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JOHN BRUMMETT: Solidifying his case

by John Brummett | November 8, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

The runoff for mayor of Little Rock could be at least as interesting as the first go-round, which proved nigh unto fascinating.

Round One was complicated. Strong plurality winner Frank Scott got 37 percent while utterly defying compartmentalizing.

He was a change agent who had establishment bona fides. He had a natural base of support from fellow African Americans and from the disadvantaged sections of town. But he was a banker, former highway commissioner and Mike Beebe aide who benefited from those lofty associations. He ran both to champion the black community and preach unity citywide. He was a socially conservative pastor--not trusted as a strong advocate by the gay community--but he enjoyed the vocal endorsement of the liberal lioness of Arkansas, state Sen. Joyce Elliott.

Does Scott now stand to consolidate the prevailing vote for change by picking up the better part of third-place Warwick Sabin's strong 28 percent? Will that overpower his runoff combatant, Baker Kurrus, who edged Sabin by a few hundred votes and is establishmentarian to the extent that he is favored by leading members of the City Board of Directors and old friends of the outgoing mayor, Mark Stodola?

Or will the midtown progressives who supported Sabin--and who will vote from responsibility even if lacking particular motivation over the runoff choice--find themselves more naturally inclined to Kurrus? Will they ally more instinctively with his noble school superintendent's service than with Scott's socially conservative views? Will they find Kurrus the more pragmatic and conventionally experienced choice?

I'm only asking questions. This is an entirely new kind of political competition in a city that has not before seen these dynamics presenting themselves directly and citywide at the ballot box. I obviously don't have the answers. I'm seeking them.

I missed this story.

I spent most of my words in the first go-round analyzing the progressive white community's conflict over the choice of Kurrus and Sabin. I found that a ripe subject, and it was, though only secondarily.

With the exception of one column that perhaps began to address Scott's essence, I tended to refer to him only by the way as an also-formidable contender whom I should be careful to keep in mind, even as I didn't.

Still now, my instinct for the runoff is geographic, meaning racial and stereotypical. It is to say that Scott runs from a part of town on the east and south sides and Kurrus runs from another part of town on the west side, and that they will now compete for the in-between in a city arranged neatly for that kind of battleground.

It is to figure that white will outnumber black in a city starkly divided by white and black.

But Little Rock might be more admirably complicated than that, and Frank Scott surely is.

While Sabin's and Kurrus' supporters devolved during the campaign to sniping at each other, Scott stayed above it and about his business.

He told me early he could win without a runoff, and he got closer to the 40 percent threshold than I figured any of the three contenders could.

I thought Scott grandstanded once during the campaign, but now I wonder.

When The Washington Post unveiled its extensive reporting about police misconduct and apparent corruption in Little Rock, Kurrus gave a muted city-establishment response. Sabin gave a bold response that Scott, it seemed to me, felt a need to match and exceed when he sent a letter to the federal Justice Department asking for a civil rights investigation.

The Trump administration, as you might expect, is already on record wanting to curb the Obama administration's tendency to instigate civil rights investigations of local police misconduct.

But there are people in the city who doubt the credibility of conventional local leadership to address such allegations openly and objectively. It is possible Scott was addressing that distrust when he appeared to me merely to be grandstanding. It was his job to represent, not concede pre-emptively to the racial insensitivity of the Trump administration.

Scott's representation of historic distrust was no doubt a factor Tuesday. It's possible that he's a natural change agent more than a tactical one.

I was impressed, for example, when he defended his support for the 30 Crossing project.

He told me no one needed to talk to him about the economic and racial divisions a freeway can cause, considering that his mom was displaced by the Mills Freeway decades ago. He said he'd made sure as a highway commissioner that the Interstate 30 project would treat no one that way.

Thus, Scott could speak rarely, both from the direct experience of race disadvantage and a position of influence as a former highway commissioner. He might offer a candidacy that both signals comfort to the Chamber of Commerce and extends hope to the understandably distrustful.

That's pretty much what Little Rock needs. Scott has until Dec. 4 to solidify the case.


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

Editorial on 11/08/2018

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