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40% the target in Little Rock to avoid mayor runoff

by Rachel Herzog | October 7, 2018 at 4:27 a.m.

In addition to the number of police officers, the Little Rock property-tax values and the dollars in the city's budget, the candidates for the capital city's next mayor likely have another figure on their minds -- 40 percent.

That's the percent of votes a candidate must get to win the Nov. 6 general election and avoid a runoff four weeks later.

With five men vying for the position, which Mark Stodola has held for 12 years and will vacate in January, competition for the seat is historically high this year. Early voting begins Oct. 22.

The law that governs Little Rock municipal elections differs from the state's law. That's been the case since 1993, when the city passed an ordinance to directly elect its mayor. Before that, the city Board of Directors selected one of its own members to serve as mayor.

Arkansas Code Annotated 7-5-106, which was amended in 2011 by the Arkansas Legislature, states, in part, that "A candidate who receives a plurality of forty percent (40%) of the votes cast must obtain at least twenty percent (20%) more of the votes cast than the second-place candidates for the municipal office to avoid a runoff general election against the second-place candidate."

Under that law, no runoff took place after Pine Bluff's 2012 mayoral election, when nine candidates competed for the position and none received more than 50 percent of the vote.

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But Bryan Poe, director of elections for Pulaski County, said part of a different law applies to Little Rock -- Arkansas Code Annotated 14-61-111. "The minimum percentage necessary for election without a runoff shall be determined by the governing body and referred to the electors for their approval," the law states, in part.

Little Rock in 1993 passed an ordinance to set the threshold at 40 percent, with no 20 percent margin needed.

No such threshold exists in city Board of Directors elections, which lowers the odds of runoffs in those positions, Poe said.

There are 22 people running for seats on the Board of Directors this year. Six of the 10 seats -- all but in Ward 4 and at-large positions -- are up for election. Ward 1 has its most-ever number of competitors, with eight people challenging incumbent Erma Hendrix.

Running to succeed Stodola as mayor are:

• Baker Kurrus, 64, a former state-appointed superintendent of the Little Rock School District.

• State Rep. Warwick Sabin, 41, D-Little Rock.

• Glen Schwarz, 64, the executive director of the state chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

• Frank Scott Jr., 34, a vice president at First Security Bank.

• Vincent Tolliver, 51, a consultant for the Little Rock School District.

The race for Little Rock mayor isn't traditionally a heavily contested one, Poe said.

Jim Dailey, who was mayor from 1993 to 2007, was selected by the board and then popularly elected. He received at least 70 percent of the vote the two times he was re-elected after that, according to information provided by Poe.

Stodola was one of four candidates when he ran for mayor in 2006, ultimately winning with 48 percent of the vote. He received 85 percent of the vote when he was opposed by Schwarz in 2010 and was unopposed in 2014.

Poe said one of the candidates could reach the 40 percent minimum, but Little Rock also could have its first runoff. Voter turnout is always an unknown.

Other races on the ballot, particularly those for governor and the 2nd Congressional District seat, could increase voter turnout, Poe said.

The gubernatorial race pits Republican incumbent Asa Hutchinson and challengers Jared Henderson, a Democrat, and Mark West, a Libertarian. In the 2nd Congressional District race, Republican incumbent French Hill faces state Rep. Clarke Tucker, a Democrat, and Joe Swafford, a Libertarian.

Roby Robertson, professor emeritus in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said a runoff for mayor is more likely than not. In his view, there are three candidates who could each get roughly 30 percent of the vote -- Kurrus, Sabin and Scott.

He based that on years of observing Little Rock's voting patterns. He is the former director of research at the UALR Institute of Government. No official polls on the Little Rock mayor's race have been made public.

The mayor's race is nonpartisan, but each of the candidates has political connections and "crossover appeal," Robertson said. Sabin is a Democrat in the Legislature, but has collaborators and supporters from both parties, he said.

Robertson described Scott, who worked in former Gov. Mike Beebe's administration, as a "moderate Democrat." Kurrus was a Hutchinson administration appointee to the school post, but his contract was not renewed for a second year after he opposed the expansion of public charter schools in Little Rock.

Tolliver said in a recent forum that he would be the "most progressive mayor ever in Little Rock." Schwarz is a declared Libertarian.

Unless one of the candidates "suddenly catches fire" and gains breakaway support, Robertson said, getting to 40 percent will be a steep hill to climb.

Metro on 10/07/2018

*CORRECTION: If the Little Rock mayoral election results in a runoff, that will take place four weeks from the Nov. 6 election on Dec. 4. The date a runoff election would take place was incorrectly reported in a previous version of this story.

Print Headline: 40% the target in Little Rock to avoid mayor runoff

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