Debe Hollingsworth: The New Mayor In a Troubled Town

by George Waldon  on Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

Debe Hollingsworth (Photo by Michael Pirnique)

Debe Hollingsworth decided to make a bold move and broaden her mission work to include the political arena in 2011.

Frustrated with the direction her city was going, the grandmother of four made the leap from civic-church volunteer and businesswoman to Pine Bluff mayoral candidate.

Recent unfavorable rankings have listed Pine Bluff among the most im-poverished cities in America. The Pine Bluff Metropolitan Statistical Area, which encompasses Jefferson, Cleveland and Drew counties, was named among the most dangerous in the nation and the fastest-declining MSA population in Arkansas.

“I realized that I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be part of a solution,” said Hollingsworth, 60. “Our city was not advancing the way I thought it should. When I offered suggestions, it fell on deaf ears.”

Though a political novice, she understood the art of constituency building and set about winning over fellow citizens with her love for Pine Bluff and her zeal to make things better for its 48,000-plus residents.

Her grassroots campaign was founded on 18 months of meet-and-greets that helped her build support and connect with neighborhood leaders.

The campaign interaction also helped Hollingsworth develop a five-point platform that resonated with voters: reduce crime and improve economic development, city government, the image of Pine Bluff and education.

“Neighborhood revitalizing and stability equate to educational stability,” she said in explaining the city’s role in improving education. “I have a huge passion for children.”

Hollingsworth was swept into office Nov. 6 with such a strong electoral wave that no runoff vote was required, despite a ballot of nine candidates.

That competitive field included two-term incumbent Carl Redus Jr., the city’s first black mayor.

She is the first woman to serve as Pine Bluff’s mayor since Carolyn Robinson was elected in 1984.

Holding what she considers a mandate for radical change, Hollingsworth started her first day in office with a bang by firing the chief of police.

The dramatic action was touted as an immediate morale booster to the police force, which had lost veteran officers through dissatisfaction-fueled attrition.

“I am not a politician,” Hollingsworth said. “I have four years to get the things done I want to get done.

“I don’t even think about re-election. Worrying about re-election can influence a major decision you need to make in the present.”

Hollingsworth also took steps to re-establish the Civil Service Commission, composed of residents. The city council in 2011 had replaced the commission with a committee of city employees.

“The commission will once again provide what you, the people, have asked for, which is a neutral, nonpolitical environment for hiring, promotions, dealing with grievances and termination for our police and for our fire department,” she said in a speech after her swearing-in ceremonies.

Hollingsworth grew up in Jonesboro, where she attended Arkansas State University and graduated from the now-defunct Melton School of Business.

She moved to Pine Bluff in 1975 and began a career in banking and investments at Simmons First National Bank.

Hollingsworth went on to become an examiner for the State Bank Department and an investment adviser/stockbroker at Stephens Investment Group and Worthen Bank & Trust.

Mixed in was work at Hoover Oil Co., her late husband’s family-owned enterprise, and raising kids and teaching them the ropes of the business after Jim Hoover died in 1997.

“There was never a dull moment, but that’s the way I roll,” Hollingsworth said.

She is confident that her leadership skills and business background will serve Pine Bluff well and that her team player approach, charged with determination, practicality and enthusiasm, can help turn things around.

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