Columns » Jay Barth

Tough choice for Little Rock mayor

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To date, I've remained neutral in the Little Rock mayor's race for a number of reasons. As I was involved in both independent survey work in the race and in the planning for a series of five mayoral forums, I wanted to wait until after those activities were complete to take any stance. More importantly, I really wanted to watch the campaign play itself out. I wanted to see how the candidates that I know well performed through the pressure of a campaign. In the end, I've decided that Warwick Sabin is best positioned to be the kind of mayor that Little Rock needs at this vital time in our city's history.

Warwick Sabin
  • Warwick Sabin

In each of the three candidates that have the best chance to win this race, I see some of the attributes I'd like to see in an ideal Little Rock mayor:

* Someone positioned by their personal background and work to date to tackle the divides in our city — especially our racial divide;

*Someone who would avoid the provincialism that has too often stymied this city and instead would have broader perspectives on how cities across the country and region can be laboratories of innovative change;

* Someone with a proven track record of managing larger institutions that left them better than when they found them;

* Someone who would thoroughly understand that diversity of all sorts is a strength of our city and that our mayor should embrace substantive and symbolic actions to support inclusion of those traditionally invisible or not offered a seat at the table;

* Someone who would represent generational change in a city that needs to look to its future rather than its past.

Unfortunately, not all these attributes can be found in any one of these candidates. That said, we are left with three very good choices.

I was thoroughly impressed with Baker Kurrus' service as superintendent of the Little Rock School District during a challenging period. He was a great ally in my efforts on the state Board of Education for us to develop a plan of action before rushing into a dramatic expansion of charter education in the district. He was right in standing up on that important issue. Kurrus is genuinely dedicated to serving others and he'd bring that warmth to the office if he were to win the race. We would be in good hands, although I fear that he would tend toward micromanagement and would stymie efforts to craft the major structural reforms in city government that we need.

I genuinely love Frank Scott Jr. as a person. We have built deep bonds across the years through conversations about divisions in our city and how we need to create "one city" if we are to truly thrive. I also appreciate the growth he has exhibited during this campaign, particularly on issues of diversity and inclusion; still, it remains clear that some components of inclusion don't come easily for him. Scott continually mentions that he is thoroughly grounded in Little Rock, and most would see this as a good thing. My concern is that his deep grounding in this place inhibits his ability to think expansively about new solutions to our problems. Still, if he were to win this race, I have real confidence that he can continue to grow personally and become a very good mayor.

But, Warwick Sabin is my pick for mayor. I have had hours of conversations with him over the years, have studied his record in his six years in the General Assembly, and have watched hours of forums during this campaign. You name the question, Sabin never gets it wrong. He has a clarity of progressive values that is resolute and a depth of understanding on any topic facing the city. Most importantly, he understands how other cities around the country have instituted policy change that have made their citizens' lives tangibly better. I wish Sabin showed the warmth in public settings that I have often seen in one-on-one conversations, but a depth of knowledge and a commitment to implementing big ideas is what we need in a mayor. Moreover, as he showed in standing up on the 30 Crossing project before it was an obvious political winner, he is willing to do things that are not politically expedient because they're simply the right thing to do for our future.

Just last week, the truly stunning reporting on Little Rock's constitutionally dubious practice of no-knock drug raids disproportionately targeting black men did make me wonder whether, because of the systemic racism in this city, electing a person of color as mayor was our only path forward. But, even here, it was Sabin who was most clear in responding to a crisis that will meet the next mayor when he arrives at city hall. Just as he grasps every other fundamental issue, Sabin understands how the history of racism and division in this city stymies our collective futures.

Some of my best friends — personally and politically — are strongly supporting either Scott or Kurrus. I can't question their judgment, for they are supporting good people who care deeply about Little Rock. But, this election is about who can bring progressive and transformative change to a city that needs a jolt. We have a unique opportunity to elect a candidate unflinchingly focused on doing this. That's why I'm supporting Warwick Sabin to be Little Rock's next mayor.

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