by Max Brantley
Rep. Tracy Steele surprised by leading the ticket in the race for North Little Rock mayor, to succeed the retiring Pat Hays.
Steele finished with 11,524 votes, or 48.26 percent. Joe Smith, Hays' chief of staff and the current city establishment's pick for the job, finished with 9,820 or 41.13 percent of the vote. Mark Clinton, with 1,791 or 7.53 percent, and John Parker, with 741, or 3.1 percent, trailed.
Steele is close enough to 50 percent that he would need only a small percentage of the other candidates' votes to win. But Smith has been better financed to date and there won't be a lot on the ballot post-Thanksgiving — notably lacking a presidential race — to encourage turnout similar to Tuesday's.
Smith's campaign said:
It's not a surprising result. Tracy Steele is a true career politician - he's been on the ballot countless times so it makes sense that he had much higher name ID. Joe sits in a really good spot now going into this runoff and definitely has the momentum. He is energized, as is our team. We are ready to go on this sprint.
I've sought a comment from Tracy Steele, but haven't heard back. But he wrote on Facebook:
What an exciting election night!
I am extremely grateful for everything you've done on my behalf. Thank You! The next three weeks are crucial and I need you more than I ever have before.
I look forward to the next three weeks before the run-off election. It is time to look to our future and move this great city forward by focusing on our public servants, our children and school district and our workers and business community.
If we stand together, we can accomplish great things. Your support is what keeps me going.
Steele touched obliquely on a point in his favor — the North Little Rock School District. Its supporters carried out an impressive piece of community organizing in winning broad and deep community support for a huge tax increase to rebuild the entire school district. The Hays administration was slow to get on the school tax bandwagon. This rankled school supporters, as did the mayor's earlier push to take school tax money for downtown development. Some of these school supporters jumped to the Steele campaign. He was an early and vigorous supporter of the school tax. He's a black candidate in a city where racially polarized voting occurs and where whites still constitute the voting majority. But there was clear evidence yesterday of biracial support for Steele, including 25 to 30 percent totals in some higher income predominantly white neighborhoods. A good sign for him.
The three weeks leading to the runoff Nov. 27 will increase calls for examination of Steele's record as both a legislator and an administrator of a state agency, the Martin Luther King Commission. A Democrat-Gazette editorial endorsing Steele, in part on his administrative experience, was, simply, laughable. His tenure at the King Commission was perpetually dogged by controversy, political disputes and criticism of administrative practices, not to mention the fact that Steele had capitalized on his legislative position to get a paying job with a state agency. Steele has used his legislative clout in other ways, particularly to help get business for family enterprises, such as his own media company. Competitors also think his brother's ad agency has benefitted from the state connection. Worse than all that was Steele's solicitation of charitable contributions to a foundation he established from business interests that need help from the legislature. As we've reported before based on public documents, the majority of money raised for that charity has gone — not to direct services to youth — but into Tracy Steele's pocket or to provide him with an office. Critics of Smith argue that the Hays administration, with Smith as lead administrator, also took care of friends, too. I hope both sides speak directly and candidly on these issues. This is a big job, overseeing a lot of money in a city where a couple of aldermen were packed off to prison not long ago.
Steele is a better personal campaigner. That's no small plus in a city where the mayor is such a dominant figure in city government.
UPDATE: Steele announced Wednesday evening that opponent Mark Clinton, who's from the teabagger political school, would endorse him tomorrow. That's a reason NOT to support Steele.