Despite opposition on several fronts, I thought Little Rock’s general tolerance for taxes would carry the day in the special election Tuesday on a one-cent Little Rock sales tax. I was wrong. Badly wrong.
The 62-38 defeat of the tax can be viewed as a referendum on the leadership of Mayor Frank Scott Jr., in his third year as mayor. At least it was among the small number that turned out to vote.
The outcome immediately drew signals from car dealer Steve Landers that he’d join publisher Greg Henderson as a candidate for mayor next year.
There are still votes to count and we will let that process unfold. It’s becoming clear this city needs leadership that will be pro-business, keep our taxes as low as possible, be transparent with your tax dollars, spend our existing tax dollars wisely, and get tough on crime.
— Steve Landers (@SteveLittleRock) September 15, 2021
His message tracks that of the Republican-funded effort to defeat the tax (as apart from the Acorn-led opposition that was based on an increase in a regressive sales tax at a difficult time for poor people.) The impact of federal pandemic aid also played a role in opposition to an increase.
The sales tax defeat was coupled with more bad news for the mayor concerning the Little Rock Police Department under the leadership of Keith Humphrey, a chief hand-picked and defended by Scott through continuing turmoil.
As KARK reports, an email released yesterday in a lawsuit against the chief confirms what I reported here weeks ago: A consultant from Arkansas Tech reviewed managerial actions in the police department and delivered a scathing assessment of the handling of the firing of a white police officer.
The email focuses on the firing of Officer David Mattox, which Cochran described as “a clear indication of racial discrimination, hostile working conditions, and retaliation” by Humphrey, Asst. Chief Crystal Haskins and Lt. Brittney Gunn.
Cochran goes on to warn that Mattox’s termination, “exposes the City to an ever increasing damages award” if Mattox would elect to take the case to court. She also noted this could be the case for “several other LRPD personnel who have been targeted for harassment & retaliation by the Chief and his allies.”
The investigator ends her message by showing concern that the ongoing drama in the courtroom surrounding this issue could wind up leading to real-world tragedy in the streets.
“I only pray that no lives are lost due to this ongoing but preventative crisis,” she wrote.
There’s been no official response to this revelation as yet.
But back to the election. Scott had more than $200,000 to spend and he filled mailboxes and phones with messages. His team signaled that they believed he’d retain the coalition of heavily Black precincts and younger voters who preferred him over Baker Kurrus in the 2018 runoff. Several things upset that calculus.
Republicans poured money into opposition and West Little Rock, home to Republican voters, defeated the tax by wide margins. Questions about some of the specifics of Scott’s ideas for spending money — the Zoo, starting an early childhood education program and others — and questions about the size of the increase also played a role. Also, some of the bloom has worn off Scott thanks to the police controversy and other issues. There’s no doubt that the race of the Black mayor was a factor in some voters’ decisions.
But consider the precinct returns: Precinct 107 in the Heights, home of establishment money long counted on for government issues in Little Rock, clobbered the tax. The same for Precinct 108 in the Heights and Hillcrest. Good old precinct 109, my home precinct — a reliable liberal vote bastion — DID endorse the tax, but only 53-47.
Precincts that gave Scott huge margins in his mayoral victory did vote for the tax, but the turnout was anemic — around 5 percent in many cases against more than 20 percent city-wide. And the votes didn’t approach what Scott achieved in 2018. Take Precinct 125, on Baseline Road. It voted 93-7 for Scott with a 29 percent turnout in the 2018 runoff. Yesterday, it voted 57-43 for the tax with an 8 percent turnout.
I am not writing Scott off. Special elections are not general elections. More and different people will vote in 2022. The mayor struck a good tone last night, saying he’d expected a difficult race and vowing to soldier on.
Based on some comments I received last night, including from supporters of the tax, some advice for the mayor:
Work harder to build consensus on the City Board, which was deeply split in putting forward the tax increase in the first place.
Listen to others.
Reconsider imperial trappings of the office: Outsourced PR; elaborately staged PR events; an expensive police security/chauffeur detail.
Call opponents’ hands. Do they really favor reauthorizing the 3/8th-of-a-cent tax that expires this year? Let’s do it sooner rather than later. The city may not have needed a 40 percent increase in the city sales tax rate, but a 25 percent cut in the rate won’t be good for the city.
Deliver on an election promise of transparency. Stop muzzling City Hall employees. Stop playing games with the Freedom of Information Act.
Get rid of Keith Humphrey.
Understand that criticism comes with the job. Sometimes even from supporters.
Resist the urge to point fingers. I encountered many people who voted enthusiastically for Frank Scott in 2018 who couldn’t vote for this tax increase. He isn’t served well by supporters who see a racial motive in people who questioned his numbers.
It IS OK to point out the partisan dimension of the election defeat. Cheers came from Republicans Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Greg Bledsoe (who decries career politicians despite being part of a troika of Bledsoes who suck a half-million a year off the state’s public teat and who seeks to be lieutenant governor) and assorted legislators. The state Republican chair, Jonelle Fulmer, who lives in Fort Smith, contributed money to the anti-campaign organized by City Director Lance Hines.
The Republicans are intent on damaging Democratic control in Pulaski County — through the GOP-controlled election commission, through redistricting, through runs for county office and through the defeat of other measures and diminishment of popular politicians.
You will see many of the same Republican hands at work in coming special elections for a library tax and extension of a Little Rock School District millage. The GOP posse doesn’t mean well for Little Rock. Their crocodile tears for the poor in the sales tax campaign are belied by action after action at the state Capitol. They serve the rich, not the inner city dwellers targeted for equity by Frank Scott.