Incisive and sometimes confrontational questions about race relations were asked of four of Little Rock’s five mayoral candidates — Baker Kurrus, Vincent Tolliver, Warwick Sabin
and Frank Scott Jr.
— at last night's debate Thursday evening sponsored by Little Rock's Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission
Except for Kurrus, the candidates gave similar answers to questions raised by the commission and the audience in the M.L. Harris Auditorium on the Philander Smith College campus. Many focused on community policing, and when asked if they supported Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner
, Tolliver and Sabin said no.
The question followed a discussion about the need to create a citizens review board that would investigate citizens’ complaints against police officers. Scott, Tolliver and Sabin said the perception of police brutality and a disconnect between city leaders and their citizens supported the idea for the review board.
Only Kurrus said he would not support such a board. He said that as mayor he would shoulder accountability for employees, and there would be no need for a citizens review board. Kurrus also said it was inappropriate to address firing Buckner, and that he was “not going to play that game,” an answer that drew applause from the audience. Scott was noncommittal.
Tolliver, Sabin and Scott also said they would support an ordinance to make low-level marijuana offenses
a low priority with police. Kurrus, however, said such an ordinance would inhibit policing.
On other issues:
Sabin, Scott and Tolliver all said they support the elimination of the city's three at-large city director positions. They said the 1957 vote to abandon a mayor-council form of government in favor
of electing some city directors at large was racially motivated, born out of white fear of minority representation.
But Kurrus again diverged from the others, saying the at-large directors provide important perspective and balance to the city directors board. He pointed out the Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission’s structure of five at-large members.
THE FUTURE OF THE LRSD
All candidates supported gaining back local control of the Little Rock School District. Kurrus has served on the School Board and as superintendent during the district's first year under state control.
Kurrus said he would be open to looking at a renters’ bill of rights, but said the larger issue is the low number and inadequacy of code enforcers and inspectors allocated to enforce safe, affordable housing. (Arkansas’s tenant laws, which criminalize failure to pay rent, are the harshest in the nation.) Tolliver, Sabin and Scott said a city ordinance to protect renters from poor and often dangerous housing — a situation they said mostly affects people of color
— was needed, and said they had worked to revitalize neighborhoods
Kurrus briefly addressed the audience in Spanish when asked what he would do to help immigrants. He and the other candidates favor
the ID cards recently issued by the city; Tolliver said as mayor, he would issue an executive order that the city not honor
ICE efforts, ensuring no jails in Little Rock detain any immigrants on behalf of the government organization.
Asked about support
of making Little Rock a sanctuary city, Kurrus said, “That’s not a yes or no question, so I’m not going to take the bait on that.” The other three candidates said yes. The moderator returned to Kurrus to see if he wanted to answer, to which Kurrus said, “You asked a lawyer to answer … a loaded question that’s really not very insightful, and I won’t play that game.”
The event was moderated by Tristan Wilkerson, a managing partner at Think Rubix LLC, and Rizelle Aaron, former Arkansas NAACP president.