Six decades after nine black students were escorted past an angry white mob into Little Rock Central High School, the city at the center of the desegregation crisis may be on the verge of electing its first African-American mayor.
But Frank Scott, the 35-year-old banking executive who may break that barrier, says it’s not his motivation for running to lead his hometown.
“I’m not running to be the black mayor of Little Rock,” Scott said.
Scott could win by bridging some of the biggest rifts in Arkansas’ capital: race, income and geography. He’s a native of one of Little Rock’s poorer areas who has risen in its more affluent part in professions — politics and finance — dominated by white men.
Race is hard to escape in the campaign for mayor in Arkansas’ capital, where divisions linger long after the school’s 1957 desegregation . The city’s police department has faced questions about its tactics, including the department’s use of no-knock warrants. The predominantly black Little Rock School District has been under state control for the past three years, and community leaders have compared the takeover to Gov. Orval Faubus’ efforts to block integration.
Black leaders in the city view the Dec. 4 runoff as a chance for Little Rock to address some of its biggest divisions.
“Race is a major dividing line in this city. That’s one but the other major dividing line in this city is economics,” said Joyce Elliott, a Democratic state senator from Little Rock who’s backing Scott’s bid. “Those two things have been lethal for this city, and we are not doing a good job of having a conversation or a plan that involve all of us that we carry out.”
If Scott is elected, he’d be the highest-profile black official in a state that hasn’t elected an African-American to Congress or statewide office since Reconstruction. Blacks make up about 42 percent of the city’s population, compared to nearly 16 percent statewide.
Little Rock has had two black mayors, but they were elected city directors chosen for the job by fellow board members and not by voters. Scott won a plurality of votes in a five-man race in November with 37 percent of the vote, a few percentage points shy of the 40 percent needed to win the office outright.
He’s running against Baker Kurrus, a 64-year-old white attorney and businessman who was appointed as the school district’s superintendent after the state takeover. Kurrus’ contract as superintendent wasn’t renewed after he opposed the expansion of charter schools in the district, a move that rallied Democratic lawmakers and community leaders to his defense.
In a debate this week with Scott, Kurrus noted that his mother was a member of a committee that fought for the re-opening of Little Rock’s schools after Faubus closed them to prevent further desegregation following Central High’s.
Both candidates are running on the promise of change as they seek the open, nonpartisan seat.
Like Scott, Kurrus says unifying the city is one of his top goals as mayor. He says his experience, including his time as a school board member, shows he can do it.
“There’s no racial component to being able to work cooperatively with others … and I refuse to believe that I’m limited in my ability to help people by the color of my skin,” Kurrus said. “I don’t want people voting for me because I am or am not a particular skin color.”
Scott served as an adviser to former Gov. Mike Beebe and on the state Highway Commission, and he has assembled a coalition that’s crossed racial and political lines. His supporters include Democratic state legislators from the area and prominent Republicans such as Will Rockefeller, grandson of Arkansas’ first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
He regularly talks about growing up south of Interstate 630, which runs through the city and has been traditionally viewed as a dividing line between its predominantly white and predominantly black neighborhoods. In campaign speeches and interviews, he often says it wasn’t until his 20s that he had heard of Kavanaugh Boulevard, which runs along some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods and shops.
“What we’ve done is create these individual small towns within our big city in a very small state, which we can’t afford to do,” Scott said. “We can’t afford to be divided. We can’t afford to be disconnected. We can’t afford to be distrustful of one another.”
Much of the race has focused on distrust with the city’s police department, which faces a federal lawsuit that claims officers obtained “no-knock” warrants based on false information. Scott called on the Justice Department to investigate the claims after they were detailed in a Washington Post story. Roderick Talley, who initiated the lawsuit, was later accused of hitting a sheriff’s deputy with a car while fleeing a courthouse in an unrelated case.
The Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police, which has endorsed Kurrus, faced widespread criticism for a Facebook post that targeted Scott and showed the mayoral candidate talking to Talley. “Candidates who align themselves with fleeing felons fail the qualifications for any public office,” the post read. The police union later deleted the post but didn’t apologize for it.
Little Rock’s mayoral campaign is winding down after a year where African Americans have made gains elsewhere in Arkansas. Pulaski County, where Little Rock is located, elected its first black sheriff and clerk this year. Several other cities around Arkansas have also elected their first black mayors this year, including Fort Smith, a predominantly white city on the state’s border with Oklahoma.
“It not only makes a statement for Fort Smith,” said George McGill, a state representative who takes office as the city’s mayor in January. “It makes a statement for the entire state of Arkansas…It says a lot about what we want our future to look like.”
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