LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Frank Scott became Little Rock’s first popularly elected Black mayor four years ago on campaign promises to unite a city long divided along racial lines.
But a deadly year in Arkansas’ capital, criticism of his management and attacks from Republicans are threatening reelection chances for Scott, a rare high-profile Democrat in this solidly red state. His reelection bid is one of the few competitive races on the ballot in Arkansas, where Republicans are heavily favored in statewide and congressional matchups.
“This race is very simple: do you want to go backward to a horrid past, or do you want to continue growing forward?" Scott told supporters before he cast his ballot during early voting.
Scott’s election in 2018 was a landmark for a city long known for the 1957 desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, when nine Black students were escorted into the school in front of an angry white mob. The city remains racially divided, with whites making up about half of Little Rock’s population.
Little Rock's mayoral race is nonpartisan. But Scott is running in a midterm election where violent crime has become a pivotal issue nationwide, with Republicans eager to paint Democratic mayors as unable to protect their cities.
In neighboring Texas, the top elected official in reliably Democratic Harris County — home to Houston — also faces such criticism. Crime dominates advertising by GOP candidates in some of the most competitive Senate and governor’s races across the country.
Scott’s chief rival in the race is Steve Landers, a retired car dealer who regularly cites the city’s spiraling homicide rate in campaign appearances and materials. Little Rock so far this year has reported at least 71 homicides, surpassing the record the city reached in 1993.
“People want a change in our city. Our city is dangerous,” Landers said.
Landers calls himself an independent who’s voted for Democrats and Republicans. Federal Election Commission records show he's donated to several Republican candidates and the state GOP in recent years, but also to some Democrats. He’s outspent Scott’s campaign, and loaned $400,000 to his bid, according to fundraising reports filed last week.
The other candidates running are Greg Henderson, a local businessman who publishes a food blog, and Glen Schwarz, a longtime marijuana legalization advocate. All three challengers are white.
Scott, a former member of the state highway commission, became Little Rock’s first elected Black mayor in a runoff election. Little Rock previously had two Black mayors, but they were chosen for the job by fellow city board members and not by voters.
Scott had the backing of Democratic and Republican figures four years ago when he led a campaign that sought to bridge the city’s biggest divides: race, income and geography.
The homicide rate and some stumbles at City Hall, however, have since drawn the involvement of Republican-backed groups. They include one campaign that’s been supported by former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s political action committee.
Crime in Little Rock is also factoring into other races in the state.
An ad by Republican gubernatorial hopeful Sarah Sanders — the former White House press secretary and Huckabee’s daughter — mentions the city’s violent crime.
Scott has blasted the former governor’s involvement in the race, with one mailer warning voters, “do not let Mike Huckabee bring Donald Trump policies to Little Rock.”
Political observers say the Republican attacks could backfire.
“This adds a new dimension to it, this has in essence become a partisan race and there are a lot of Democrats in Little Rock,” said Skip Rutherford, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Since the GOP-backed groups’ involvement, Scott’s campaign has rolled out endorsements from high profile Democrats and groups, such as retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes. He’s also been endorsed by some of the Black students who integrated Central High.
Scott has defended his handling of crime, noting that Little Rock’s overall violent crime rate is down compared to the same period last year.
The mayor and police have said this year’s homicide spike, unlike what the city saw in the early 1990s, isn’t driven by gang activity but by domestic violence or crime between acquaintances. In a statement over the weekend, he said the city has put social workers in the field, funded conflict resolution programs for at-risk youth and targeted patrols in high-crime areas of the city.
Scott's woes are compounded by criticism of his management of City Hall, including an art and music festival he championed that was abruptly canceled days before it was to take place. The city’s manager canceled Little Rock’s contract with an outside firm that was organizing the festival following questions about the financial arrangement with the firm.
The city’s police chief, who Scott hired, retired in May after a rocky three years marked by lawsuits and clashes with officers. Little Rock also faces criticism about a lack of transparency, prompting the local prosecutor to vent frustration last week about the number of Freedom of Information Act complaints he's received about the city.
In his reelection bid, Scott has touted the city landing economic development deals, including an Amazon delivery station and warehouse.
“Little Rock has an opportunity to be a catalyst for the new South,” Scott told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year.
Rachel Luckett, who cast a ballot for Scott during early voting, said she is concerned about crime but want to give the mayor another chance.
“I think he’s handled it just as well as any other mayor that’s come through,” Luckett said. “It won’t change overnight.”
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Andrew Demillo, The Associated Press