While I was away, Frank Scott Jr. won a historic victory in a runoff with Baker Kurrus to succeed Mark Stodola as Little Rock mayor.
Voters said they wanted change and decided that the 35-year-old Scott was more promising. He happens to be black and thus is the first popularly elected black mayor of Little Rock.
Scott’s promise for change included, as a candidate, supporting ward-only election of city directors. That would end the three at-large seats that tend to concentrate city political power in the moneyed business establishment. He’s already modified that good proposal with a mention of willingness to consider a Memphis-style system blending ward-only seats with a couple of multimember “super wards.” This sounds to me like a fig leaf that would produce the same money-friendly formula for board control.
Interestingly, Scott’s own election is prime evidence against the legal argument that at-large seats amount to a way to racially discriminate. All three are white and only three of the 10 city directors are black. A key way to prove discriminatory election procedures is to demonstrate racially polarized voting. Scott did enjoy Soviet-style results in black precincts — 373 to 6 at a precinct on Roosevelt Road in the inner city, for example. But he demonstrated significant (and heartening) cross-racial support. Example: The two precincts that vote at Pulaski Heights Presbyterian Church in liberal Hillcrest went only 764-733 for Kurrus. If a black man can run strong in white precincts and win the mayor’s seat in plurality white Little Rock, it is more difficult to argue that polarized voting demands a new way of selecting city directors.
But change is needed. And, in this matter, Scott’s promise of change AND unity bumps up against the calcified city board. For now, the arithmetic is the same. The mayor needs six votes to achieve major changes. Three city directors — Kathy Webb, Capi Peck and Lance Hines — supported Kurrus. The three at-large board members — Joan Adcock, Dean Kumpuris and Gene Fortson — are jealous of their prerogatives as functional deputy mayors. The board has rejected earlier proposals to change to ward elections. I think voters would be more receptive, but perhaps not after business establishment money is deployed in defense of the status quo.
Scott should have more immediate impact in altering the balance of power between the mayor and city manager. First Kurrus and then Scott argued that the law already provides that the city manager works at the direction of the mayor. Scott reportedly has delivered that message to Manager Bruce Moore. This will put more responsibility — as it should — on the mayor in selection of the next police chief.
The last chief, Kenton Buckner, threw in with the Fraternal Order of Police, which supported Kurrus in a racially offensive way. There’s no percentage in going to war with the FOP, but it’s past time for the city to stop coddling this reactionary, mostly white, mostly suburban-living element of the police force. Being a fair but tough overseer of the police will be Scott’s first great test.
Another test will be Scott’s effort to champion public education. It’s not an official role, but the city fails if its schools do. His endorsement of charter schools earned him the editorial endorsement of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, not a mark of honor. The continued erosion of the state-controlled Little Rock School District by charter proliferation might please the Waltons, but it will create a balkanized system of education with a few haves and lots of have-nots. Not exactly a jobs magnet.
I was glad to hear Scott note over the weekend that Little Rock hadn’t had a net increase in jobs over the last decade. You’d think that would be a good point to reconsider providing a $300,000 taxpayer subsidy to the anti-labor Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. It might also be a point to consider the billion-dollar I-30 concrete gulch that Scott himself backs through downtown so those who work in Little Rock can get home a few seconds faster to the suburbs, which sell themselves as antidotes to Little Rock crime and substandard (read majority poor and black) schools.
We saw a historic national electoral victory built on hope and change sometimes founder against entrenched political opposition and the status quo. That’s no reason to regret friendly Frank Scott’s famous victory. It’s only a reminder that now the hard part begins.