ANTWAN PHILLIPS Brian Chilson

You’re well known as someone who’s optimistic and usually in good spirits. Like you, I’m generally fairly upbeat and hopeful. But with COVID-19 dragging on and new, significantly more contagious variants on the horizon and the insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol, I’ve found it hard not to despair lately. How are you feeling?

Honestly, it’s been tough for me on a personal level. I’m a very optimistic person. The campaign was about optimism — that better is available. I truly believe that. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been challenging. I’m also a very outgoing people person and not being able to do things that have become so much a part of my life and get the energy that I receive from being around people — I didn’t realize how much of my metaphorical cup was filled by my many interactions. Recognizing that and finding ways to fill the cup in a different way has been a challenge. On a bigger picture, we’re living in unprecedented times, but if you want to find despair, it was always there. There’ve always been things to be concerned about. Incumbent on me now, especially in a different role, is to highlight what’s coming that’s better, what is there to look forward to in the city. That’s where I’m trying to focus my energy.

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What’s your priority as you start your first term as at-large city director?

There are a few things. The targeted community initiative resolution [approved by the board Jan. 19]. The idea is that we’re going to be intentional where we spend our dollars in the city. It’s recognizing that there are parts of towns that need more attention than others, that haven’t received the type of development other parts of town have. And it affects what those parts of town look like. It’s top of mind and taking it from resolution stage to line-item funding stage by the end of the year in preparation for 2022. Another thing is form of government. There was a study commissioned a couple of years ago about getting rid of at-large positions as we know them. Even as an at-large representative, I think that’s better for the city. So at some point, I’m going to be working to maybe work myself out of a job. In some shape, form or fashion. There’s a lot of ways to skin that cat. It may be some hybrid form. I definitely plan to bring it up before the end of the year. 

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At-large directors, past and present, have gotten criticized for favoring moneyed interests or constituents in certain, often wealthier neighborhoods. You’ve talked about addressing Little Rock’s inequities being a focus. How do you engage people who’ve always been left out of the conversation?

This may be an age thing with me being the youngest person on the board: It’s not hard to get people the information and have them be involved in the process. During the recent discussion over a [no-confidence] resolution about [Little Rock Police] Chief Humphrey, there were a bunch of people who showed up twice to speak against it. I’m not here to advocate for or against that resolution, but people are willing to be engaged when you engage them. It’s going to be on me, whether that’s through social media or my connections through living here or campaigning, to let people know. It affects your neighborhood. It affects your business. Let people know: When they show up it makes a difference. That’s going to be my responsibility because I’m the only one different on the board. I don’t expect anyone who’s been the board to change the way they legislate or govern. If there’s going to be greater involvement, it’s going to be me bringing people to the table.

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I haven’t done the math, but I know that you coming on a board made up largely of directors who are 65 or older has dropped the average age considerably. You’re also the only lawyer on the board. Those are two things that I imagine will inform how you work with board members. How do you think you’ll change the board dynamic?

Watching the board meetings, it’s obvious that there haven’t often been kumbaya moments. To the extent that I can be a liaison between people who don’t get along with other people, I hope to do that. I had a relationship with everyone on the board prior to me joining the board. Just from being around and working with them. Everybody on the board has at least one ally and some people have more than one, and obviously you need more than one to get something passed. I want to be that person for everybody. That anyone can call, see me as a voice of reason, a new perspective and obviously someone with a legal background. I do see myself bearing some responsibility in connecting people who usually don’t talk. I see a lot of times when it’s happened, most of the time it’s not even the message, it’s the messenger. It’s like, “If she said it, I’m against it,” or, “If he said it, I’m against it.” I’m hoping to build relationships. I want my fellow board members to think, “If it’s coming from Antwan it’s coming from a good place.”

You and Mayor Frank Scott Jr. are longtime friends. You’re also close friends with his chief of staff, Charles Blake. I think there’s a perception that you’re going to be carrying the mayor’s water, so to speak, on the board. Do you anticipate points of disagreement?

I definitely foresee times when we don’t agree. We’re friends and friends don’t agree all the time. Anyone who knows me and the mayor personally knows that despite being close, we have different personalities. You don’t see it out in the public, but there are times we’ve disagreed behind the scenes. From a technical standpoint from the way our form of government works, he doesn’t get a vote unless there’s a tie. Usually, I’m going to get to act first before the mayor gets to act. But I would agree that most of the time we’re probably going to be on the same page. We see the city the same. We’ve had similar experiences, growing up the way we did and leaving Little Rock and coming back and getting our graduate degrees here and jumping into public service. But I’m not going to be afraid to disagree with him. 

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Mayor Scott unveiled a plan to ask Little Rock taxpayers to support a permanent 1-cent sales tax increase at what turned out to be the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and the city had to put it off indefinitely. When will it be time to roll it out again?

Soon! I know we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, but obviously our city needs resources. There are things that need attention as far as dollars. We have a three-eighths-cent sales tax that sunsets at the end of the year. At some point during ’21, we have to do something to prepare for ’22. We have to prepare to have at least what we have this year. We still have to be able to look forward to what Little Rock is going to look like next year.  When we get a substantial amount of vaccinations and the numbers start to decrease, and you feel good going to a bar without a mask on. We need to be ready. This hasn’t been discussed, but I don’t know if you wait until the perfect time, because then it may be too late. If you wait ’til, say two weeks of decreased numbers, what if that’s November? That wouldn’t be practical. I think there’s timing concerns. But I’m generally supportive about it because we need the resources.

What Jay-Z lyric is inspiring you in your early days as city director? 

There are so many I try to think about. [From the Jay-Z guest verse in Lil Wayne’s “Mr. Carter”]: “Go farther, go further, go harder/Is that not why we came? And if not, then why bother?” And then from “So Ambitious,” which is my favorite song of all time: “They say wise up/how many guys-a, you see making it from here/The world don’t like us, is that not clear? Alright but/I’m different, I can’t base what I’m gon’ be/Off of what everybody isn’t, they don’t listen/Just whispering behind my back/No vision, lack of ambition, so wack!” That’s always hit me because it kind of goes to what the campaign was about. If you believe in something, you’re going to work to make it happen. What I’m going to be as a city director, what I think Little Rock is going to be, can’t be based on what it has been, what everybody else has said it can’t be. You gotta have vision. You’ve gotta have ambition. If you’re don’t, you’re wack.

Age: 37
Birthplace: Little Rock
Job: Lawyer and partner at Wright Lindsey Jennings; at-large Little Rock city director
Secret talent: Grilling seafood.
Favorite 2020 movie: “Bad Boys for Life”
Favorite 2020 album: Big Sean’s “Detroit 2”
Favorite drink: McBride Sisters red blend wine Black Girl Magic