Three veteran political figures from North Little Rock said they are either committed to or strongly considering running for the city’s open mayoral position in next year’s November general election.
Mayor Joe Smith made public last week that he won’t seek a third term. His term will conclude at the end of 2020.
No candidacy will be official until the July-August filing period for North Little Rock municipal offices, but Smith’s announcement has already kicked off next year’s campaigning.
City Parks Director Terry Hartwick, a former North Little Rock mayor; Debi Ross, a Ward 1 City Council member; and Tracy Steele, a former state senator and state representative, are the most likely candidates to announce first, based on interviews with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after Smith’s announcement.
Hartwick is the most definite, telling the Democrat-Gazette that he plans to make a formal announcement Oct. 15 that he will seek the mayor’s job. In late July, Hartwick unveiled a campaign page on Facebook, something he described as “exploratory.” Hartwick was North Little Rock’s mayor from 1984 to 1988 and North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce president from 2001 to 2016.
“It’s on go. I’m ready,” Hartwick, 70, said after Smith’s announcement. “I still have a vision. I think the prior administrations have really done a good job. I’ve been part of it with the chamber and now working with the parks.”
Steele, 56, director of the state Health Services Permit Agency, hasn’t planned an official announcement but certainly talked in his interview like a definite candidate. Steele ran for mayor in 2012 and led a field of four on election night before losing to Smith in the ensuing runoff.
“I’ve been talking with people all over the city and have been getting encouragement from all over the city of North Little Rock to run for mayor,” said Steele, president of the North Little Rock School District’s elected board. “For a long time, I have wanted to be mayor of the city I grew up in and of the city that I love.”
Ross, 65, said that while she hasn’t fully decided, she’s close to it.
“I’m doing my due diligence right now,” said Ross, who was first elected to the City Council in 2006. “I’m definitely considering it. We’ve got such good momentum going right now in the right direction and I think I can continue that. I want North Little Rock to continue in the direction we’re going.”
3 TOUT EXPERIENCE
Each of the three touted their experience for being the most qualified to lead the city’s growth.
“I think my background and my passion for the city has prepared me to undertake the leadership of the city that I love,” Steele said. “I think it’s time for new leadership in North Little Rock.
“The biggest, shining example is what’s happened with the North Little Rock School District,” said Steele, who is in his second, three-year School Board term. “The North Little Rock School District is not only a place where our young people can go and get a quality education, it has also been an economic engine for North Little Rock. It’s one of the city’s largest employers, with over 1,400 who work for the school district. We have people move to our city to send their kids to the North Little Rock School District. That’s education, but it’s also economic development.”
Ross said her almost 13 years on the City Council is an advantage for anyone wanting to step into the mayor’s role.
“Past knowledge is huge,” Ross said. “You’ve seen what works and you’ve seen what doesn’t work. So that’s one of the tough things to know right there.
“Every section of North Little Rock is unique, and no one knows more about their neighborhood’s needs than they do,” she said. “On the other hand, government can’t fix everything. They’ve got to let us know what they want for their neighborhoods, what their needs are and how they want it to look. We’ve got so much momentum going. We need that same momentum in all the neighborhoods.”
Hartwick said his chamber experience included working with and assisting big and small businesses in North Little Rock, helping some relocate to the city and others to stay in the city, while also heading projects to increase their business prospects.
“I’ve had plenty of experience with economic development and keeping jobs here,” Hartwick said. “That’s what I was very heavily involved with at the chamber.
“When you talk about running for mayor, it’s a citywide race,” he said. “It’s not just two areas. You have to try to give enough attention to all areas. I think that’s where my name recognition will help a lot.”
Others could also jump into the race by filing time next summer.
Ward 2 City Council Member Maurice Taylor is one possibility, though he said in an interview that he has “a lot going on” with his real estate career, including being owner of the Vivid Real Estate Learning Center in North Little Rock, and is “enjoying my work as a council member.”
“I have kicked it around,” Taylor said when asked if he was considering a mayoral run. “If I had to make a decision today, the answer would be no.
“I think it will be an open race,” he said. “I think there will be at least three, maybe four candidates.”
The others said they also expect more will decide to run as the election draws closer next year.
“I’ve heard up to five,” Ross said. “I don’t know who the other two are. Someone may announce in August or July at filing time.”
Hartwick said a race for an open position usually attracts a larger field.
“When you have an incumbent leaving, a lot of people want to jump in the race,” he said.
The number of candidates won’t matter to him, Steele said.
“My decision to run for mayor is not based on anyone else who would run,” Steele said. “I anticipate there will be others who will run.”