Little Rock Mayor's Race to Highlight Rifts with State (Andrew DeMillo Analysis)

by Andrew DeMillo, The Associated Press  on Monday, Jul. 17, 2017 6:53 am   3 min read

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas' ballot next year will include seven constitutional offices and four U.S. House races, all of which could be dominated by uncertainty about the future of the federal health law, and a state Supreme Court campaign that could again be dominated by outside groups' spending. Those races could be overshadowed, however, by a fight over who will be the top elected official in Arkansas' capital city.

A Democratic lawmaker's announcement that he is considering a challenge to Little Rock's incumbent mayor, and the possibility of others launching bids, indicates that an intraparty fight for controlling City Hall could rival what's expected in statewide and federal races next year. It could also highlight the growing rift between the state's most populous city and Republican officeholders on a wide variety of issues.

As a rising star in the state Legislature, Democratic Rep. Warwick Sabin had been positioned to be one of the party's top candidates for statewide or federal office. But the 40-year-old lawmaker instead is focusing on the non-partisan race for mayor.

"I've been thinking about a mayor candidacy for at least two years because I also think the city is a place where you can get a lot done," Sabin said last week. "A lot of the issues and problems that are confronting the city are ones that, through energy and new ideas, we can confront and solve, and that's the reason why I got involved in politics in the first place."

Sabin's likely candidacy opens up what's sure to be an expensive and heated fight with one of the state's most prominent Democratic figures. Mayor Mark Stodola was first elected to the post in 2006 and said he plans to seek a fourth term next year, though he says he's not focused on the race at this point.

"My number one priority right now is Little Rock and the challenges we are facing, not a political race that is 17 months away," Stodola said in a statement last week. "I am going to continue to serve in my role as mayor of our great city by working with our city's leaders and our community to tackle these challenges, from public safety to jobs and economic development to quality of life for our citizens, head-on."

Sabin's announcement came a little more than a week after 28 people were injured in a shooting at a Little Rock nightclub. So far, police haven't announced any arrests in the shooting — and concern about the incident along with other violent crimes in Little Rock prompted Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to announcement a task force partnering local and state law enforcement agencies.

It also comes as Little Rock and other cities take a more vocal role in pushing back against efforts by a state Legislature they've cast as stripping away local control on some issues. Little Rock was among a handful of cities that passed varying measures expanding civil rights protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in response to a state law aimed at halting such ordinances. The state Supreme Court has said the law bans a similar ordinance by Fayetteville, and a state judge is now weighing whether the law violates Arkansas' constitution.

Cities were more successful in pushing back against other measures they say as too broad, including a "bathroom bill" and legislation that would have cut off state funding to municipalities offering sanctuary to immigrants who are in the country illegally. Little Rock even faced an abandoned effort to force the city to remove Bill and Hillary Clinton's name from its national airport.

The race will also likely be shaped by other disputes with the state. They include the state's decision to take over the Little Rock School District. An effort by state officials to help pay for a new high school and other improvements was rejected by voters in May, fueled by distrust over Arkansas' takeover of the school district. The state's bid to widen Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock has also faced opposition from residents who say it'll hamper the area's revitalization efforts.

The mayor's race could be a chance for Sabin, Stodola and other candidates to tout themselves as the best positioned to fight an increasingly Republican state Legislature and governor.

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ademillo.

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