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Worthy candidates seldom have labored so intensely for political powers not expressly existing.

The Little Rock mayor's race ends today, subject to a runoff if no one gets 40 percent. It closes with wide discussion of one issue the candidates could do nothing about and equally wide discussion of a second issue they could influence only by presumptuousness.

The five candidates--three of them serious--have appeared at dozens of community forums to account to citizens patiently and graciously. Yet the selection of a police chief to replace the newly departing one--at a time when The Washington Post hammers Little Rock with alarming accusations and revelations of racism and corruption in its police department--is formally the responsibility of the police chief's direct boss. That would be the largely invisible city manager. His decision would be subject to the consent of the policy board of which the mayor is the presiding member.

A bold mayor presumptuously could interject himself to try to hire or influence the hiring of a police chief rather than merely consent. One of them, Warwick Sabin, has already indicated that would be his intent.

Meantime, many in the community obsess appropriately on lingering state control of the Little Rock public schools. They focus for the moment on state Education Commissioner Johnny Key's attempt to weaken the teachers' union by leveraging the authority to fire some local teachers--those laboring in low-performing schools--without adhering to the teacher protections of the fair dismissal law.

The issue has reared its head in the mayoral context although the mayor has nothing to do with the public schools beyond advocating from a bully pulpit.

Sabin started all this. The young Democratic state representative got the idea to challenge incumbent Mark Stodola and seek to elevate the mayor's role beyond expressed authority. Frank Scott--the young former Mike Beebe aide and highway commissioner--had the same idea. Then Stodola bowed out. Establishment friends of the departing mayor who had resented Sabin's affront prevailed on Baker Kurrus, the heroic and martyred school superintendent who was itching to run for something, to get in the race.

The prevailing narrative has been that Little Rock is fortunate to have three stellar and hard-to-distinguish choices. But differences eventually became clear between Sabin and Kurrus.

Take the police issue. Two weeks ago, The Washington Post broke a story about a pattern of abusive no-knock police warrants targeting African Americans on drug suspicion based on tips from a dubious informant and producing no or scant evidence.

Sabin--consistently the first to address issues, and the strongest and clearest in the way he addresses them--instantly called for an independent investigation and said Little Rock had to fight crime, yes, but couldn't do so by behaving unlawfully itself.

Kurrus, in the process of courting the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police, put out an odd and meaningless statement about the esoterica of an internal fact-finding process.

Then, when the Post came back Friday with a follow-up about racially abusive police practices and coverups, Sabin again responded forcefully to reiterate his call for an investigation. Kurrus, by then in possession of the endorsement of the group assailed in nationwide reporting, was quiet.

They're fine men, Sabin and Kurrus. But one is about a new direction and the other about being a better Stodola.

Meantime, some Kurrus supporters have taken a shot at the end at Sabin for voting as a legislator for an omnibus education bill in 2017 that, among myriad provisions affecting the public-school accountability system, included authority to waive the teacher fair dismissal process in certain cases.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock--who ought to be mayor, or education commissioner, or governor--testified at the time to raise questions and concerns about more than a dozen provisions. She made a social media post Friday reminding of those concerns.

She told me Saturday she was "gobsmacked" by anyone's trying to say that she was even implying any criticism of Sabin. She said she mainly was irked at Key for making public pronouncements while teachers were abiding by his request to make no public comment while negotiating.

Sabin told me his vote was a practical one on a wide-ranging bill that in no way suggested he was anything less than a full supporter of Little Rock's public schools.

If one wanted to cherry-pick votes, Kurrus' long tenure on the local school board might provide a ripe opportunity. But, remember, the mayor has nothing non-rhetorically to do with the public schools.

Sabin as a redefining mayor and Kurrus as a reinstated superintendent of a locally restored district--that might be a smart deployment of local talent.

I shouldn't get so engrossed in the Sabin-Kurrus bickering that I forget the able and amiable Scott, potentially a history-maker as the city's first popularly elected black mayor, which would be a good thing.

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

Editorial on 11/06/2018

Print Headline: Much ado over not much

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