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JOHN BRUMMETT: Scouting the landscape

By John Brummett

This article was published August 13, 2017 at 1:46 a.m.

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.


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 Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 08/13/2017

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mozarky2 says... August 13, 2017 at 6:24 a.m.

Been a while since I've seen the words "rising" and "democrat" in the same sentence. Not since Anthony Weiner, at least...

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RBear says... August 13, 2017 at 8:04 a.m.

Interesting look at the race John. This will be my first election to dig into since moving back to Arkansas from San Antonio. Based on your column, it's apparent there are some similarities and some differences with munis in urban TX. Having spent some time working to elect one of those high profile mayors, Julian Castro, you are correct in how urban politics has changed in America and rightfully so. Our nation is becoming more and more urban because that's where the jobs are.
It's apparent that it's time for change in Little Rock. Stodola has served what many today consider long enough. Maybe in decades past, a term of 12 years was not excessive much less 16. But these days new, innovative ideas are needed as cities change in complexity. Stodola has become complacent in overseeing the city and that was most apparent with the Power Lounge shooting. News reports highlighted the numerous problems due to lack of adequate oversight.
I've followed most of the candidates you mentioned and it's apparent Stodola is in for a hard run. Most likely, he will not make the top two. The 40% threw me off. In TX, it's 50%+1 to avoid the runoff. Any urban election with three or more high profile candidates always ends up in a runoff, Castro's election in 2009 was the exception to that. Looking at the Little Rock race, if Stodola, Sabin, and Kurris enter you can expect a runoff.
Looking at the field, Sabin reminds me more of Castro and Ron Nirenberg, current mayor of San Antonio. Both are close friends and both have the energy and new ideas that have helped San Antonio grow to national prominence in job growth and economic development, expanding the progressive posture of the city.
That's a key thing to note in this race. Urban cities today grow when they take a progressive posture. The new economy is more focused on urban development and those companies look for cities that match their values and employee base. That means cities who embrace diversity, foster innovate development, and build the infrastructure for livable urban spaces. Little Rock is on the cusp, but not through any initiatives from Stodola. If anything, it has been in spite of him.
I agree the lawsuit against Sabin is a non-issue, noting that state election law supercedes the city ordinance. In fact, it's apparent that the city needs to clean up its ordinances to more closely align with state law. Maybe that could be a task of the new mayor. In fact, it might be a good time to clean up Little Rock city code.

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davidscherreysbcglobalnet says... August 13, 2017 at 9:14 a.m.

Hate groups such as these have no place in our society. National Socialist Movement, Vanguard America, Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun), Traditionalist Worker Party, Southern Nationalist, League of the South (LOS), Anti-Racist Action (ARA), American Guard, Ku Klux Klan, Antifa, Vanguard America.
Martin Luther King, Jr. "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

Two extremes on the right and the left, the white nationalists and antifa, like violence and hate. This is not acceptable in our America.

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BornRed says... August 13, 2017 at 10:15 a.m.

What about the potential candidate that you blocked on twitter several years ago?

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drs01 says... August 13, 2017 at 10:16 a.m.

JB a lot of wasted printer's ink and paper about the most inconsequential "political office" in the state. The "Mayor" is a do-nothing position. Jim Dailey established that trend years ago; fortunately, we knew it then and didn't pay major bucks for the position. Little Rock's government is a cluster-f**k and will remain so as long as we have this worthless two-headed leadership. Bruce Moore can't effectively do his job as long as he has an ineffective, high profile mayor sharing the stage. There are recent examples where the mayor and city manager have different solutions to problems. The downtown shooting incident is one. Mayor wants more committees, prayer groups, and unneeded regulations on businesses. City manager saw it as a communication problem with the ABC and established a coordinator position. The next election shouldn't be for a new mayor, but for a new form of effective city government and leadership. Haven't we proved that we need a change? If Chicago and New Orleans with their Democrat leadership is your example of what we need here....then we might as well just burn this city down and start all over.

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NoUserName says... August 13, 2017 at 10:24 a.m.

LR definitely does NOT need this two headed form of government. However, I would argue that BOTH Stodola AND Moore need to go.

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RBear says... August 13, 2017 at 11:51 a.m.

davidcherry, are you sure you know where you are? I think you've completely lost your bearings sir.

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davidscherreysbcglobalnet says... August 13, 2017 at 12:46 p.m.

RBear I'm not commenting on Little Rock elections because I don't live near the capital city. Sorry if I was off subject.

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RBear says... August 13, 2017 at 1:07 p.m.

davidcherry, no problem and sorry for the rude call out then. I was just really confused.

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mozarky2 says... August 13, 2017 at 1:33 p.m.

Yeah, 'cause, like nobody EVER goes off-subject here!
Speaking of Julian Castro, there have been comparisons to him and Obama, with good reason.
A good-looking empty suit who accomplished very little in office.

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