JOHN BRUMMETT: A leader emerges in Little Rock mayor's race?

Posted: March 4, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Mayor of Little Rock is a horrible job that provides little authority and demands full responsibility.

And no one ever wanted it more.

City government is mainly run by a city manager. Many of the major functions--the airport, public transportation, water and sewer--are run independently and operated regionally, transcending the city.

But if gang members shoot and wound 28 people on an early Sunday morning at a Little Rock nightclub, that's on one person--the mayor.

We have three worthy candidates so far, and they're fighting hard early. The formal campaign can't start until June and voting won't take place until November.

The 12th-year incumbent, Mark Stodola, wants to keep the job for some reason--so fervently, in fact, that he joined the city board of directors in a blamed-fool lawsuit, predictably a perfunctory loser last week, to try to keep his two announced challengers from raising money until June.

Stodola is ... fine. He's a competent politician who can win any race he enters that requires an average performance. But when he made his big bid for Congress in the 1990s, he crashed into a Democratic primary opponent in Vic Snyder who fired voter passions. Snyder went to Congress and Stodola looked for something closer to home.

State Rep. Warwick Sabin seeks the job, albeit nominally nonpartisan, as the best opportunity for a Democrat in a ragingly red state to escape the beatdown of service in the Arkansas General Assembly. He sees it as a vehicle for influential public service, largely by using the job's statutory weakness as an opening to define it.

Sabin is ... also fine. He's been a rising star for three decades, since coming to the state from New York City's Upper West Side as a college student enamored of Bill Clinton. He's held a half-dozen or more jobs--publishing the Oxford American magazine, being Lu Hardin's public relations man at UCA before Hardin's famous misbehavior, heading an innovation hub, and being associate editor of the Arkansas Times. He is now at Winrock International as senior director of U.S. programs.

As a legislator he passed ethics reform legislation and beat his head against the wall.

Frank Scott, former highway commissioner and Mike Beebe aide and now a banker ... also is fine. He thinks he might be the very candidate to merge the support of the black community of which he is a member with a segment of the Chamber of Commerce with which he is comfortable. He also reaches out to religious conservatives to whom he relates as a preacher.

I was analyzing the race the other morning for the LifeQuest retiree class. I figured Sabin would carry the liberal white neighborhoods while Scott would rely on the black neighborhood-chamber parlay and Stodola would get whatever inertia produces.

To win without a runoff, one of them will need to top 40 percent. I told the retiree class I foresaw a chance of all of them landing somewhere in the range of 33 percent.

"What about a Republican candidate?" barked a class member, himself a Republican.

It's a nonpartisan election in a blue city. No one runs by party affiliation, but the numbers favor a Democratic association. But there are a lot of Republican votes as one moves westward across the Little Rock landscape.

Then, the very next day, prominent thousand-dollar sponsors announced themselves as hosts for a fundraiser for Sabin. They included Republicans such as Sheffield Nelson, Bill Vickery, Betty Dickey, Terry Benham and John Mark Huckabee.

The fundraiser will be at the home of Bill Dillard III.

The event may suggest that Sabin, whose campaign is advised by hard-edged Democratic consultant Michael Cook, has a significant jump on the other candidates in demonstrating bipartisan appeal.

It might mean that Sabin stands a chance of augmenting white liberal support--from Capitol View and Stifft's Station through Hillcrest and the Heights--by wresting business establishment and GOP support from an incumbent who might expect it and a third candidate whose calculations of a coalition need it.

What all the fundraiser hosts have in common, Sabin told me, is that they are longtime friends of his with whom he's worked in one way or another.

When I suggested that the event's host list threatened to set him apart in the three-man race, he said, excitedly, and not a bit unpredictably: "Absolutely."

It shows, he said, that he can appeal to diverse groups for what is a nonpartisan assignment to confront nonpartisan challenges. He said it shows that there is wide sentiment that the city needs "a new dynamism" in leadership.

I'm not ready to say Mayor Sabin. But I am ready to say that I have just now written more in one day about a Little Rock mayor's race than I'd written about all the others put together in 30-plus years.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 03/04/2018