Columns » Max Brantley

Mayoral thoughts

On free wi-fi, football and more.

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I took a few days off last week to attend a music festival outside Cooperstown, N.Y.

We flew home from Albany, where our stops included Sunday brunch at a cafe so popular we had a 45-minute wait for a table. We plunked down on a bench outside, fired up our cell phones and learned of Albany Freenet, a free Wi-Fi service provided in various parts of the city through a deal struck by city government with a local company. Why not Little Rock?

Perhaps this could become a promise in the 2018 mayoral race, which so far includes incumbent Mayor Mark Stodola and state Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock). Those reported by various sources to be in the "thinking it over" stage include state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock), banker Frank Scott, City Director Dean Kumpuris and former Arkansas Baptist College President Fitz Hill.

Hill is on my mind because of the high profile afforded him last week as he announced a program to bring football back to sixth-graders in the Little Rock School District with private financial contributions and volunteer help.

I'm all for sports, if not quite ready to believe that football is the cure for what ails the Little Rock School District or that young women are doing so well that a program targeting primarily males with a dangerous sport makes a lot of sense as the first team sport available to Little Rock sixth-graders.

But back to politics. At Arkansas Baptist, Hill won some big contributions, notably from Scott Ford, the former Alltel CEO. But it turns out Hill left the college in a tight financial situation and, as yet, I haven't seen a public accounting of his fundraising prowess at the college charitable foundation where he was placed.

Hill has succeeded in building value of his personal stock. The former football coach has an afternoon sports radio talk show, sponsored by Bear State Bank. He is on the board of the bank. The bank is a sponsor of the LRSD football initiative. Scott Ford is a major stockholder in the bank. Other football backers of Hill include Bill Dillard III and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman. None of these had been known before as supporters of the LRSD.

But it's an intriguing political profile for a mayor's race. Hill is black, as are more than 40 percent of Little Rock voters. Racially identifiable voting patterns are typical here. He could provide the rare combination of black voter appeal with an appeal to the business Republican sector that is large enough to elect at least one city board member every year.

Frank Scott, also black, is a banker and a former highway commissioner. His resume would appeal to establishment types, too, particularly his advocacy for the Interstate 30 Concrete Ditch project through downtown.

I'd like to hear them all talk about schools, ignored if not directly harmed in years past by city policy and leaders. Hill's advocacy of football will win some friends, but only if they don't look closely at support from people who've backed district-damaging charter school expansion, not to mention Hill's vote as a state Board of Education member against a return of the Little Rock School District to local voter control.

The most interesting thing about all the talk of a 2018 mayoral race is the presumption that the three-term incumbent is in peril. Maybe not. Name recognition counts for a lot. So does money, and Stodola should have plenty. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and its network owe him for $22 million in taxpayer money for the Little Rock Technology Park, a taxpayer-paid bailout of the elite-beloved-and-controlled Arkansas Arts Center, and resumption of taxpayer subsidies for the chamber of commerce executive payroll, not to mention his advocacy of the I-30 Ditch.

Many solid issues — public infrastructure, schools, the city's failing hybrid government and crime — should make for a great race for mayor. Particularly if a candidate emerges whose words hold promise of delivery. I'd start with some free Wi-Fi.

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