Contestants in this year's City Board races include one incumbent, a restaurateur, a real estate consultant, a pastor and a teacher. It is nonpartisan, but in an unusual move, a Koch brothers-funded political action group has gotten involved. Public safety tops the lists of concerns, and most want to see the Little Rock School District returned to the city and a board elected, though they cannot directly bring that about.
There are two contested races: the Ward 4 seat, a West Little Rock ward, and the Position 9 at-large seat. The ballot for Ward 4 includes Roy Brooks as a candidate for Ward 4 director, but he has dropped out. The ballot also includes Molly Miller's name as a candidate for the at-large Position 10 seat held by Joan Adcock, but Miller has dropped out. At-large Director Dean Kumpuris drew no opposition. Should either Brooks or Miller get a plurality of votes, the City Board would appoint a director to fill the position. City directors are paid $18,000 annually. Terms expire in 2020.
Elections for director in wards 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 and for mayor will be held in 2018.
Ward 4: The right is watching
Koch group takes interest in Peck.
Capi Peck, a restaurateur for 30 years and daughter of the late prominent hotelier Sam Peck, and Jeff Yates, who works with developers and businesses to locate properties, are running for the Ward 4 seat on the Little Rock City Board. You might not think that Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group funded by industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch, would be interested in Little Rock's Ward 4 politics. Yet, an Americans for Prosperity field representative, Kenneth Wallis, went to the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau asking to see how much business Peck has done with the city in the past five years. The information has produced no campaign material so far.
Peck, who owns Trio's Restaurant, has sat on the board of the Advertising and Promotion Commission for 10 years.
The interest in the race, Peck said, is a little bit weird and "a little bit scary." But, she added, "I've got nothing to hide. I've seen the packet of information they got." The sum: $8,400. "I've been lining my pockets," she said, laughing, but added on a serious note that she's been transparent about all business her restaurant has done with the city. Over the same period, she's remitted $1 million in hamburger taxes to the city.
Yates told the Times he did not know Kenneth Wallis, though he was curious about what the documents revealed.
Ward 4 is bounded by Mississippi Street on the east, Cantrell Road, Interstate 430 and Pulaski County on the north, Pinnacle Valley, Hinson and Rainwood roads and Hinson Road on the west, and Markham Street on the south.
Peck, 64, started campaigning last April, even before the June 1 filing opening, going door to door in her ward. She is identified with progressive causes but has never run for office. She opted to run after the incumbent, Brad Cazort, announced he would not seek re-election. She decided then "this is the best way to give back to the city, a much bigger and lasting and impactful way to give back."
Peck said public safety is "really huge" to Ward 4, which she said is seeing an "uptick" in burglaries and theft. Though she believes "citizens are the first line of defense" against bad actors, "you've still got to have patrol cars," and she is pleased that the Little Rock Police Department is opening a police substation in the Pankey community in West Little Rock.
Peck says it's a paramount concern to get the control of the Little Rock School District back in the hands of a locally elected school board. She believes Superintendent Michael Poore, who came in under difficult circumstances when the state Board of Education fired the popular Baker Kurrus, "wants to do a good job, I think, and we have to work with him if he is to be successful." Peck is disturbed by the "explosion of charter schools" that is sucking away high-achieving students, and hence state dollars, out of the LRSD. "I believe in the right [of parents] to choose to send their kids to a charter school, but we've got to invest in Little Rock first," she said. Peck, a graduate of Hall High, is active in The Tribe alumni group that has formed to support the students of that school.
What can the City Board do about education? "The City Board can be vocal and speak out," Peck said. "Some directors are pro charter and speak out against the Little Rock School District. I think it's the duty of Little Rock city directors to actively support the Little Rock schools." To not do so is bad for the city's economy, she said. (Lance Hines, Ward 5 director, publicly supported charter school expansions in an appearance before the Board of Education in March).
"I'm not a politician ... but I am a successful business person in a really tough business. ... I'm a good listener and the hardest worker of anybody I know. ... I am concerned about all the voices of the neighborhoods," and a fighter for the underdog, Peck said.
Peck has been endorsed by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Yates, 50, was born in Fayetteville and moved to Little Rock in 1993. His business is ARK, which advises commercial and real estate investors on properties. Ward 4 concerns are public safety, public schools and, "to a lesser degree," public infrastructure, he said.
Yates said the City Board should support Police Chief Kenton Buckner's efforts to recruit more police officers and institute community policing. He said he did not know what resources Buckner needs, but "I'll buy a plane ticket and go where he tells me" to recruit for the department.
The city should also take the lead in neighborhood infrastructure decisions, rather than leave it up to developers. "It's the tail wagging the dog," he said.
Yates, who has a daughter at Don R. Roberts Elementary, said the City Board should find a way to "turn the tide" with the public schools to bring back the people who "gave up and left for Benton and Bryant and Conway" to the schools and their dollars to the city. Yates favored the state Department of Education takeover of the Little Rock School District. "Someone needed to hit the reset button and give the kids and teachers some help," he said.
Yates also said he hopes the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department does "as little widening" as possible on Interstate 30. The highway department proposes to more than double a seven-mile stretch of I-30 as it passes through North Little Rock and Little Rock; the plan has been controversial with people who believe it will harm property values along its edges and set back the progress Little Rock has made in rejuvenating downtown. "There are 105,000 [people] driving in for jobs," Yates said. He'd rather they lived here.
Among his civic contributions, Yates has been a member and head of the Planning Commission, a past president of the Woodland Hills/Aspen Highlands property owners association and served on the board of the Little Rock REALTORS Association, among others. He has been endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police and the Homebuilders and Realtors Association.
Incumbent draws 2 opponents
A businessman, a gadfly, an idealist.
The race for at-large Position 9 pits incumbent Gene Fortson against Dr. Clayton Johnson and Jason Ferguson, three decidedly unalike candidates.
Fortson, 79, a retired businessman and banker, is affable and well-connected. Johnson, 65, is a "teacher scientist" who lives in midtown and is known for taking on City Hall. Ferguson, 49, pastor of First Christian Church in Sherwood and a chaplain at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, has as his campaign slogan, "Less Ego, More Civility."
City Director Fortson, born in North Little Rock, worked for Worthen Bank for 20 years, serving as its CEO for five years, and later was CEO of Stebbins and Roberts paint manufacturing company. He has served on the City Board of Directors since 2006, when he was appointed to fill out the term of Director Barbara Graves, who was making a race for mayor. He was elected to the at-large seat in 2008.
Fortson said he is running on his record of promoting "quality of life" in Little Rock, especially as Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission finance committee chairman, where he advocated for tourism-tax funded bond issues to renovate the Robinson Center, which will open soon, and the Arkansas Arts Center. Fortson's priorities include jobs and economic development, and he points to the Main Street Creative Corridor, the FedEx distribution facility in Southwest Little Rock, the Outlets of Little Rock mall and American Airlines' recent announcement that it will build a new aircraft maintenance facility that will create 60 jobs as things he's proud of. His top priority, however, is public safety and increasing the manpower on the police force.
Fortson said he was "glad" to have worked with Director Kathy Webb to openly support the city's anti-discrimination ordinance in advance of its passage 7-2 (Directors B.J. Wyrick and Erma Hendrix voted no; Director Ken Richardson was absent.) However, he saw to it that Webb's ordinance calling on Little Rock to create a master plan in response to the highway department's plan to widen I-30 was tabled several times, and supports the latest plan to create a 10- to 15-lane throughway.
In 2014, Fortson and City Director Brad Cazort famously went on a late-night "fact-finding" tour of clubs with permits to stay open until 5 a.m. after City Director Joan Adcock proposed closing all clubs at 2 a.m. for safety reasons and because, she believed, nobody should be out later than that. (A compromise that put more security at clubs was finally agreed to.)
Fortson has the support of the Little Rock Firefighters union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Of the latter, he said, "I don't always agree with them, but they know I'm fair and will be reasonable and listen."
Fortson's campaign website says, "Gene doesn't get bogged down in politics."
Johnson, born in Dallas, has lived in Little Rock since 1995. He holds a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology and is head of the science department at Premier High School, a charter school on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College. Johnson has been active in neighborhood issues, serving terms as president of the Coalition of Little Rock Neighborhoods and the Meriwether Neighborhood Association as well as other civic panels. He is what you might call a gadfly, involving himself in a number of city issues — opposing a county sales tax for jail construction, suing the city over traffic through his neighborhood, pushing the city to declare the Valley Heights Apartments at 6900 Cantrell Road a nuisance in 2012 (later dropped because of a change of ownership), and pushing for the city to improve safety at Meriwether Park. "I've started my local politics at the local level," Johnson said.
Johnson said he's running because of Little Rock's crime rate, saying it is "two or three or four times higher than the national average." (Several crime indexes rank Little Rock among the least safe small cities in the United States.) He claimed his opponent Fortson "isn't attuned" to the problem. Johnson would create a public safety commission and a community policing division. He believes a simple way the city could reduce crime would be to reduce traffic flow through neighborhoods. "You can do that all over the entire city and City Hall knows it," Johnson said. He also said that empowering citizens, as he said he's done in his neighborhood, to understand they can insist on a response from City Hall, will bring about change.
Johnson would also like Little Rock to create a court to handle hot checks, given the situation in Sherwood's court, which he likened to a debtor's court and which has been sued by the ACLU of Arkansas for imposing unjust fines and penalties.
Ferguson, born in Benton and a midtown resident, is pastor at First Christian Church in Sherwood and a chaplain resident at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His work keeps him so busy he had to get up at 4:30 a.m. the day of his interview with the Times to put out yard signs.
Ferguson, who is ordained but tells his congregation just to call him Jason, or "pastor" if they must, said he "grew up around politics," accompanying his father, Bob Ferguson, a journalist, on assignment to various political events. He calls himself an "unapologetic progressive" and "practical," though his ideas — including creating a citywide early education program modeled after the Japanese educational system, which stresses civility and work ethic in young children and lets the academics come later — sounds like an excellent idea that would be difficult to bring off.
Ferguson said he has been surprised to discover in his campaigning that traffic and speeding are huge concerns with people all over the city, "from Geyer Springs to Wellington [a Chenal apartment complex]." He would like to see the legislature overturn its ban on traffic cameras so cities could detect speeding. The fines could be used to help create or support the creation of the early education program, he said.
Ferguson thinks Little Rock could be a "city on a hill" if we had "an emphasis that lives should be driven by love and not ego."
What the "city on a hill" may not need is an I-30 that is twice the size it is now, he said. He thinks the highway department is "in too big a hurry. We don't know what transportation will look like in two decades." He said it appears that the main benefit "would be to people who build highways."
Ferguson confessed that because he holds two jobs, he hasn't campaigned much. "I may come in third place by 30 points," he said, but he will still work to make Little Rock a better place to live. If he loses, he has something to look forward to: He's getting married Nov. 19 to Amy Farley of Little Rock.