Nothing less than the fate of the Little Rock School District lies in the hands of Zone 2 voters.
OK, that may be putting it a little dramatically, but the stakes are high in next week's run-off between incumbent Micheal Daugherty and challenger Anna Swaim.
For one thing, Daugherty is black, and Swaim is white. While many voters, and both candidates, say this election shouldn't be about race, it can't help but be. The board's current four-person black majority has coalesced into a unified bloc on virtually all major decisions in the past year, and Swaim's election would bust up that bloc — even if, as Swaim has repeatedly promised, she won't be beholden to the white business leaders who've largely financed her campaign. She would, at the very least, return some power to the current white minority.
And the balance of power will be even more crucial this year as the board searches for a permanent replacement for ousted Superintendent Roy Brooks.
Daugherty, who works for a medical research company, has been on the school board for 12 years. Swaim is the communications director for the Arkansas Forestry Association and has two sons in LRSD elementary schools.
Zone 2 voters were almost evenly split between Daugherty and Swaim in the Sept. 18 general election: Daugherty received 811 votes, Swaim 806. Michael Nellums, principal of a Jacksonville middle school, received 187 votes, and political consultant Drew Pritt got 8 votes. Nellums hasn't publicly expressed support for Daugherty or Swaim, and didn't return a phone call requesting comment for this story.
Daugherty also didn't respond to efforts to contact him. His refusal to talk to most media and his absence from candidate forums has become an issue itself in the campaign.
J.J. Lacey, Daugherty's campaign manager, said Daugherty stayed away from two of the forums because they were hosted by the group of parents who fought to keep Brooks as superintendent, and couldn't attend the third — sponsored by the League of Women Voters — because it conflicted with a school board agenda meeting. He did plan to participate in a fourth forum scheduled this week by the NAACP.
As for Daugherty's refusal to talk to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Lacey said it wouldn't make sense because the paper is hostile to Daugherty.
Swaim, on the other hand, was endorsed by the Democrat-Gazette — despite, she said, her disagreement with the paper's editorial stance on major issues like merit pay and the legitimacy of the teachers' union. (The union endorsed Daugherty.)
“I think the Democrat-Gazette, like a lot of different people, really began to see the big picture of what this election means to Central Arkansas,” she said. “Beyond race … we just need somebody on the school board who can build bridges and be a peacemaker, but who also has the ability to make sound decisions based on the information provided.”
But Daugherty's campaign characterized the endorsement differently. Supporters passed out flyers showing Swaim's picture next to quotes from Democrat-Gazette editorials blasting the “gang of four” black board majority.
“I'm refusing to say any more than one could draw his or her own conclusion — she was endorsed by the paper,” he said.
Swaim said she didn't agree with the Democrat-Gazette's editorials about the board majority, but did disagree with some of the board's decisions and how they've conducted business. They didn't, for instance, communicate enough with the public about their reasons for getting rid of Brooks. As for Brooks himself, Swaim said she doesn't think he was inclusive enough in his dealings with the community, but that spending $600,000 to buy out his contract was a mistake. More importantly, she said, no one involved handled themselves as they should have.
“I just found myself in the middle wishing everybody would start behaving better,” she said.
As for the race issue, Lacey said Daugherty's campaign is not about holding on to a black majority on the school board.
“The dominant print media, which means you and the Gazette, pretty much are trying to pimp it as a race issue,” he said. “I think our candidate is posing it as experience vs. hand-picked inexperience. He wasn't picked by any particular group to try to unseat him based on their individual whims about how things ought to be.”
That, of course, is a reference to the support Swaim has gotten from Little Rock's business community. Much of the almost $17,000 she raised before the Sept. 11 filing deadline (a later deadline for reporting additional contributions was after press time Tuesday, Oct. 2) came from business owners living outsize Zone 2. Large chunks of Daugherty's support came from the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association and its members; interim Superintendent Linda Watson's brother, a former Little Rock pastor in Zone 2 who now lives in Georgia, also contributed $1,000 to Daugherty's campaign.
Swaim, though, said she'd be an independent voice, and said she knows some black voters in her zone have been warned that voting for a white candidate would be a mistake.
The general election vote did appear to break down largely along racial lines, however, with majority-black precincts voting for Daugherty and majority-white precincts for Swaim.
Swaim said she hopes race won't motivate voters next week.
“Why should my skin color discount my qualifications?” She said, “When I show up to volunteer or work with somebody, that has never been a consideration. I just don't think it ought to be now.”