Three candidates vying to be the next Pulaski County circuit/county clerk believe customer service is crucial, yet they differ on some of their immediate priorities as well as a recent voter-identification law.
Democrats Christopher Crane and Terri Hollingsworth and Republican Steve Walden filed to run for the seat. Early voting for the Democratic primary begins May 7. The primary, in which either Crane or Hollingsworth will be chosen to run against Walden, is May 22.
The current clerk, Larry Crane, a Democrat and father to Christopher Crane, is not seeking re-election. Last year, the elder Crane was paid a $90,784 salary, though the Quorum Court is considering bumping the position's pay up to $106,777.
This year is the first in which the clerk and other county officials, excluding justices of the peace, will be elected to four-year terms, not two-year terms.
In interviews conducted separately over the past two weeks, all three candidates mentioned the importance of safeguarding county records and efficiently running the office that oversees basically all legal records for Pulaski County.
The Pulaski County circuit/county clerk oversees roughly 95 employees and a sizable budget, and works with 17 circuit court judges. Records for marriages, divorces, real estate, voter registration, ministerial licensing and criminal prosecution are handled by the office at 401 W. Markham St.
Hollingsworth, 54, is a substitute schoolteacher and works part time at Dave & Sons Cigars & Pipes.
She spent her career in a wide range of public service jobs, including at the city of Little Rock, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership and managing the day-to-day operations at the Delta Regional Authority. She also directed the state Board of Election Commissioners between 1996 and 2000.
Her identity as a woman, and especially as a black woman, would bring a different perspective to the clerkship, she said.
"It's certainly time to change the status quo," Hollingsworth said. "It's definitely time for not only a woman to be there, but this particular black woman."
At the top of her priority list is protecting voter-registration data. In Arkansas, counties and Secretary of State Mark Martin's office both have access to the same voter-registration database, with the clerks as the official registrars. The state is responsible for maintenance, updates and support, state agency spokesman Chris Powell said in an email.
The actual voter-registration data is housed with an outside vendor, Election Systems & Software, he said.
"We do have evidence that foreign entities have tampered with our elections. We've seen what our own secretary of state did with our voter data, in terms of turning it over to a national database," Hollingsworth said, referring to when Martin shared some of Arkansas' voter data with a commission tasked by President Donald Trump to investigate voter fraud.
As clerk, Hollingsworth said she'd look into "making sure that our [online] connections are secure."
She also said she's no stranger to working with different personalities or defending her department's budget to a room of policymakers, something the Pulaski County clerk has to do.
The clerk, unlike the Quorum Court or the county judge, cannot enact legislation or write policy, but only enforces the law.
A law Hollingsworth said she takes issue with is Act 633 of 2017. It requires voters to show photo IDs or swear to their identities. A lawsuit questioning Act 633's legality is currently in circuit court.
"I don't want to put up barriers to voting," she said. "We should have different and available ways that everybody can participate in our democracy."
Crane, 49, also said he thinks Act 633 puts an undue burden on people, especially those with disabilities and the elderly.
Crane has been the Arkansas film commissioner for about 11 years, where he works to pass legislation that entices filmmakers, companies like HBO, and film industry jobs to the state. He also coordinates with numerous government groups, secures filming locations, navigates the permitting process and oversees expenditures, he said.
Before his current position, Crane taught at Parkview High School in Little Rock for eight years.
After watching his father excel at the role of clerk, Crane said he "felt compelled to run and to continue the legacy that my father has built." They discuss the job regularly, he said.
In the job, Crane said he'd place a priority on improving the voter-registration system. His experience teaching and relating to people would move that project forward, as well as his history of "turning over every rock to find ways to fund programs," he said.
A less-known duty of the clerk that Crane championed is restoring the voting rights of felons who have met their legal requirements.
"Just because somebody's a felon doesn't mean that they're a horrible person. It just means that they've done something wrong in their life," Crane said. "And the pride in being able to say, 'Yes I was, but I've done my duty to society, I've come out on the other side, and now I have a voice,' I think that that's huge."
Though the clerk's office does not often attract the public eye, the elder Crane was noticed in 2016 after Martin's office identified thousands of registered voters as felons, even though some of those people had regained their right to vote.
Crane publicly criticized the state office's response to the issue, according to newspaper archives.
"My father and I differ on ways to get things accomplished, but we very rarely differ on what it is to be accomplished," Crane said. "I'm a little less sharp-tongued, and I'm a little more, 'Let's work to get this accomplished in a very diplomatic manner.'"
Walden, 65, previously ran against and lost to the elder Crane as a Democrat. Currently, he works for the Pulaski County Road and Bridge Department as a permit inspector and complaint investigator. He has held previous positions at the state Department of Correction and the state Department of Health.
Walden also ran two heating and air companies, Twin City Maintenance and Energy Experts, where he managed 35 to 50 employees. The clerk position appeals to him in part because he enjoys record keeping and clerical work.
"I think you have to have somebody responsible enough to understand the integrity, to understand the safe keeping of the records," Walden said.
If elected, Walden said a major priority is to educate the public on what the clerk actually does and how county government works, because it's a mystery to many people.
Walden said he thinks the elder Crane did a good job during his tenure, though he added that customer service could be improved. He is a "conservative person," including in spending decisions, he said.
"If we need something, before I even would present it to the Quorum Court, I've got to prove that it's going to benefit us. And when I say us, I mean Pulaski County," Walden said.
As for the new voter-identification law, Walden said critics are making "a big to-do out of nothing." He hears about voter fraud every day, he said, and he supports the need for photo identification, since it's used in other situations like when boarding an airplane.
Walden also stressed the importance of voting and said he would support efforts that boost voter turnout in Pulaski County. That could mean voting kiosks, or eventually, voting on cellphones, he said. Early voting is fine, but it's not the answer, he said.
"We've got to figure [out ] a way, with the way technology's going, to make it easier for people to vote, so we get more people to vote," he said.
"If you don't vote, then you don't get to complain," he said.
Metro on 04/22/2018