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Meet the mayor

Can Mark Stodola put some power into LR's top job?

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OLD AND NEW: Jim Dailey (left) and Mark Stodola.
  • OLD AND NEW: Jim Dailey (left) and Mark Stodola.

It is to Mark Stodola’s credit that he didn’t get up in disgust and walk out on our interview. He could surely smell my fear.

After six years as a reporter — six years which have seen me interview neo-Nazis, Bigfoot hunters, governors and ex-governors, swingers, strippers, preachers, UFO abductees, rappers, killers, Christian fundamentalists, ex-cons, gangsters, crystal meth dealers and former Pulaski County Sheriff Tommy Robinson — it is a measure of my salt-of-the-earth upbringing that the only thing that gets me rattled anymore are elected officials. I can talk to pretty much anybody, unless they get a few votes thrown their way during an election year. Put me in a room with a politician, and I devolve into one of my tiara-worshipping ancestors, avoiding eye contact for fear The Man is going to toss my kith and kin off our patch of ’tater-strewn dirt.

During my interview with Stodola before his inauguration as mayor of Little Rock, I stuttered and spit. I “um”-ed and “ah”-ed. Right in the middle of asking him his opinion on the interlocal jail agreement, I had an eye-watering coughing fit that went on so long a secretary from an adjoining office poked her head in to make sure I wasn‘t going to die.

Stodola (though he was duly and certifiably elected by that time and thus owed me nothing) was courteous throughout, helping me unravel the tangled questions I posed, even though some of them were about as convoluted as the instructions to a 19-function wristwatch. I left his office convinced of what I had heard in passing, though I never quite believed it: he is a genuinely nice guy.

That Stodola has managed to keep his good humor is a bit amazing in itself. Though he managed to pull out a decisive win in a four-way race for mayor back in November, the weeks since Election Day have swirled with controversy for both him and the city he would soon lead. Stodola’s lobbying and law firm work — important for him even after he takes office, considering the part-time salary that goes with the title of Little Rock Mayor — has been put under the microscope, dissected for every nuance of conflict of interest. Too, Stodola will don the mayoral sash in the midst of a government scandal, with a series of above-the-fold stories and editorials on questionable spending at the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission gracing the state’s largest daily paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in the weeks leading up to Inauguration Day.

Still, Stodola has kept more than his quick and boyish grin. A big-picture guy who doesn’t miss the details, he hasn’t forgotten the ambitious plans he laid out during his run for office. With an agenda that includes workable ideas for rebuilding the city core, bringing down the crime rate and possibly seeing the office of mayor given true executive powers like veto and appointment authority, the former Pulaski County prosecutor has his work cut out for him, especially given the notoriously weak and mostly ceremonial position he has been elected to. (The mayor — Stodola succeeds Jim Dailey, who didn’t seek another term — chairs City Board meetings, but, in the end, is just one vote among 11.)

Still, if anybody can pull it off, it might be him.

Because, he says, his parents didn’t have the good sense to conceive him in Arkansas, Mark Stodola was born on May 18, 1949, in Minneapolis to a camera salesman and his schoolteacher wife. Soon after, the young family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Stodola grew up.

From the way he describes it, Stodola’s childhood was wholesomely all-American. As a teen-ager working his way through high school, young Mark discovered a knack for selling magazines. Before long, he had been designated the Parent’s Home Service Institute’s outstanding salesman for his region, an honor which included the use of a company car.

“I had always worked in the summer. I sold magazines door to door and made more money than anyone ever should at that age, probably,” he said. “For a kid that didn’t have a car — that he could drive around and spend the summer knocking on doors trying to sell magazines — that was great.”

After high school, Stodola enrolled at the University of Iowa. Even though the Vietnam War was in full swing, Stodola wanted to fly jets for the Air Force. His dreams were grounded when he took a vision test that showed a slight astigmatism in one eye. It was enough to disqualify him as a pilot.

“They had three categories of how they categorized people: you could be a pilot, you could be a navigator, or you could be everything else,” he said. “They said I could be a navigator. But if I couldn’t fly, I didn’t want it.” Instead of a career in the Air Force, Stodola settled on a double major in journalism and political science.

In 1971, with college graduation looming, Stodola began applying to graduate programs. Having gravitated toward the law as an undergrad, he included applications to a number of law schools.

“That was the year when there was a huge exodus of people trying to get into law schools around the country,” he said. “And it so happened that the first letter of acceptance I got was from the University of Arkansas. So, to get an educational delay, I sent in my $600 to reserve my seat, and I went off to work for the summer.”

After working for three months at a resort in the Catskills in New York state, Stodola said he looked up one day in late fall and realized that registration for law school started that week. He packed his things into his Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and set out for Arkansas.

“The first time I ever got to the state was when I drove into Fayetteville, heading south from Iowa City and Missouri,” he said. “I remember when you hit the Missouri line, you start seeing these signs: ‘Bentonville,’ ‘Rogers,’ ‘Springdale,’ ‘Fayetteville.’ More and more signs.”

After driving all night, he arrived in Fayetteville with five minutes to spare before his first class. His law school years would be fruitful ones — including a grueling turn as scheduler for the 1974 congressional campaign of a young Bill Clinton — but he still remembers that first moment vividly: standing by his car, wired on truck-stop coffee, waiting to walk into law school that first day.

“That’s where it all started,” he said. “I found an apartment a block and a half away from the law school, had a roommate for three years, obviously fell in love three or four times along the way. Then, after I graduated, I wanted to live here in Little Rock, so I moved here.”

After graduating from law school in 1974, Stodola clerked in Little Rock for most of a year before passing the bar exam. He soon decided that he wanted to be a trial lawyer, and that the best place to get experience for that was as a deputy prosecuting attorney. When he found that the Pulaski County prosecutor’s office wasn’t hiring, he settled for a part-time job in the public defender’s office. The experience gave him a sense of balance later on in his career, he said, especially during his days as prosecutor. “Justice takes many forms,” Stodola said. “You have to balance the gravity of the offense against the perpetrator and what the intent was behind the perpetrator’s actions.”

After almost 10 years of private practice and public defender work, when the prosecutor’s position came open in 1984, Stodola decided to run for the office. His opponent was an old friend from law school, Chris Piazza. Though he said he and Piazza ran each other ragged all over the county, Stodola ended up losing by a razor-thin margin. “That was back when exit polls were popular,” he said. “At the beginning of the night, I was at 51 percent, and he was at 49. By the end of the night, when it really counted, he was at 51 and I was at 49.”

A few months after his defeat, Stodola applied for and got the job of Little Rock city attorney, a position he held until 1991. The job put him in the know during some of the most important moments in Little Rock history, including the sale of the Excelsior Hotel to Japanese investors, the implementation of a scenic corridor along Cantrell Road, and the creation of Chenal Parkway. During some of those same years, Stodola’s love of architecture and community history led him to become president of the Quapaw Quarter Association and the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas (he just finished up an additional three-year run as president of the HPAA late last year).

Though he found his job as city attorney rewarding, Stodola couldn’t rid himself of the itch for public office, especially when he saw how angry citizens could become when dealing with the city.

“One of the things that I would see as the city attorney was that citizens would come in, totally frustrated with the city and the police department because things didn’t seem to be moving quickly enough.” At the same time, he said, attempts by the Little Rock city government to slow the rising crime rate through nuisance property legislation showed him how leaders could play a strong role in bettering the community if they wanted to be “upfront and aggressive.”

“I think that’s a role the city should play,” he said. “I guess that got me back to the point of the prosecutor’s office.”

When Piazza decided to run for judge, Stodola again campaigned for the office of Pulaski County prosecutor. This time, he won. “Prior to that, most of the prosecutors evolved into the elected prosecutor’s job from deputy prosecutor positions,” Stodola said. “I was the second person that came in from the outside,” after former prosecutor Jim Guy Tucker.

Stodola’s tenure as a prosecutor was rarely dull. While in office, he prosecuted the Little Rock city collector, the county collector, a Pulaski County Public Facilities Board chairman, and Secretary of State Bill McCuen. He butted heads with Ken Starr during the Clinton years, and investigated Whitewater conspirator and witness David Hale — a situation which Stodola said resulted in “many, many dynamic conversations and confrontations” with the special prosecutor.

During those years, Stodola also found himself in the thick of the Little Rock gang wars. In addition to going to the legislature for new drug forfeiture and organized crime laws, Stodola had to educate himself and his staff on how to prosecute a new breed of criminal. In those days, he said, the city had more than 45 recognized gangs. Gang cases were very difficult, he said, because witnesses were very reluctant to testify. Sometimes they would wind up dead, or they’d never show up for trial. He and his staff had to learn gang lingo, to know who controlled the gangs, how they were controlled, and the hierarchy of criminal organizations that sometimes stretched coast to coast. The experience made him a strong believer in the “broken window” theory of crime.

“If you let one window get broken, then soon you’re going to have another one,” he said. “Then you’re going to have a broken-down door. Then you’ll have a burned-down house. Next thing you’ll have is a drug deal, and then a drug deal gone bad that winds up in a homicide.”

During his stint as prosecutor, Stodola worked with several local community outreach programs to develop diversion and prevention programs for at-risk youth — programs that eventually saw him recognized nationally by the Department of Justice. He served on the board of the National District Attorneys Association. Eventually becoming vice president of the organization, he was elected as a faculty advisor to the National College of District Attorneys — a group that works to teach newly elected prosecutors how to do their jobs.

In 1996, Stodola again felt the pull of the ballot, and decided to run for the 2nd District U.S. Congressional seat formerly held by Ray Thornton. In a three-way race for the Democratic primary nomination against John Edwards (an aide to U.S. Sen. David Pryor) and state Sen. Vic Snyder, Stodola was able to win 48 percent of the vote. The runoff was three weeks later. During that time, Gov. Jim Guy Tucker was convicted, and a short political standoff ensued over whether Tucker would resign, something Stodola blames for voter disenchantment and maybe the outcome of the race.

“When the smoke cleared — it was hard to do, but I was able to get it done — I was able to go from 48 percent to 49 percent,” Stodola said, chuckling. “Vic went to 51 percent. That’ll get you a new job and a fresh cup of coffee.”

Whatever the reason for his loss, Stodola soon found himself facing the prospect of being unemployed. It wasn’t the last curveball fate would throw him that fall. About a month and a half after the election, his wife, Jo Ellen, phoned him unexpectedly at work one morning to share some priority-reordering news: Already parents to a teen-age daughter, they would soon welcome a new set of twins.

“I think God has a way of designing a course of direction for you that you don’t always know or aren’t aware of,” he said. “All of a sudden, I found myself looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Holy smokes, you’re going to have twins in the early part of 1997, and you’re not going to have a job. You need to really scramble.’ It kind of lights a fire under you.”

By January, Stodola had signed on to a local law firm, and started the arduous task of building a private practice. “I worked very diligently to create a client base and to work hard on representing people and practicing law,” he said. “People didn’t know if I was a lawyer or a politician.” Stodola said he had one thing going for him: he was a good attorney who knew the “vagaries and intricacies” of Little Rock government. By the fall of 1998, he was made partner at the law firm that still bears his name: Catlett and Stodola. He also expanded his work as a state capitol lobbyist. While working as prosecutor, Stodola had lobbied for the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association. Once in private practice, his list of clients grew to include Enterprise Rent-a-Car, Cingular Wireless, the Arkansas Optometric Association, and the Motion Picture Association of America, among others.

In 2006, Stodola again threw his hat into the ring, this time for Little Rock mayor — a four-way race that he likened to setting tigers loose on the city. He said the response from the public was overwhelming.

“I can’t tell you how many forums or debates we had,” he said. “I bet we had 15 or 18 of them. They were well attended, and people were passionate about their issues. … I had Governor Beebe tell me people were more excited about this race than they were about his race. What’s it say? It says people care about the place they live.”

In the end, Stodola managed to carry a little over 48 percent of the vote, a victory margin that he said “signifies that what we were talking about in the campaign resonates strongly with the community.” He hopes that will give him the clout he needs to create and execute an ambitious agenda.

The fact that some of his early private practice clients couldn’t decide if Stodola was a lawyer or a politician might seem ironic now, given the fact that the division between his public and professional lives has again become an issue. Even before the first vote was cast last November, some had questioned the seeming conflict of interest to be found in the sitting mayor being a partner in a firm representing the Little Rock Airport Commission and various public and private organizations (the issues have since been tentatively settled, with the Little Rock Airport Commission seeking other counsel and Stodola saying that he will continue his work as a lobbyist while staying mindful of the perception of conflicts of interest and handing off to colleagues any lobbying work that might seem to spark that perception).

While Stodola says that it’s important to address the issue of conflict of interest in city government, he chalks up at least part of the controversy to the “schizophrenia” of the Little Rock mayor’s office and what the law expects from those who seek it.

Since 1957, when most of the mayor’s responsibilities were handed over to a City Board-appointed city manager, the mayor of Little Rock has largely been a figurehead, a symbolic “face of the city” who, outside of a rather large bully pulpit, holds virtually no other special powers. Though Stodola will preside over the 11-member Little Rock Board of Directors, he wields only the same vote as the average board member. Stodola won’t have veto power, appointment authority, budgetary oversight, or even a full-time salary.

Stodola said that comments he heard repeatedly while campaigning showed him how widespread confusion over the mayor’s powers is among the electorate. “From the campaign trail, I can tell you: A lot of people think it’s there — ‘Who you gonna be hiring, and who you gonna be firing?’ and all that stuff. I had to tell them: Hey, I won’t have the authority to do any of that.”

The assumption that the mayor’s office is a full-time job with executive-grade pay (the pay is $36,000 per year) lead to suspicion when the public heard that Stodola planned to keep his day job at the law firm and as a lobbyist.

“The perception is that if you’re the chief elected official, then you ought not to have to work, and you ought not to have to work for another city commission, “ he said. “People say ‘Golly, there’s something about the mayor over here working for the airport.’ And: ‘Golly, isn’t being mayor such a full-time responsibility that he shouldn’t have to do that, or wouldn’t need to do that?’ We have this schizophrenia going on about what we expect out of a mayor and the mayor’s office, juxtaposed with a system that doesn’t allow those things to really occur.”

The issue was brought to an even finer point in December, when stories and editorials in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called into question seeming conflicts of interest and spending irregularities at the city’s Advertising and Promotion Commission, including the rental of office space owned by a commission member’s family and over $140,000 in drinks and meals bought over three years with commission funds at restaurants owned by A&P Commission chair Mary Beth Ringgold. While refusing to admit anything improper, Ringgold has since resigned, and a task force was formed to look into A&P Commission spending. Though the task force was originally to be headed by City Manager Bruce Moore, City Attorney Tom Carpenter and city finance director Bob Biles, one of Stodola’s first acts as mayor was to suggest that the investigation be handled by someone other than city insiders. The plan was approved by the Board of Directors on Jan. 2. Stodola has said he will appoint a panel of citizens to look into the matter, including members employed in the legal and accounting fields.

From a big-picture perspective, Stodola said, the A&P scandal provides some insight into the way business has been conducted in Little Rock city government in the past, with limited accountability and transparency. While Stodola said he will “let the task force do its work,” in terms of uncovering what went on, he adds that had the city’s accounting procedures and guidelines concerning conflicts of interest been followed, it never would have become a problem in the first place.

At the same time, given that city board and commission members are volunteers generally selected for their knowledge and expertise in a given field, Stodola said it is almost impossible to avoid the occasional conflict of interest. By state law, four of the A&P board’s commissioners must be owners or managers of businesses in the “tourism industry,” with at least three of those being owners or managers of hotels, motels or restaurants. Even given that, Stodola said, “there should have been procedures in place that openly acknowledged that four of the people that serve on the A&P Commission are people that quite likely could be doing business with the A&P or Convention and Visitors Bureau.”

For reasons of accountability if nothing else, Stodola is a proponent of a more robust mayor’s office. He envisions a true “executive branch,” with the ability to make appointments, draft a city budget, veto City Board decisions, and cut through some of the slowness that has plagued action by the city in the past.

“There is a time and a place for everything, and I think there was a time and a place for the form of government that we have now,” Stodola said. “I’m not so sure that we haven’t eclipsed that to the point where real leadership and the ability to be responsive to the people is best served by having a direct connection between the elected officials and the citizens who elected them.”

While Stodola said that those are changes which will ultimately have to be up to the voters, there are currently petition drives to get the issue on the ballot — including a proposal to give the mayor veto power and eliminate the three at-large positions on the city Board of Directors.

Stacy Hurst, who represents Ward Three on the board, supports giving the mayor’s office more power — including the veto and appointment authority — in addition to full time pay,

“It’s difficult for any one person on our board to have a vision and turn that into reality and to make that happen,” Hurst said. “That’s because there are 10 other people on the board with an equal vote. … I think we have an excellent city manager in place right now. Bruce does a great job, but I think we need to give the mayor more authority so he has more leverage to accomplish his vision.”

For now, however, any changes to the mayor’s office are in the future, and Stodola must play the hand he has been dealt. “I ran under the umbrella that I can work under either form,” he said, “and would be happy to do that.”

Even with the campaign behind him and acknowledging the limitations of the office, Stodola still sounds like a man on a mission. He talks at length about the “community wealth” of Little Rock — parks, safe streets, local amenities. He said that his top priority is making Little Rock a safer place to live. That will, in turn, make the city more attractive to business and development. In list after list of cities ranked for their quality of life, Stodola said that Little Rock always sees its position dragged down by the issue of crime. Imagine where we’d rank, he said, if we could get that under control.

“If we want to attract business and industry here, we have to make this an attractive place,” he said. “We have to make this an attractive place for growth. It’s so easy for businesses to turn their heads when they see that we’re ranked the 23rd most violent city out of 369 that are rated in one of the more recent rankings.”

In addition to the revitalization of downtown and other areas, one of Stodola’s main objectives is the continued redevelopment of Midtown — an area he expands to include most of the neighborhoods south of Interstate 630.

If the city put its collective will behind it, Stodola said, there could be hundreds of in-fill houses built in those areas to replace abandoned lots and derelict homes that foster crime. He talks of a revitalized Twelfth Street corridor, with the vibrancy and vitality of Hillcrest or the River Market District, and said the city should rightfully take “substantial criticism” for not using all its resources to stop the decay of the Central High area. “We’re on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Central High desegregation issue,” Stodola said. “[Central High School] is a National Historic Landmark, and yet you’ve got to go through areas that are a disgrace.”

In the past, Stodola said, Little Rock city government has rightfully been accused of acting too slow on such issues — something he said he hopes to help change as mayor. As an example, he said that some people point to the loss of the Arkansas Travelers baseball team to North Little Rock — “a fast pitch that went right by us.” Though Little Rock will feel the benefit from the new stadium in North Little Rock, not much of that benefit will be felt in the neighborhoods surrounding Ray Winder Field.

“We probably didn’t perceive what all that meant from a standpoint of either community revitalization or the revitalization of the Midtown area in terms of keeping them there,” he said. “[We didn’t ask] hey, this minor league baseball team is an important community element, so what can we do to keep them here and make it better? … Sometimes you can task force yourself to death.”

In the end, even with a mountain to climb ahead of him, Stodola just comes off as excited: excited about his success in the election, about his forthcoming term as mayor, about finally getting at least some small grasp on the tiller. He loves Little Rock, he said, and believes that it is a place that still has tremendous growth potential. Harkening back to his long-time love of architecture and community planning, he said that the most refreshing thing is how much people care about their neighborhoods. There is tremendous energy in that, Stodola said.

“You build that sense of neighborhood, community, a sense of place,” he said. “To me, that’s more exciting that anything that can happen in our political lives, be it at the state level or the federal level. I think there’s a real opportunity for change. I think there’s a real opportunity to accomplish something.”

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