Columns » Jay Barth

The bluest of the blue: Little Rock

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For several decades, a capital city in the state to Arkansas's southwest stood out as a progressive island in an otherwise ruby red state. Although now joined by other urban areas like Dallas and Houston that show weaker strains of progressivism, Austin remains an outlier in a state that is several election cycles from being competitive in statewide elections. This progressive bent is expressed not just in its voting patterns but in the public policies pursued by Austin's city government, creating a magnet for in-migrants from around the country despite Texas state policies on criminal justice, education and women's issues emphatically opposed by most Austinites.

The 2014 election cycle has left progressives in Arkansas — never in the majority but consistently holding a place at the table in the state's policymaking — scrambling to determine what comes next in Arkansas. While engagement on state issues where there is the possibility for strong coalition with business conservatives (e.g. the private option and prison reform) is crucial, there is no immediate path toward progressive rehabilitation in a decidedly Republican state. But there is a clear, obtainable answer for those progressives who happen to live in the state's capital city: Make Little Rock the "Austin" of Arkansas through creating a thoroughly progressive city government.

It is clear that the numbers are there for Little Rock's electorate to do just that. While U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor fell short of 40 percent statewide in his race for re-election, he gained just under 65 percent of the votes cast in those precincts entirely or partly in the city of Little Rock. This represents a 25 percent gap in the Democratic vote in Little Rock compared to the state as a whole in an election cycle where some of the city's most reliably Democratic precincts showed distinctly low turnout. Moreover, the fact that a number of longtime city directors may choose to make this their last term creates an opening for quick change in the composition of the city's governing body. (In 2016, all three at-large city directors' seats are up and the mayor and all but one ward director follow in 2018.)

*So, what might the agenda of a progressive Little Rock city government look like?

*Passage of policies like expansive antidiscrimination ordinances that send the signal that the city is open to the "creative class";

*Expansion of community policing to both build trust between the police and those in neighborhoods south of Interstate 630 and to aid in dropping a murder rate disproportionately impacting those neighborhoods;

*On the health front, improvement in access to community-based primary care, behavioral health services (mental illness and substance abuse), and urgent health care within neighborhoods across the city;

*Assertive implementation of planning policies that ensure development patterns mixing residential density, viable local businesses and recreational opportunities;

*Promotion of walkable, connected neighborhoods through sidewalk redevelopment and the expansion of a system of bike lanes and paths;

*Creation of incentives for local businesses to reinvest in Little Rock, identification of the skill sets that those businesses need from their employees, and nourishment of the local educational institutions that cultivate those skills;

*And, because a city is only as healthy as its schools, reduction of the wall between city government and the Little Rock schools to ensure communication and collaboration on key issues such as summer and afterschool programming where facility and transportation access often serve as key challenges.

Much more important than the specific policies that would enliven this agenda, however, is a city government that recognizes the physical and psychological divisions within the city and laser-focuses on building the bridges across groups and neighborhoods that will create a single city rather than a collection of factionalized wards.

Like their fellow progressives across Arkansas, Little Rock's progressive community has been thrown off kilter by the events of Nov. 4. But, unlike many of their fellow progressives across the state, those in Little Rock have an answer: Go local.

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