picture of Steve Landers, Greg Henderson and Frank Scott Jr.
MAYORAL FORUM: Candidates (from left to right) Steve Landers, Greg Henderson and Mayor Frank Scott Jr. participated in a debate, moderated by Roby Brock (far left) and hosted by the Little Rock Realtors Association. Brian Chilson

Buckle up, Little Rock. The mayoral election may get ugly. Unlike four years ago, when the contest was free of an incumbent and focused on who residents thought was best equipped to lead the city down a bold new path, this race may come down to voters’ perception of Little Rock. Is it a city making strides, despite a troubling spike in crime and a devastating pandemic that hit Little Rock particularly hard, as incumbent Mayor Frank Scott Jr. argues? Or is it a city in crisis, too dangerous for people to leave their homes at night, as retired auto dealer Steve Landers, Scott’s chief opponent, contends? The consensus among local politicos is that the election will be decided largely along geographic lines, which in Little Rock means that divisions of class and race will feature heavily. 

Landers, 68, is a rare breed of local celebrity, known almost universally in Central Arkansas, but not beyond. His circumscribed fame owes to his long prominence on local TV as the face of his car dealerships in dozens of commercials. They had the standard bombast of auto dealer ads, but were more charming than most, with Landers often taking self-deprecating turns for laughs. 

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Aside from serving on the Arkansas Racing Commission, this election marks his first venture into politics. Perhaps owing to marketing lessons he learned from the car business, Landers has kept his campaign simple, but with a decidedly darker bent than his commercial persona: Crime is holding Little Rock back, he argues. He’ll fix it and the rest of what ails the city because he’s a businessman rather than a politician, he says. He argues that Scott has been the worst version of an elected official — a reckless spender, not transparent, not a problem solver. The city needs business acumen, not a politician, Landers says.

Scott’s pitch is that despite being dealt a bad hand, he made the best of the first term. In case you’ve somehow managed to block out the last several years, Scott is ready on the campaign trail with a list of calamities: “a global pandemic that nobody knew would be before us, a summer of George Floyd that eerily reminds us of the 1960s, a historic snow storm, a historic flood.” Despite all that, Little Rock is moving forward, Scott says, citing job and population growth. 

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Although Scott, 38, has centered his campaign on his record and vision, his supporters highlight the essential qualities that define him in contrast to Landers: He’s young, Black and a Democrat. In a city with a majority-minority population anxious about the future, Scott’s race and relative youth could influence voters. Political identification may prove even more decisive. Despite concerns in the run-up to the 2018 election that Scott, a pastor and a banker, lacked Democratic bona fides, he’s been reliably progressive on a host of issues, from speaking out for common-sense gun laws, to strongly condemning the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Scott has also proven himself a staunch advocate for public education. A graduate of Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School, he came to the Little Rock School District’s defense in its years-long battle to extricate itself from state control. And Scott launched a laudable and unique partnership between the city and the school district to create and support a growing roster of community schools, where students in high-needs neighborhoods can get dental checkups, immunizations and other services they need but might not necessarily get otherwise. 

The election is nonpartisan, but Little Rock remains a blue island amid an otherwise mostly red sea in Arkansas. While Landers describes himself as someone who votes for the person and not the party and says he has no political agenda beyond serving the citizens of Little Rock, he’s widely perceived as a Republican: His political donations in the last decade have overwhelmingly favored GOP candidates, he voted most recently in the Republican primary and he’s hired Republican political consultants on his campaign. Some progressives have taken to social media to propose a capital city governed by Landers and Sanders (i.e. Sarah Huckabee) as a doomsday scenario.

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Two other candidates — Greg Henderson, a real estate broker and publisher of Rock City Eats, and longtime marijuana advocate Glen Schwarz — are also running. While Henderson has thoughtful policy ideas and Schwarz will inevitably run a zany, provocative campaign, neither are expected to be able to raise much money or figure significantly in the election. To avoid a run-off, a candidate must get more than 40% of the vote. 

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In 2018, running to be Little Rock’s first popularly elected Black mayor, Scott campaigned on his unique ability to unify the city. He was “born, raised and still residing in Southwest Little Rock,” he often reminded voters. A banker then, he described his workday commute to his office — from his home off Chicot Road in Southwest Little Rock, along Interstate 430 and through the flurry of development happening on the western stretch of Cantrell Road and Arkansas Highway 10 in the western stretches of Little Rock — as a daily reminder of the inequities that have long plagued the city. 

Landers and other critics of the mayor frequently tweak Scott for his unity pledge when a controversy emerges. “This is the most divided city I’ve ever been around,” Landers told a group of realtors at a forum in August. State Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who supports Scott, said that Landers and other critics of the mayor are the ones fueling division by making issues such as crime and trash “simplistic — addressing the crime question with, ‘I care but the mayor does not.’ Or ‘I’m going to get tough’ and then selectively talking about certain parts of the city or whether or not a certain vacant lot gets cleaned up as if that is a representation of all of Little Rock.”

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Elliott appreciated that Scott had done all the things he promised to do in his 2018 campaign or was working toward them, and said it wasn’t surprising that a leader working to effect change would cause a stir. 

There have certainly been noticeable divisions between the mayor and the 10-member Little Rock Board of Directors, several of whom have cast the mayor as imperious and unforthcoming. The weekly board meetings have often been acrimonious. But assigning blame for the disharmony isn’t easy. It owes in part to the city’s screwy form of government. Little Rock moved to a city manager system of government in 1956 as a means for the white business elites to maintain control of the city. Up until 2007, when voters approved a change in the law, mayor was a part-time, mostly ceremonial position. 

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It wasn’t until Scott took office that he invoked the full statutory power of the mayorship. The shift seems to be an unwelcome one to seasoned city directors, some of whom have served on the board for decades and were used to wielding the power themselves, with approving nods from mostly milquetoast mayors.

Despite frequent blow-ups in board meetings, Scott said he has a positive relationship with the “vast majority” of board members. “Nothing should be rubber stamped,” he told me in early August. “There may be some board members that may not like the approach or style. They’re still getting used to the strong mayor form of government.” Landers says he doesn’t care about the form-of-government question. If residents want the board of directors to lead, he’s good with that, he said. He’ll recruit businesses and make sure Little Rock is a safe, clean city, he said.

With a few key exceptions, the mayor can’t substantively act alone; he needs at least five votes to move laws and expenditures forward, and despite infighting, the board has managed to work through big decisions, from making severe budget cuts at the onset of the pandemic, to allocating millions of dollars of American Rescue Plan funds. Most recently, the board set the parameters for spending the capital millage voters renewed in August.

Mayor Frank Scott Jr. celebrated the opening of his campaign office in July pictureBrian Chilson
GOING FOR FOUR MORE YEARS: Mayor Frank Scott Jr. celebrated the opening of his campaign office in July surrounded by supporters, including state Sen. Joyce Elliott (in the green dress).

Scott contends the city is more unified today because it’s more inclusive. “When you have more voices at the table, you get an understanding of more perspectives,” he said. “Sometimes you might not agree. Change is never meant to be incredibly peaceful.” 

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Scott has been campaigning on the fruit of city efforts to waive development fees in areas south of Interstate 630 and east of Interstate 30, where there are high concentrations of poor residents of color. Over the last three years, 55% of all business development in Little Rock happened in those parts of the city, Scott said. “You talk about crime prevention? Crime prevention is having a job.” 

Scott cited former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first Black man elected mayor of a major Southern city, as a role model. Like Scott, Jackson was elected in his mid-30s and made growing minority businesses a cornerstone of his tenure. “Maynard was very intentional about various things even though people didn’t understand it,” Scott said.

Jackson battled with Atlanta’s police leaders. Scott, who took charge of hiring a Little Rock police chief soon after he took office, has faced a similar test.

Not even two months into Scott’s term, white LRPD Officer Charles Starks shot Bradley Blackshire, a Black man, during a traffic stop. Scott picked reform-minded Keith Humphrey as police chief a few months later, by which time a Little Rock Police Department homicide investigation had cleared Starks. But Humphrey, citing an Internal Affairs investigation that showed Starks violated policy, fired him anyway, setting off a protracted squabble between Humphrey, who is Black, and the old guard Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, whose membership is mostly white. 

Scott had campaigned on police reform. Ahead of the 2018 election, the Washington Post revealed a disturbing pattern of violent “no-knock” raids in drug cases in Little Rock, often based on flimsy or nonexistent evidence. Under Scott and Humphrey, the department dramatically curtailed the practice. Scott persuaded the board to approve a citizens’ review board to consider officer-involved shootings and citizen complaints, and successfully pushed through funding for body-worn cameras for police officers. Humphrey also instituted a series of internal reforms, including anti-nepotism policies, limits on officers’ time in specialty divisions and rotating command staff through divisions. 

Humphrey argued that those internal reforms threatened the power of the FOP and inspired a loosely coordinated attack against him and Mayor Scott. During Humphrey’s tenure, there was a string of lawsuits filed against him by LRPD officers, including two assistant chiefs passed over for the top job; a series of HR complaints; a no-confidence vote by the vast majority of the FOP; and a letter to the board of directors from 10 of the 13 members of the department’s command staff saying they’d lost confidence in the chief. At the same time, the vast majority of the LRPD’s Black Police Officers Association voted to support Humphrey, and some 100 local Black leaders wrote a letter in support of the chief.

As the racially charged infighting churned, the LRPD also faced external challenges. In the wake of the brutal police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota that touched off a national outcry, protestors swarmed the State Capitol and marched through downtown. Humphrey and Scott both briefly walked with protesters, and drew criticism for not doing more to quell them following property damage. Humphrey and Scott also caught flak from the likes of the Arkansas Times for repeating specious claims that outside agitators were responsible for violence and vandalism. 

In 2021, street racing and car caravanning, long issues in Southwest Little Rock, spread to other parts of the city and violence sometimes followed, notably including the death of a 10-year-old girl in Boyle Park and a man shot by someone wielding an AK-47-style firearm in Murray Park. Crime continued to tick up, and while Scott and the LRPD have repeatedly touted modest downward trends this year, homicides are up.

Scott acknowledged the perception that Little Rock isn’t safe in certain areas of the city. “I would contend, being someone who lives in a crime-centered area, that our city is safe, but it could be safer,” he said. “That’s the reason we’ve employed our dual approach of both proactive policing and targeted patrols and our holistic approach of prevention, intervention, treatment.” The city has allocated nearly $5 million in its community programs budget and another $2.5 million toward community violence reduction. “It’s a holistic approach, taking on the short and long term,” Scott said. He was never on the “defund the police train” and says he’s always advocated for the department to have all the resources it needs.

The pandemic unmasked a lot of trauma in young adults, Scott said, and crime has spiked across much of the country. Landers and members of the city board haven’t wanted to hear that. They’ve also pushed back when Scott, who was a youth during Little Rock’s notorious gangland days in the 1990s, reminds them that crime is not close to what it was then, or when he talks about most homicides being domestic or acquaintance violence. “We’ve got an unruly gun culture,” Scott said. Little Rock’s hands are tied by state laws that promote guns everywhere, but Scott said the city works constantly with federal law enforcement agencies to get illegal guns off the street. 

Scott has had nothing but praise for Humphrey, but he had obviously become a liability. Although a lot of the infighting in the department died away as officers who filed lawsuits or HR complaints left the LRPD, a new controversy erupted when Humphrey went on patrol on Dec. 31, 2021, and discharged his weapon; he was not wearing a body camera. He was eventually cleared of wrongdoing by Prosecutor Larry Jegley. Still, Humphrey’s detractors didn’t let go. Humphrey, 58, announced his retirement in May after three years leading the department. One local political consultant who is friendly with Scott told me that had Humphrey not retired the mayor would have likely lost his reelection bid. The FOP endorsed Landers in March.

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Landers officially filed paperwork to run for mayor in July, but he’s been campaigning for almost a year. He announced his plans to seek the office on Sept. 15, 2021, the day after Little Rock voters soundly rejected a 1-cent sales tax increase (because a 10-year three-eighths-of-a-cent tax expired at the end of 2021, the net increase would have been five-eighths of a cent). Postmortem analyses pointed to a range of factors: The timing, amid a still raging pandemic, made it difficult for many to stomach a regressive tax that would hit poor people the hardest when they were already bearing the brunt of the coronavirus. The plan to spend the money, which included novel programs to support early child care and substantial sums for the Little Rock Zoo to in part reestablish a giraffe exhibit, drew criticism for straying too far from meat-and-potatoes issues. Or perhaps the “no” vote was a proxy for those growing increasingly frustrated with Mayor Scott, who was the driver of the tax plan and the face of the election campaign.

Landers made his announcement on Twitter, and he’s remained highly visible there and on Facebook. His posts have typically fallen into three categories: The standard shots of him as a candidate, meeting and greeting in the community. Aphorisms or advice reminiscent of Successories (e.g. “Success is not easy. If it was, anybody could do it. If you want to be average all you have to do is get up in the morning and put your clothes on.”). Otherwise, he’s hammered home the idea that Little Rock is a dangerous and dirty city. Landers seems to tweet every time a violent crime makes news. It doesn’t take too much scrolling to find pictures on his social media accounts of trash-strewn lots or the candidate pointing to a pothole or demonstrating a dramatic wobble of a merry-go-round in a city park. 

It’s a message he emphasized in an August interview with me. “Our city is in crisis. I’m afraid to let my grandchildren go out,” he said. People are afraid to go to the movie theater or to eat in a restaurant, he said. He’s running because he wants Little Rock to be safer. “I don’t need the job. I was happily retired. I spent my life building businesses and employing teams of people. I’ll do that for the city.

“People try to paint me as a wealthy white old guy. I’m not going to apologize for working my butt off my whole life. I worked every holiday because that’s when people come to auto dealerships, every weekend, 12-14 hour days. But I learned so much on how to be a leader and hold people accountable, and I don’t think people in the city are being held accountable.”

Landers was born in Little Rock, but grew up and spent much of his early adult life in Saline County. He’s lived in West Little Rock for more than 25 years. He got married young and had no money and went to work selling cars. Along with his father, he opened his first dealership in Benton in 1972. Business boomed. For several years in the 1990s, the Landers Auto Group was the No. 1 seller of Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep in the world, according to Landers. He sold his dealerships to United Auto Group in 1995 for a reported $40 million. Not content to retire young, Landers engineered two more car groups in the following decades, partnering on one with BET founder Robert Johnson and Mack McLarty, President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff. 

picture of Steve LandersBrian Chilson
THAT’S WHAT STEVE SAID: Landers has made crime the focus of his campaign.

Baker Kurrus, the former Little Rock School District superintendent who lost to Scott in a run-off in 2018, has long known Landers and said Landers has always been a tremendously hard worker and an astute manager of people. He was always the first person to work every morning in his dealerships, Kurrus said. “He knows how to build teams. I’ve seen him do it. He finds people who know what they’re doing.” Meanwhile, Kurrus’ critiques of Scott largely mirror Landers’: He said the mayor hasn’t effectively collaborated with the board of directors, has spent money wastefully, has divided the police department and has bungled his takeover of leadership of key city departments. 

Landers said his track record shows that he would be an equal opportunity manager. “I believe in employing the right person, whether they’re Black, white, male, female, gay, straight — it makes me zero difference. And not just employing people just to give them a job,” something he said he believes has happened in the Scott administration. Landers said he was helping people newly released from prison find jobs at his dealerships 35 years ago, “before it was a thing.” 

Because he has experience bidding on fleet vehicles with the city, he believes he has insight that would save the city money. He sees wasteful spending throughout the administration. In August, he bemoaned the city spending $1.6 million to put basketball courts in Kanis Park again after the expansion of I-630 destroyed the old ones. “I could take $200,000-$400,000 and make it look like Bud Walton Arena,” he quipped. But the expenditure he mentions most frequently is Scott’s use of a police escort, which was recommended early in Scott’s term by Interim Chief Wayne Bewley (who is again, following Humphrey’s departure, the interim chief). “If it’s such a safe city, why does he need this much security?” Landers asked. He said he’d use the money instead to give police officers raises (the exact figure for the cost of the escort has been hard to precisely pin down, but it likely costs several hundred thousand dollars per year). 

Scott campaigned in 2018 on hiring 100 new police officers. The idea was almost immediately shelved for further study and because the city couldn’t afford it. Hiring and retaining officers has been difficult in Little Rock and elsewhere in the country, but Scott has noted that the LRPD exceeds the national average of police department staffing per thousand residents. The results of a LRPD staffing study were to be released in September. Landers has criticized Scott for not following through with that campaign promise and said that he’ll increase the police force. “I don’t want police to harass people,” he said. “I want police to be visible in high crime areas, so people can see them. I drive all over this city and sometimes I don’t see a policeman. Do you think the criminals notice that? Sure they do.” His other concrete idea for improving the department is adding more police dogs. The LRPD has five in its patrol division; Landers said the city needs 12. 

Landers often talks about what he sees driving around Little Rock. He said he’s seen people park their cars, grab wheelchairs from their trunk and start panhandling. That’s their right, he acknowledged, but the city could do more to control where the panhandling happens. “I could put you in a car and drive you around the city and show you total lack of attention to areas where the paper and trash look like a third-world country,” he told me. The city’s Code Enforcement Division isn’t doing its job, he said. Code officers should be issuing more warnings with time limits before issuing citations, he argued.  

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, Scott condemned the ruling and pledged that the Little Rock Police Department was focused on violent crime and wouldn’t be pursuing charges related to violations of Arkansas’s abortion ban. Landers said, “Whatever the law of the land is, we’ll support it.”

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It’s perhaps to be expected in a race between an incumbent and a challenger that much of the focus has been more of a battle over Scott’s first term than a vision for the future of Little Rock. But the candidates do have plans. Scott says he’ll focus on efforts to battle climate change; he announced in March during his state of the city address that city operations would run solely on clean energy by 2030. The theme of a second term would be about improving quality of life and place, he said, which was a big part of the unsuccessful sales tax push and would likely require a new tax. Even Landers, who promises on his website to keep residents’ taxes as low as possible, said he wouldn’t rule out a sales tax increase. Landers has promised to restore War Memorial Park to former glory, including reviving the golf course, while openly questioning whether the city has too many parks. Scott, who drew the ire of golfers when he pushed to shutter the War Memorial golf course in July 2019 as part of cost-cutting move, still wants to see it become Little Rock’s Central Park and establish a sports complex there or somewhere nearby. 

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In 2018, Scott won a plurality of votes in the general election against Kurrus and state Rep. Warwick Sabin, and then handily bested Kurrus in a run-off. The results somewhat broke down along racial and geographic lines: Scott won downtown and areas with high concentrations of minority voters east of Interstate 30 and south of Interstate 630, and Kurrus won West Little Rock and the Heights. But Scott kept it close in a number of precincts in largely white neighborhoods and won a number of areas in the middle of the city.       

To win reelection, Scott will have to repeat that formula to an extent, but campaign insiders believe he’ll have more trouble keeping the margin narrow in wealthier, whiter parts of town, such as the Heights and West Little Rock. Meanwhile, Landers could have trouble building on Kurrus’ share of the vote in more diverse and liberal parts of the city. The race may come down to how well the candidates perform in the center of the city. 

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Political winds can shift quickly. In a one-week news cycle in August, there were 18 shootings over a three-day period in and around the city, and Landers confessed to the Arkansas Times that he’d left his loaded handgun in the bathroom of The Root Cafe. Landers said he’d had a concealed carry license for years because he often worked odd hours and had to move money around, and that it’s his practice to remove the gun from his holster when he uses public restrooms. He put the gun on the back of the sink at The Root and forgot to retrieve it. By the time he called to arrange to pick it up, The Root had turned it over to Little Rock police, who returned the gun to Landers. Twitter sleuths joked that the only way Landers could forget his gun on the sink of the one-person bathroom at The Root was if he didn’t wash his hands.

The race is Scott’s to lose, local politicos of all stripes say, but anything could happen in two months.