Scout­ing the land­scape John Brum­mett

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - 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.

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.

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