Though well-organized and fair, the Monday evening Little Rock mayoral forum got heated — particularly between incumbent Frank Scott Jr. and candidate Steve Landers when it came to crime, LITFest and the city’s parks.
KUAR 89.1-FM journalist Michael Hibblen moderated the forum at Ron Robinson theater, and it was the first that could be called a debate. The candidates — Scott, Landers, Greg Henderson and Glen Schwarz — were given two minutes to answer the same question, and if someone was called out, they were given a one-minute rebuttal period.
The night’s focal points circled around Scott and Landers, but Henderson shared familiar ideas about strong neighborhoods, a crime plan that includes both short-and-long-term solutions, investing in small businesses and increasing transparency. He also said he would support the city’s 63 parks and would not close any. He, like Scott and Schwarz, said he supported the legalization of adult-use marijuana — Landers did decline to reveal whether he’ll vote for the issue.
Schwarz focused on global warming, legalizing marijuana and increasing the city’s recycling programming.
The dominant conflict of the night came when crime moved to the center of discussion. Landers took digs at the current administration’s efforts and touted recent crime data that stated homicides in the city are up 22%. Landers shared his crime plan, which is built on the foundation of “build, fund and recruit” and includes a collaboration with nearby departments and increased technology with drones and trained K9s.
In back-and-forth rebuttals, Scott shot that Landers’ critiques were “dog whistles,” and that “Steve doesn’t have a [crime] plan.” He also said that Landers spreads “false narratives.”
In return, Landers said he would rather have a “dog de escalate a problem than have a local city policeman go in there and get shot in the face.” He said that he doesn’t think Scott is worried enough about crime, suggesting the money spent on the mayor’s security detail could go toward police department resources.
The Little Rock Police Department recommended Scott have additional security after a bomb threat to a city Board of Directors meeting in 2019. In the recommendation, there was also a reference to “uncharted waters under your [Scott’s] leadership.”
At the forum, Landers said that he would not have additional security, and his point against Scott was not about his race.
Scott’s main claim about the festival was that the event brought “key learnings,” and there were some “mistakes made,” he said. “But when the time [came to make] a decision, as a leader, I made sure those decisions were correct. So, yes, it had to be canceled.”
Hibblen phrased the question to include several details of the LITFest saga, including the hiring of the mayor’s former chief of staff to Think Rubix — the company that was chosen to organize the festival, the move to skip the Board of Directors’ approval and the contract concerns that arose. Scott did not include explanations to any of these details in his response. He did not include LITFest in his response concerning city transparency. He did say that if he is reelected, he would fight again to bring the festival to Little Rock.
Landers again took a stab at Scott’s work and said that “LITFest was a bad idea from the start.” He said that it would hurt the State Fair, which was scheduled for the week following the festival’s Oct 7-9 dates, and it was something of a “political rally” for Scott. Landers also called the contract a “sham.”
Scott responded that “if you know me, if you know anyone around our team, the word ‘corruption’ is not even in our definition book. We don’t need to get started on sham contracts tonight. We don’t need to get started on lawsuits tonight. We don’t need to get started on misusing individuals tonight. We won’t do it tonight, because we’re going to be very positive tonight.”
The other candidates said they supported the festival. Schwarz said he never thought there were “ulterior motives” in its planning, and Henderson said he’d like to see a future festival that worked with the entire region.
Tension rose again between Scott and Landers when discussing the state of Little Rock’s 63 parks. Scott said that “the thought of someone taking away a park in those areas [south of I-630 and east of I-40] is heartless and would create more crime. This is not a business, this is about developing quality of life and place, this is about ensuring that we have community violence reduction and ensuring that our children have something to do so they don’t find something to do.”
Landers has said on multiple occasions that he would do an investigation into the city’s parks and determine how to properly manage the bunch. In the past, he has suggested that maybe a fewer number of parks with increased programming is what’s best — his proposed number has varied from the low 30s to 40. At the forum, he said that he has never said he wanted to close any parks. In August, Landers told the Arkansas Times that Interstate Park, built on a former landfill, would be an example of a park that should close.
“We need a park for everyone,” Landers said. “We need to keep them safe, well maintained and open.”
The forum can be watched back in full, here.
Tuesday, Oct. 11, is the last day to register to vote in Arkansas for the November election. Early voting starts Oct. 24, and election day is Nov. 8.