As gauged by the number of weekly conversations on the topic, the hottest 2018 race in Arkansas politics is the race for mayor of Little Rock (a fact also indicative of the thoroughness of Republican dominance across the remainder of the state). With veteran Mayor Mark Stodola planning to seek a fourth term, two others are currently “exploring” the race with fundraising and media operations that look like full-fledged campaigns: Democratic state Rep. Warwick Sabin and banker and former State Highway Commissioner Frank Scott Jr.
The state of the race became more confused last week with a memo from City Attorney Tom Carpenter arguing that Sabin and Scott should shut down their early fundraising while counterintuitively greenlighting Stodola to use funds carried over from previous campaigns. On Monday evening, the City Board asked the state Ethics Commission to resolve a conflict between state and city laws regarding early fundraising, but the courts — increasingly wary of limitations on campaign fundraising — may also ultimately get involved. No worries, all will have plenty of resources to run full-scale campaigns next year.
A sense that Stodola lacks the energy and innovative ideas to push Little Rock toward its potential pervades the perception of those watching city government closely. In his defense, the hydra-headed monster that is city government in Little Rock, separating power among a city manager, a City Board and the mayor, makes leadership of the city challenging. That said, a view persists that a higher-octane mayor could use the bully pulpit to advocate for more consequential change in a city bogged down by forces of race and class that create, in essence, two separate cities. The result is an environment prone to dramatic upticks in crime such as occurred across the first half of 2017.
The notion of a young, African-American mayor is deeply attractive in a city with a trust gap with roots in Jim Crow and reinforced by the Interstate 630 division. A native of Southwest Little Rock, Scott fits that bill. But, in his ties to the traditional business establishment, his ardent support for the 30 Crossing project while on the Highway Commission, and his religiously grounded social stances, Scott is more conservative than the median voter in the city. The key question: Is he too conservative for a city that cast approximately two-thirds of its votes for Hillary Clinton last fall?
Sabin’s progressive bona fides are solid — both in terms of a focus on promoting entrepreneurialism, particularly in the tech sector, and embracing diversity. His aggressive opposition to the 30 Crossing project when it didn’t seem like an obvious political winner won him points with many activist progressives in the city. The lingering question is whether he has the personal skills to connect with voters outside of his central city base during the campaign and to patiently work a system with obstacles to change if he’s elected.
One can see a pathway to the 40 percent threshold next November for any of the three Democrats running in a technically nonpartisan race. Stodola has the name recognition that comes with being on ballots going back over a quarter century that will pay off in a general election when numerous voters show up to vote for other offices. Sabin is arguably most in synch with the progressive city ideologically and will have the most sophisticated campaign operation. An African-American candidate with authentic roots in the city is certain to gain the vast majority of votes in heavily African-American precincts. This means that, no matter the efforts of his opponents, Scott will dominate across the just under 40 percent of the Little Rock electorate that is African American.
Perhaps the more likely scenario is that none of the three hit the magic number, resulting in a runoff around Thanksgiving. In a change-oriented environment, either Sabin or Scott would be favored in a one-on-one against the incumbent Stodola. A runoff between Sabin and Scott would be a more unpredictable affair, although Sabin’s strength in those sections of the city with the highest turnout rates would likely favor him.
Because of the lingering questions about the three candidates, some pine for another big name to enter the race. State Rep. Clarke Tucker has ruled it out and state Sen. Joyce Elliott and City Director Kathy Webb have announced their plans for re-election. Probably the last candidate who could reshape the race is former Little Rock School District Superintendent Baker Kurrus, still highly popular in the city as a result of his work in that role.
The optimistic takeaway from all this energy among candidates and voters in Little Rock: There is a real sense that the future of Arkansas’s largest city is truly worth fighting for.