form of government in which the mayor’s designation was a purely ceremonial gig passed around among the membership of the board of directors. In recent years, voters approved adding a full-time elected mayor, but only while keeping the city manager.
Mayoral elections have remained relatively low-profile affairs, mostly because the current mayor, Mark Stodola, kept running for lightly contested re-election. He has served since 2007.
His length of time in office is a factor in the kindling of uncommon political interest and activity.
Three other things have happened:
(1) Republicans have taken over nearly everything else in the state, but Little Rock has stayed Democratic. The city’s mayoralty offers the best political opportunity for a local Democrat. Mayor of Little Rock is ostensibly a nonpartisan office and candidates run on a nonpartisan basis. But the fact is that Stodola is a Democrat and the greatest threats to him are Democrats.
(2) Little Rock, even with an anemic hybrid system retaining a city manager, is catching up to the fact that mayoralties can be high-profile political offices. Think of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans. For that matter, Bernie Sanders, before he was a U.S. senator, was mayor of Burlington, Vt.
(3) Little Rock is troubled by crime, deep divisions and political lethargy, the latter probably by the design of the city manager system established in 1957. The idea ostensibly was to keep politics out of City Hall. There is talk that Little Rock needs more dynamic, visionary, responsible and accountable political leadership. There even is talk that the mayor’s leadership purview should extend to public school issues, though those responsibilities are entirely separate from City Hall.
First, state Rep. Warwick Sabin, a left-of-center Democrat representing the Hillcrest neighborhood and abutting areas, announced he was forming an exploratory committee to run for mayor. The supposed exploration was a mere formality conceding to a city ordinance that says one can’t start raising money for, or officially become a candidate for, the office until next summer— June for raising money and August for filing.
A local lawyer has filed a complaint against Sabin’s raising money this early through and for his exploratory committee. But Sabin seems to have clear permission for what he’s doing under a state law covering exploratory committees that presumably would supersede a city ordinance.
As soon as Sabin announced, Stodola promptly let everyone know that he does not intend to go anywhere, but to run again.
Kathy Webb, former state legislator and now a city board member, thought about the race for a while, but decided against it.
State Rep. Clarke Tucker, another rising young Little Rock Democrat, also talked about it—and fielded encouragement—but tells me he is not actively considering it. He is said to be looking at the prospect of challenging U. S. Rep. French Hill, the Republican incumbent in Congress from the 2nd District. But that would take him out of the comforts of Pulaski County and into overwhelmingly gone-Republican counties like Saline and Faulkner.
Frank Scott, an aide to former Gov. Mike Beebe and former highway commissioner, and a pastor, is the most prominent African American prospect at the moment. He told me he is “prayerfully considering” the race.
Little Rock’s black and liberal white areas tend to vote together for broad purposes such as Congress or governor or president. But the bond breaks locally, or at least it did in the recent school millage election. And it likely would blow up in a mayor’s race.
I’ve heard two other names— City Director Dean Kumpuris and Fitz Hill, former president of Arkansas Baptist College.
In a multi-candidate field for Little Rock mayor, a candidate would win if leading the ticket with more than 40 percent of the vote. If no one got more than 40 percent, the top two vote-getters would go into a runoff.
And perhaps I’ve buried the lead, which is a journalist’s phrase for putting the biggest news at the bottom of the story.
Baker Kurrus, the lawyer and businessman who heroically led the Little Rock School District until the state fired him for no good reason, tells me that many people have asked him to look at a mayor’s race and that he will do so—think about it, that is.
The passion, vigor and command with which Kurrus tackled the overwhelming public-school challenges represent precisely what some think the city needs generally.