THREE-WAY RACE: Frank Scott, Warwick Sabin and Baker Kurrus share a stage.

Of the three leading contenders for Little Rock mayor, two emphasize their ability to unify a divided city — though the subtext of Baker Kurrus’ message is different than that of Frank Scott’s. The third major candidate, Warwick Sabin, promises to bring true change to Little Rock government.

Those rhetorical differences were on display Monday night at the last of a series of five candidate forums sponsored by KUAR and the Central Arkansas Library System. The event, held at Ron Robinson Theater, featured Sabin, Scott and Kurrus alongside two other mayoral hopefuls, Vincent Tolliver and Glen Schwarz.

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The politics in this nonpartisan race for an open seat defy easy description. A recent poll by Hendrix College / Talk Business and Politics showed the three leading candidates in an effective tie, with a third of voters still undecided. Sabin, a Democratic state legislator, has a natural base among the city’s many frustrated progressives, who will likely turn out in high numbers due to national politics and a hot congressional race in the 2nd District. Scott, a banker and former state highway commissioner, is the leading African-American candidate. He’s likely to capture much of the black vote while also attracting additional support from the business community.

The lack of a clear conservative candidate has created an opening for Kurrus, a corporate lawyer and businessman, to appeal to voters who are older, whiter and lean further to the right; the Talk Business poll showed him leading among Republicans and independents. Yet because of his service with the Little Rock School District, he also has retained goodwill among some liberal voters, especially older ones. If Scott’s candidacy speaks to the hope of bridging Little Rock’s racial divides, Kurrus’ message of centrist unity seems likely to attract those weary of partisan conflict.

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The first question asked of the panel Monday concerned the recent report in the Washington Post about “no-knock” raids on private residences by Little Rock police in search of drugs. Roderick Talley, a Little Rock resident whose front door was blown in by LRPD in a raid last year, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city. A security camera installed by Talley captured footage of heavily armed officers storming his apartment while he slept on a couch; police found only a small amount of marijuana but arrested Talley anyway. The charges were later dropped.

Scott said the issue was “appalling” and “disgusting.” As a black man, he added, he knows such abuses are “something that’s not necessarily new.” If Talley had not had the video recording to back up his account, Scott said, he would be in jail today. He called for a citizen’s review commission to investigate police misconduct — but also said the city needs to better fund the LRPD. Scott said he’s sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice expressing concern about the use of no-knock warrants in Little Rock.

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Kurrus said he was “extremely concerned” about the issue and said there should be an investigation, but did not summon the level of outrage expressed by other candidates. He spoke of the need to be “very, very certain our processes are sound” when it comes to policing and handling complaints about misconduct. “There is a process for that within the police department. I don’t know if that process has been utilized in this case,” Kurrus said.

Sabin said the practice as described by the article was “clearly a violation of Fourth Amendment rights” and called for a “full and transparent investigation.” Those victimized by the police have “tried to go through the normal processes and were denied that opportunity,” he said. Sabin said people around the country are “losing faith with how law enforcement is being applied,” especially in communities of color. (He also noted he was the first candidate to issue a statement on the issue after the Post story was published. That earned a rebuke from Scott, who said Sabin should have checked with Talley before issuing his statement. “I think many times we tend to utilize politics first,” Scott said.)

The candidates were then asked what they would do to bridge racial and economic divides in Little Rock. Kurrus cited equity efforts and resource allocation decisions made during his time on the school board to show that he took such issues seriously. He also touted his work as LRSD superintendent — he was appointed soon after the state takeover of the district in 2015 — to demonstrate that he could build bridges.

“I think as a community we have to come together. That’s part of what I know how to do. … At a time our community was shaken, very divided and struggling … I did all I could, every single day, to build bridges, to tear down walls, and that’s the sort of thing a mayor can do,” Kurrus said.

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Sabin said he’d begin by listening to people in every neighborhood in the city about “what their idea of equity is” and the challenges in each area. But, he added, “the next step is inclusion,” and said the composition of the city’s boards and commissions often do not reflect its citizens. Recently, he said, the mayoral candidates met with an “important commission” one morning. “Everyone in the room was white and there was one woman in the room,” Sabin said.”That’s a problem, and so as mayor I want to make sure we’re not just talking — that we’re doing something.”

Vincent Tolliver seconded Sabin’s comments on inclusion and identified the body in question as the Parks and Recreation Commission. “We have a city hall that has operated like a private club. … It is not a private club, it is the people’s house,” Tolliver said.

Like Kurrus, Scott stressed connectivity. He told the crowd that he was “someone who can understand south of 630 issues as well as north of 630 issues,” referencing the city’s literal and metaphorical racial divide.  “Little Rock is Southwest, South End, it’s the East End, it’s the Heights, it’s Hillcrest, it’s Baseline, it’s College Station,” he said.

But Scott’s particular message of unity — his strategy to secure broad support beyond the African-American community — is also grounded in his identity as a candidate who knows business as well as government. “The reason why Frank Scott, Jr is running for mayor is I want to unify the city and focus on jobs growth,” he said. “Two things that are holding Little Rock back are diversity in the marketplace and educational achievement.”

Given the opportunity to identify their top priority as mayor, Sabin was the only one of the three major candidates with a clear answer. Reducing crime, he said, is “priority number one.” He said he’d start by better staffing the LRPD and making sure they had “all the resources they need to do their job” while also prioritizing community policing efforts.

Scott and Kurrus returned to the message of unity to answer the question. “I think it’s easy to say that crime is the most important issue in our city … but until LR focuses on building bridges within its own self, until we move from being disconnected to connected and truly unify our city, nothing else really matters,” Scott said. Kurrus echoed the same message, saying that issues from neighborhood safety to schools to infrastructure were too interconnected to pick any single issue. His priority, he said, was “getting out in the city and [helping people] work together. That’s central. Until we do that, nothing changes; we simply scream at each other from the corners.”

Sabin pushed back: “Leadership is about being able to prioritize, and so you need to be able to answer the question and state a priority,” he said. “I think reducing the crime rate in Little Rock is incredibly important.”

Scott and Sabin — along with Tolliver — collectively disagreed with Kurrus on the question of whether the city should eliminate the city board’s at-large positions and/or move to a mayor-council system of government. Due to a series of changes over the decades, Little Rock has a peculiar hybrid form of government. Under the current system, the mayor occupies an occasionally uneasy dual executive role with the city manager, an unelected position. Department heads, such as the police chief, report to the city manager rather than directly to the mayor.

Scott said that “if I were king for a day, we would have a true mayor-council form of government” and eliminate the at-large seats, which he said “hurt minority representation.” Sabin agreed. “What we don’t have is a functional, transparent, responsive form of government,” he said. “I would love to see us have a strong mayor-council form of government without at-large directors, because that would be directly representative.”

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Kurrus said that the city’s “strong mayor” system of government created by a 2007 referendum was sufficient. “That’s the form we have now. We just haven’t used it,” he said. He blamed weaknesses in city government on operational failures rather than a need for further structural changes. Acting as the CEO of large companies has given him the experience necessary to take the reins of leadership under the current system, he said.

A city ordinance states that the mayor has the authority to hire or remove the city manager and city attorney — but the city board effectively has veto power over such decisions.

“Mr. Kurrus, I just have to disagree with you,” Scott said. “You and I are both are in business, and I can tell you that if my CEO wanted to … fire me, he or she could. You cannot do that under this existing form of government. … You have to have majority board consent.”