Crime and transparency weigh heavily on Little Rock mayoral race as four vie to lead capital city

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Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who was elected four years ago on a pledge to unify a divided city, must overcome concerns about increased homicides as well as criticism of his administration’s approach to transparency as he seeks to win a second term.

Scott faces three opponents in the Nov. 8 first round of the mayoral contest: real estate agent and Rock City Eats publisher/president Greg Henderson, retired car-dealership magnate Steve Landers Sr. and perennial candidate Glen Schwarz.

If no candidate gets at least 40% of the vote, a runoff election will be held four weeks later between the top two. Early voting begins Monday.

Speaking to audiences, Scott, 38, often frames his tenure as mayor against the backdrop of successive crises that Little Rock has faced: a global pandemic, racial-justice protests and historic weather events.

He says the election will decide whether the city moves forward or backward, citing jobs growth, the creation of a community-school initiative and progress on other fronts.

After then-Mayor Mark Stodola declined to seek a fourth term, Scott was elected in a December 2018 runoff election, defeating opponent Baker Kurrus.

At the time, there was a vigorous campaign of ideas that never seemed to get ugly or personal, said Warwick Sabin, a former Arkansas state representative and one of the candidates in the first round of the 2018 mayoral race.

The dynamics appear to be different now, Sabin said.

“There seems to be more divisive rhetoric. It hasn’t really been centered on issues that are uplifting and that can inspire people around what’s possible,” he said in a recent interview. He added that there seem to be “complaints, negativity, recriminations in all directions.”

Sabin, who now works for the Aspen Institute and lives in Washington, D.C., declined to comment on Scott’s actions as mayor. Sabin said he was “not favoring one candidate or the other in the race.”

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interviewed each of the four candidates by phone recently.

Landers has assailed Scott on the issue of public safety as Little Rock, like many other cities nationwide, has experienced a recent spike in the number of homicides.

As of Oct. 17, there have been 66 reported homicides in Little Rock so far this year compared with 53 over the same period last year, according to the Police Department. The city averaged 41 over the past five years.

Robberies are also up, but overall instances of violent crime — the category encompasses homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault — are down slightly compared with last year.

In an interview, Scott listed a series of efforts the city has undertaken to reduce crime, including targeting high-crime areas with police patrols, funding a new real-time crime center and allocating money for mental health workers to assist police.

Crime is different today than in the past, Scott said. “It’s domestic violence, it’s acquaintance violence, it’s social-media beef, it’s mental health issues,” he said, arguing that alleviating the problem will require long-term planning and execution.

During his first campaign, Scott proposed hiring approximately 100 additional police officers, but those new personnel never materialized.

As of Oct. 8, the Police Department had 77 officer positions vacant out of its authorized total of 594, according to an official who presented findings from a police-staffing study to the city board earlier this month.

Scott said Little Rock has consistently recruited officers, but acknowledged the city has not achieved a net total of 100 new officers.

“We did not realize at that point in time that we would be plagued with a dearth of recruiting as it relates to what’s going on across the nation,” Scott said. “It’s hard to recruit officers right now, it just is.”

Although the city has a new police headquarters, where officials are working to build up the real-time crime center, Little Rock has no permanent police chief in place after the retirement of former Chief Keith Humphrey.

Scott’s selection of Humphrey as police chief in 2019 came one month after the fatal police shooting of Bradley Blackshire, a Black motorist, which touched off a tumultuous series of events within the department.

Then-officer Charles Starks, who shot Blackshire, was fired, reinstated and later resigned. Lawsuits filed by a series of police officials accused Humphrey of retaliating against others based on their testimony in Starks’ civil-service appeal, and Humphrey counter-sued, claiming they had conspired to oust him.

Humphrey maintained the support of the Little Rock Black Police Officers Association. But the largest local police union, known as the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge No. 17, in 2020 approved a no-confidence resolution against him. The same year, 10 top police officials signed a letter that said Humphrey’s leadership had been catastrophic.

When Humphrey resigned in May, he was under investigation for firing his gun at an armed suspect while on patrol on New Year’s Eve. Prosecutors later found his use of force to be justified and declined to charge him; police officials have yet to announce the results of an internal investigation related to the incident.

Assistant Chief Wayne Bewley is currently serving as interim chief. Scott has said he intends to appoint Humphrey’s permanent replacement before the election.

When asked if he believes in retrospect that it was a mistake to have hired Humphrey or for him to have remained in the position for as long as he did, Scott said, “Chief Humphrey was the right chief for the right time here in the city of Little Rock.”

Scott argued that making decisions as a leader means “many people won’t like you for the decisions that you make. Chief Humphrey was a positive leader. He did a lot for 21st-century community policing. He did a lot for community engagement. He did a lot for public safety.”

While also grappling with public-safety matters, Scott has been dealt two significant setbacks since last year.

The first occurred in September 2021, when voters overwhelmingly rejected an ambitious sales-tax increase Scott had proposed.

The 10-year, $530 million “Rebuild the Rock” package would have funded quality-of-life improvements with a net increase to the local sales-tax rate of five-eighths percent (0.625%).

Major plans attached to the proposed tax — they included investments into War Memorial and Hindman parks, an early childhood education initiative and construction of an indoor sports complex — have yet to resurface after its defeat.

In an interview, Scott left the door open to a new tax to fund planned initiatives during a second term, noting that “there’s always a need for resources,” but said he would have to work with the city board before committing to it.

The second blow came in the form of a slow-rolling public-integrity scandal over LITFest, a new city festival championed by Scott that was supposed to encompass music and panel discussions.

To produce the bash, the city selected a politically connected public-affairs firm called Think Rubix that had recently hired the mayor’s former chief of staff, Charles Blake.

Ultimately scheduled for Oct. 7-9, weeks before the start of early voting, LITFest collapsed days ahead of its debut. On Oct. 3, City Manager Bruce Moore pulled out of the contract with Think Rubix amid swirling questions about the financial arrangement behind the festival that have yet to be fully resolved.

When asked if he considered firing or disciplining individuals in the aftermath of LITFest, Scott declined to discuss personnel. He said “there were some clear mistakes, lessons learned and misunderstandings as it relates to LITFest. We’ve shared that publicly.”

Likewise, Scott declined to answer and said he could not discuss personnel when asked whether he was made aware of decisions like the selection of Think Rubix or the financial structure of the festival and its sponsorship money as those decisions were unfolding.

LANDERS

A first-time candidate, albeit one with significant name recognition thanks to his car dealerships, Landers has made crime the central issue of his campaign for mayor.

“The mayor’s had four years to solve the crime problem and nothing has been done,” Landers, 69, said at a mayoral forum earlier this month.

His plan to address crime consists of collaborating with other local law enforcement agencies, increasing funding for police training and technology like drones and recruiting more officers to have patrolmen visible in neighborhoods.

Scott counters that Landers has no plan. During a debate, the mayor described Landers’ idea that the Police Department use more dogs as a “dog whistle.” Likewise, Henderson has criticized Landers’ ideas for dogs and drones as antithetical to community-oriented policing.

Landers says he has an individual in mind to serve as the permanent police chief but has so far declined to name the person. “I’ll have a police chief hired within 45 days,” Landers said in an interview. “Already got ’em on the radar. We’ll have one hired that everybody likes in 45 days.”

In 1972, when he was 19, Landers went into business with his father, Bob, opening a used-car lot in Benton, according to “Steve Landers: Master Dealmaker,” a 2016 book by Donald James Vision.

Landers quickly became one of the preeminent regional “bootleggers,” the book says — buying new cars directly from franchise dealers and then re-selling them for very little profit as used cars with virtually no mileage and full factory warranty, while occasionally turning a profit on vehicles that customers traded in.

“I became a volume trader, and soon my company’s name was known and seen all over the territory, displayed prominently on the back of my customer’s cars,” the book quotes Landers as saying. “My word-of-mouth advertising was equal to none — and it is still one of my best forms of advertisement.”

In the subsequent decades, Landers acquired and developed a series of auto dealerships. In 1995, the United Auto Group purchased the Landers Auto Group’s dealerships, reportedly for $40 million.

Landers also partnered along the way with former White House chief of staff Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty and Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television to eventually form the RLJ-McLarty-Landers Automotive Group.

Although his name still appears on dealerships and he owns some of the buildings, Landers has nothing to do with the auto business today, he said.

In 2014, Landers sold his part in the family auto group amid a merger with another auto group out of Minneapolis, but his son, Scott, continued running the central Arkansas dealerships.

Landers stepped away from the car business completely after Scott’s death in 2020, he said, explaining that he no longer had the desire to remain in it.

The extent of his personal wealth is unclear but appears to be significant.

Landers and his wife purchased their northwest Little Rock home for $1.3 million in 2020, according to property records. Additionally, a required statement of financial interest for Landers that was filed with the city in August listed numerous investments and sources of income, including an LLC associated with his thoroughbred horse racing activities.

A member of the Arkansas Racing Commission, Landers announced that he was running for Little Rock mayor in September 2021, one day after the “Rebuild the Rock” sales tax increase failed at the polls, 62%-38%.

The mayoral campaigns do not have to disclose their contributors and spending until Nov. 1. But an independent expenditure committee largely funded by Huck PAC, a political action committee of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, has bankrolled negative advertising against Scott.

In addition to financing the “Citizens For A Better Little Rock” committee, Huck PAC has contributed $2,900 to Landers’ campaign, according to the PAC’s website.

Scott has blasted the Huckabee spending, calling it “dark money” from right-wing interests seeking to roll back progress in Little Rock.

When asked what he would say to Little Rock voters who are dissatisfied with Scott but worried Landers has the backing of conservatives like Huckabee, Landers said that he can’t help who supports him.

“I have not taken any dark money whatsoever from anybody,” he said.

He said Huckabee sent him money early on during the campaign, and if anyone sends money, as long as it is not over the legal limit, they’ll take it. “But they’re not spending money on my behalf, at all,” Landers said. “This is a nonpartisan race.”

Describing himself as not a “party-line guy,” Landers said he has voted for Democrats in the past, such as former Gov. Mike Beebe, and focuses on choosing the right person for the job.

Asked about Scott’s decision, shortly after he was inaugurated, to directly supervise six city department heads previously overseen by the city manager and whether he would do the same, Landers said, “Whatever the law says I need to do, I will do. If it says city manager, then that’s fine with me. If it says me, I’m fine that way, too.”

Landers argued that he has no “ulterior motives for being mayor because I was happily retired.” He is not trying to make money, nor does he have ambitions to one day become a senator or congressman, Landers said.

Despite running hard on crime, in August, Landers had to acknowledge that he left behind his handgun in the bathroom of a Little Rock restaurant earlier this year after the rumor had circulated online.

He retrieved the semi-automatic pistol after it was turned over to the police. “I go to some tough areas each day — have been this whole campaign,” Landers said at the time, noting that he has maintained his concealed-carry license for years.

HENDERSON

Henderson, 39, frequently talks about making Little Rock a great city to live in, referencing his two young children.

A past president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, Henderson created the food blog Rock City Eats in 2012 and has leveraged the site while doing behind-the-scenes consulting for restaurants and other small-business clients, he said in a recent interview.

Last year, he obtained a license to become a real estate agent and launched a commercial real estate venture through Keller Williams Realty under the banner of Rock City Commercial.

This is Henderson’s third campaign for municipal office since 2018. He unsuccessfully sought positions on the Little Rock city board in 2018 and 2020.

When asked why he entered the mayoral race in light of how often he seems to agree with or praise Scott, Henderson suggested he and Scott share big-picture ideas and see the same needs for the city.

“I think it’s the execution of those ideas that we don’t agree on,” Henderson said. “It’s the lack of transparency that I think has held Mayor Scott back a whole lot.”

Scott seems unable to get things done in large part because his administration lacks transparency, Henderson argued.

“They’re always trying to hide something. They’re always not responding to FOIA requests, and so it’s just built up a lack of trust from the general population in Mayor Scott,” Henderson said.

Also holding Scott back from executing on their shared ideas is Scott’s unwillingness to work with the members of the city board, Henderson said.

The mayor chairs meetings of the city board, which is made up of 10 elected city directors. Three city directors are elected citywide and the remaining seven are each elected by voters in a geographic ward.

The mayor does not vote except in the event of a tie and can veto measures the city board approves. Under the current government structure, a majority of city board members must approve the mayor’s decision to hire or fire the city manager or city attorney.

“I think that he underestimates the power that the board has,” Henderson said of Scott. Getting things done requires consensus or compromise between the mayor and the board, Henderson said.

At the same time, Henderson endorsed the idea of reevaluating the local government’s structure in favor of a stronger mayor’s office and the elimination of the city manager.

He suggested that the change will have to happen at some point in the next 10 years, possibly when City Manager Bruce Moore decides to retire.

Contrasting himself with Landers, Henderson said he would approach the search for a permanent police chief with an open mind, referring to Landers’ statement that he has a candidate in mind.

While he and Humphrey had great conversations, Henderson said that “he failed in the leadership department.” Right now, the Police Department is divided into two warring sides and needs someone who can build consensus, Henderson said.

If elected, Henderson pledged to repair relationships with neighborhood associations that feel they have not been given enough attention, as well as with city board members who have been at odds with Scott.

But mostly, he would try to repair relationships between the mayor’s office and the public via improved transparency, Henderson said, referring to LITFest and Scott’s handling of FOIA requests.

Henderson said “repairing some of those relationships just to build trust back in the office is sorely needed.”

SCHWARZ

At an Oct. 10 mayoral forum, Schwarz held up a copy of “Whole Earth Discipline” like a preacher holding aloft a Bible.

Indeed, for Schwarz, the book seems to be a seminal text: he credits the author, Stewart Brand, for inspiring him with the potential for thorium-based nuclear power.

Schwarz, 68, believes officials should shut down the coal-fired White Bluff Power Plant in Redfield and replace it with a non-fossil fuel source of energy. (Utility company Entergy plans to phase out coal at White Bluff by the end of the decade.)

In a recent interview, Schwarz argued that thorium-based nuclear power offers benefits compared to a conventional uranium-based reactor, including the potential for building nuclear weapons.

At the same forum, on a question about the open-records law and transparency, Schwarz said he was transparent in everything he does before attempting a pivot.

He wanted to explain his plan to end global warming, but was being “straightjacketed by these questions,” Schwarz said. “It’s not a secret plan for peace like Nixon’s or something.”

In addition to stopping global warming, his other campaign planks include ending the war on drugs, preparing central Arkansas for waves of new residents displaced from coastal areas as a result of climate change and bringing a space program to Little Rock.

Asked how he came up with the idea for the space program, Schwarz said, “I was casting around for a third issue.”

He suggested Little Rock could be a prime candidate for the new headquarters of NASA’s program aimed at deflecting potentially hazardous asteroids.

Among other campaigns, Schwarz has run for Little Rock mayor twice before, in 2010 and 2018. (When he ran for an at-large seat on the city board in 2020, he was listed on the ballot as “Thorium” Glen Schwarz.)

He ran for the local quorum court twice in the 1990s before getting busted for marijuana in 1995, Schwarz recalled. He was caught with a pound at the time, he said.

Schwarz was on probation for five years and could not run for office, but eventually had his record expunged in 2010, he recalled.

For the last 10 years, Schwarz has worked as a paid petition-gatherer, which makes it easy for him to get the required number of signatures to get on the ballot for local races, he said.

He has long campaigned locally for the decriminalization of marijuana. Until recently, Schwarz volunteered for years as a leader of the Arkansas chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

“I was 30 years ahead of my time on the marijuana issue,” Schwarz said at a recent mayoral forum on the environment. “Let us hope that I am 30 years ahead of our time on the global warming issue.”



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