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A full House race in Little Rock

Looking for differences among four Democratic candidates in the heart of the city.

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Gibson, Johnson, Larkowski and Webb (clockwise from top left).
  • Gibson, Johnson, Larkowski and Webb (clockwise from top left).

With some of the most liberal voting precincts in the state, House District 37 typically attracts candidates who match the voting profile.

This year is no different, as four Democrats meet in the May 23 primary for a nomination that likely will mean election to succeed term-limited Rep. Sam Ledbetter. (An independent has until next month to file, though none has announced.)

The candidates are Jesse Gibson, an attorney; Jordan Johnson, a public relations executive who is finishing law school; Jerry Larkowski, an attorney; and Kathy Webb, a restaurant owner.

District 37 covers a wide swath of central Little Rock, from Cantrell Road south to I-630, and Reservoir Road east to I-30.

The challenge to primary voters will be drawing distinctions among four people who have similar views and stress similar issues.

“Instead of the differences, I want to focus on the similarities,” Gibson said, echoing comments made by his opponents. “Kathy is running on being a small business owner, and I’m also a small business owner. Jerry says we need attorneys in the legislature, and I’m also an attorney. Jordan is youthful, and so am I. I feel I encapsulate all the best qualities in myself.”

Gibson, who is 31, grew up in Lead Hill and attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and UALR Law School. He and his wife Amanda, also an attorney, live in the Hillcrest neighborhood and he has been a resident of the district since 1996. Like his opponents, this is his first political race.

Yet all of the candidates have extensive community and political involvement. Larkowski was chairman of the Pulaski County Election Commission from 2003-05 and was a deputy prosecuting attorney. Johnson is a parks commissioner who has been involved in numerous ballot initiatives and civic projects. And Webb worked in Washington as the national secretary of the National Organization for Women and has done grassroots organizing in Arkansas and elsewhere.

Webb says she is running “because I think with my public policy experience, my community involvement and my practical experience, that I can make a difference in the legislature on the issues that are important to people in this district.” Born and raised in Little Rock, she received a political science degree from Randolph Macon College and attended graduate school at the University of Central Arkansas before her stint in Washington. She went on to Chicago and Memphis, where she owned and operated restaurants, and returned to Little Rock almost four years ago. Now 56, she runs Lilly’s Dim Sum Then Some and lives in the Plaza Heights neighborhood.

Education is among the top campaign issues for Webb and the other candidates. She puts an emphasis on increasing funding for public pre-K programs, a position that is shared by Gibson, Johnson and Larkowski.

Larkowski also wants to provide incentives to encourage parents to spend more time in their children’s schools, as well as monitor the funding formula with an eye toward more school consolidation and increased teacher salaries. He says his outlook has been shaped by his wife, Ann, who taught at the public Rockefeller Elementary School before becoming the vice principal at the Cathedral School. Born in Chicago, Larkowski, who is 39, moved to Little Rock when he was 10 years old and graduated from Catholic High School. He earned a history degree from Hendrix College and a law degree from UALR Law School before joining the prosecuting attorney’s office, where he stayed until 1995, when he went into private practice.

That career experience explains why Larkowski is the only candidate who has made criminal justice reforms part of his campaign platform, with a particular emphasis on increasing sentencing options for judges and juries. Larkowski is also unique in not stressing environmental issues, which is a big part of Johnson’s message.

At 28, Johnson is a community affairs and public policy specialist at the CJRW firm and he will complete a law degree at UALR Law School in December. He and his wife Angie, a children’s occupational therapist, live in the Hall High neighborhood and are expecting their first child in the fall. A graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Johnson grew up in Bryant, where his mother Janet is a state representative running unopposed for her third and final term.

“I was inspired to run after working against SB 230,” Johnson said, referring to the 2005 bill that would have made it easier to develop a sensitive part of the Lake Maumelle reservoir. “That’s what really proved to me civic activism worked at a grassroots level.”

All four candidates are getting a taste of grassroots politics by wearing out shoe leather as they campaign door-to-door. But money is another important factor. Webb has outraised her opponents, having accepted over $110,000 in donations, compared with more than $75,000 for Johnson, and about $30,000 for Gibson and Larkowski.

“I think the money helps for two reasons,” Webb said. “First, it does help you get your message out. The second thing is that it shows the breadth and depth of support that my candidacy has. But I don’t think money will be the deciding factor.”

The other three candidates agree on that final point, and all are impressed by the unusually engaged voters they have encountered.

Larkowski and Johnson noted a special interest among Hillcrest residents in historic preservation. Gibson and Webb said they have been hearing a lot about health care, and Johnson and Webb both mentioned crime as a growing concern.

“The problem is we agree on a lot of the same issues,” Larkowski said. “But I have more experience as an advocate, taking on causes and cases that were not necessarily personal, which is what you have to do in the legislature. That’s what will make me the most effective legislator.”

Johnson, meanwhile, thinks voter “pragmatism” will carry him to victory.

“I don’t believe they go to polls and vote on a whim,” he said. “They take their vote seriously and weigh many factors. One of those factors is positions where we are very similar. But also they picture that person in the position and working with all different types of people, and ask who is going to be more effective more quickly in the legislature. People know where I stand, what I stand for and that I have the energy and the proven experience on a cross section of issues.”

Gibson says that he has distinguished himself by taking stands on difficult issues, such as when he opposed the highway bonds proposed in last December’s election.

“I’d like to lead the way on payday lending repeal,” Gibson said. “I would like to utilize the projected budget surplus to shore up Medicaid funding before we get to a crisis. It’s a proactive versus a reactive standpoint. I haven’t heard the other candidates talk about these issues. … I’ve tried to be out front and open, utilizing the media and press as well as I can. I don’t know if the other candidates have done that so it’s hard for me to comment about where they stand.”

Webb thinks she has the best real-world experience.

“I have tremendous public policy experience from when I was at NOW, so I have a lot of public policy experience,” she said. “As a small business owner, I have tremendous experience dealing with health care issues, environmental issues. … I have to deal with taxes, budgets, and I have to make hard decisions in that regard, and I’m the only candidate who has to make a payroll every two weeks. … I have a long record of accomplishment in terms of working with all kinds of people to get the job done. I’m taking this very seriously and doing my homework on the issues, and I think I would be a very effective leader on these issues we’ve been talking about.”

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