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Warwick Sabin: The Visionary

He says he has the resume and ideas to move Little Rock forward.

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When Warwick Sabin was a kid growing up in New York, he won a trip to Arkansas.

Colleges from across the country mailed the 17-year-old at East Hampton High School a bunch of brochures and fliers, talking about why they were more special than the others. But one stood out: the University of Arkansas. As a Boys State delegate in 1993, he got to meet President Bill Clinton during a ceremony in Washington. He soon contracted Clinton fever. A complimentary visit to Fayetteville to interview for a fellowship and a full scholarship helped seal the deal. Clinton confidante Diane Blair became his adviser at the UA, and her connections allowed Sabin summer work at the White House. His admiration for Clinton grew into a deep affection for The Natural State. The young New Yorker transformed himself into an Arkansan.

The Arkansas allure didn't dissipate after Clinton left the White House. Over the years, Sabin fully immersed himself in Arkansas's politics and culture, working in several diverse roles, always in the middle of the action.

"I love Little Rock. Arkansas is the first and only place I ever voted," Sabin said, explaining why he stayed in Central Arkansas. "Everything for me has been kind of driven by trying to improve the place I live. Running for mayor is the best opportunity to make a difference."

Sabin is one of five candidates in the Nov. 6 election vying to replace Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who decided against seeking a fourth term. The others are Baker Kurrus, a businessman and former superintendent of the Little Rock School District; Frank Scott, a banker and former state highway commissioner; education consultant Vincent Tolliver; and activist Glen Schwarz.

Sabin's big issues are crime and education. He wants to re-establish a community policing program and return the Little Rock School District, which has been run by the state for several years, to local control.

He says the "elected political leadership has never really engaged" on schools. "It's important for the mayor to be front and center," he says, and he would "convene a citywide conversation" about schools, including on school facilities. He said the state's school closure and building plan has been dictated from the state with little regard to what the people think.

On crime, he said, "Wherever I go in the city, I come across people who are victims of violent crime or break-ins, or they say they called 911 and got a slow response. I talk to police and they say, 'Yes, it's difficult for us to respond because we are undermanned and under-resourced.' We had a [community police] officer in Capitol View [his neighborhood] for 14 years. A few years ago, for some reason, the city decided to end that. They pulled him out of the neighborhood as well as other [community police] officers throughout the city."

It's an example of why Sabin's frustrated by the "dysfunctional" system of city government in Little Rock that requires the mayor to share authority with the city manager.

"There is a lack of transparency in decision-making," he said. "Nobody knows who is doing what and why."

What sets Sabin apart from the other candidates?

"Quite a bit," he said during an interview in his downtown campaign headquarters on Markham Street, an old brick building built in 1890 still containing various remnants from the numerous restaurants and bars that have occupied the space over the years. While fielding questions about his candidacy, he greeted volunteers and fiddled with a pair of needle-nosed pliers that happened to be lying in front of him on a worn and wobbly lunch table next to a stack of campaign yard signs.

"I have experience in making things happen and taking the initiative to do the job myself," Sabin explained. "I don't just have a resume where I've had jobs. I've created things from scratch. I offer new energy, new ideas — creative, innovative ideas with experience in getting them done. When you look at the competition in this race, on one side you have experience, but it's very conventional experience, and on the other side you may have fresh ideas but no track record or achievement or accomplishments at getting things done." (Sabin declined to say which candidates he was referring to.)

Sabin, 41, works as senior director for U.S. Programs at Winrock International, the Little Rock-based international development nonprofit. His wife, Jessica, is political director for The NewDEAL, a national progressive political group. They met in 2009 at a fundraiser for the Arkansas Literary Festival. "All of a sudden this really gorgeous woman comes up to me and says, 'Are you Warwick Sabin?' We talked for a really long time. A week or two later I got smart and asked her on a date." They married three years later.

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He's nearing the end of his third term in the Arkansas House of Representatives for District 33, which includes the Hillcrest, downtown, Capitol View, Hall High and Leawood neighborhoods as well as parts of the 12th Street corridor.

As an accomplishment in the legislature, he cites his sponsorship of Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, which limited gifts to lawmakers and lengthened legislative term limits. The ethics amendment has since received mixed reviews from some good government advocates for being insufficiently tough. The measure's legacy also has been clouded somewhat by the fact that it was co-sponsored by former Republican Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, who was convicted this spring on multiple federal corruption charges. Sabin said there was no indication that Woods would turn out like he did. "It was 100 percent business. We were not in any way close. We were put together [to work on the amendment] by the Speaker of House [Davy Carter at the time]."

He also touts his sponsorship of legislation to facilitate public-private infrastructure projects and to eliminate antiquated regulations blocking charging stations for electric cars. He tried unsuccessfully to pass an earned income tax credit at the state level, which would have helped low-income Arkansans, but hopes he's laid the groundwork for its passage in the future.

He says that being a Democrat in a body dominated by Republicans is challenging but has helped teach him how to work with people with opposing views. He declined to run for re-election to the General Assembly this year and has taken a leave of absence from Winrock to run for mayor.

"Obviously, I gave this a lot of thought," Sabin said. "Obviously, I'm very proud of my record [as a legislator]. I feel like there is a more critical challenge to confront in Little Rock right now. Everyone sees the city at a critical junction where we can either go in a new direction or stagnate and possibly decline. I got into public service to make a difference. All of the innovative public policy is happening in cities. Arkansas needs new energy, someone who can make things happen, who can be creative and innovative and build consensus and work with all kinds of people."

Bobby Roberts, the retired longtime director of the Central Arkansas Library System, is supporting Sabin. They first met 20 years ago, when Sabin was student body president of the University of Arkansas. Roberts recalled that at the time he was opposing the proposed dissolution of the UA Press and "Sabin called me out of the blue and said, 'What can I do to help?' " They were able to work with others to keep the university's publishing arm intact. Now, he views Sabin as a visionary consensus builder who could get big things done in Little Rock, something he says the city has lacked for some time.

"He's a smart guy who knows policy and one of those people who studies the issues and listens to people," Roberts said. "He's got a lot of energy. He'll put forth his positions, but he'll modify his positions if he gets more information. He's done a lot of things [professionally] I wouldn't dare undertake. He worked to create a place for himself in Central Arkansas. Getting established is a challenge, but he's got deep roots in Central Arkansas now."

Other supporters include David and Barbara Pryor. The former governor and U.S. senator recalls meeting Sabin when he was an assistant professor at the UA.

"He came [to Arkansas] out of his own volition and wanted to pattern his life after President Clinton's life," David Pryor recalled. "I admired that very much. I think he's truly a leader. I always encouraged him to run for something, and lo and behold, he did. I don't believe I'll be sorry."

Sabin was born Nov. 19, 1976, in Manhattan, the son of Mark and Sharon Sabin. His father is an artist, producing "figurative and surreal" paintings, and his mother worked in journalism, writing for the Wall Street Journal and Fortune, and later entered corporate communication. When he was in middle school, his family moved to eastern Long Island. "It was a total change, from the big city to a small town," he recalled. But he adjusted and was elected president of his high school class. His parents weren't very political, so his first real exposure to politics came during his time at Boys State.

He graduated from the UA as valedictorian with a political science degree in 1998. He then spent two years at Oxford University, receiving a master's in philosophy, politics and economics. While there, he would travel to London regularly to work as a speechwriter for the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was considering staying in England to pursue speechwriting full time, but through Arkansas connections, U.S. Rep. Marion Berry, a Democrat from Gillett, asked Sabin to be his communications director. Sabin was bit by the Arkansas bug again and left Oxford in 2000.

Two years later, he was hired as one of the first three employees of the Clinton Foundation. He worked as the director of development, raising money for the presidential library and other programs.

By 2004, Sabin embarked on his mother's former profession, journalism, becoming an associate editor at the Arkansas Times. He wrote an opinion column and recalls writing candidate profiles during the 2006 Little Rock mayoral race. During this time, he also co-hosted a public affairs program on AETN called "Unconventional Wisdom."

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In 2007, he was hired as vice president of communications at the University of Central Arkansas, and two years after that became publisher at the Oxford American literary magazine, which was housed at UCA at the time. He worked hard to get the magazine on solid financial footing. It moved to Little Rock in 2011, and Sabin counts as one of his major accomplishments establishing South on Main, the restaurant and entertainment venue on South Main Street in Little Rock where the Oxford American hosts regular concerts.

Ready for another challenge, in 2013 Sabin helped establish and worked as the director of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in North Little Rock, a nonprofit that provides entrepreneurs access to technology and equipment. Three years later, Winrock International absorbed the Hub and Sabin went to work for Winrock.

Earlier this year, Arkansas Business reported that anonymous former Innovation Hub employees had concerns about the merger, which included asking whether Sabin had "exchanged the Hub and its assets for a job" at Winrock.

Sabin said last week that's "not at all what happened." He said the Hub's board made the decision to merge after Winrock approached the Hub with the offer. He said he wasn't on the board and didn't have a vote. He said there was an opening at Winrock and he was fortunate enough to be hired.

When he wanted to run for mayor, he said he was stymied by the Little Rock ordinance that prevents people from declaring as a candidate until the June before a November election. So, last year, in a move of "positive disruption" he formed an "exploratory committee" to raise money. The city sued him, but a judge ruled in his favor because he had set up his committee under state law, he said.

Sabin says he's not afraid to shake things up. He differs with the city on its acceptance thus far of the planned Interstate 30 expansion through downtown. He said he went to all the public hearings on the project to understand the issues. He agrees with the need to replace the I-30 bridge and update the exit ramps for safety but has otherwise opposed the project from the start, he said.

"What people call traffic here is just a little slowdown in the morning rush hour and in the other direction in the evening rush hour," Sabin said. "Otherwise, it runs smoothly the other 22 hours of the day. [The project] is for people driving through Little Rock and not for people who live in Little Rock. It would impede development on the eastern part of downtown. We want livable, walkable, bikeable areas."

As mayor, Sabin said, he would use his influence on Metroplan, the regional transportation board for Central Arkansas, to slow down the project and instead invest in more public transportation.

He plans a comprehensive budgetary analysis to assess whether the city needs more police officers and whether some wards should get more money for projects than others based on need. Among other things, he wants to find ways to increase neighborhood participation to make people feel they are part of a transparent and honest decision-making process.

"Little Rock needs bold, creative thinking," Sabin said. "I'm most proud when I'm able to do something that nobody else has done before and convince people that something that seems impossible is actually possible and do it in a way that's efficient.

"People are frustrated we've been stagnating [as a city]. All the answers are right in front of us. We just need to release the ideas."

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