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Deadly year could jeopardize Little Rock mayor’s re-election bid


LITTLE ROCK, Ark. —Frank Scott became the first black mayor elected by the people of Little Rock four years ago on campaign promises to unite a city long divided along racial lines.

But a murderous year in the Arkansas capital, criticism of its management and attacks from Republicans threaten the re-election chances of Scott, a rare top Democrat in the staunchly red state. His re-election 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 back to a horrible past, or do you want to keep growing?” Scott told his supporters before voting in 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.

The race for mayor of Little Rock is non-partisan. But Scott is running in a midterm election where violent crime has become a critical national issue, with Republicans keen to paint Democratic mayors as unable to protect their cities.

In neighboring Texas, the top elected Democratic official in Harris County, home to Houston, is also facing such criticism. Crime dominates advertising for GOP candidates in some of the most competitive Senate and gubernatorial races across the country.

Scott’s main rival in the race is Steve Landers, a retired auto dealer who regularly cites the city’s spiraling homicide rate in campaign appearances and materials. So far this year, Little Rock has reported at least 71 homicides, surpassing the record set by the city in 1993.

“People want change in our city. Our city is dangerous,” Landers said.

Landers calls himself an independent who voted for Democrats and Republicans. Federal Election Commission records show he has donated to several Republican candidates and the state GOP in recent years, but also to some Democrats. He outspent Scott’s campaign and loaned his candidacy $400,000, according to fundraising reports filed last week.

Other candidates in the running are Greg Henderson, a local businessman who publishes a food blog, and Glen Schwarz, a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization. All three challengers are white.

Scott, a former member of the state highway commission, became Little Rock’s first black mayor elected in a runoff. Little Rock previously had two black mayors, but they were chosen for the position by fellow city council members, not voters.

Scott had the support of Democratic and Republican figures four years ago when he led a campaign to bridge the city’s biggest divides: race, income and geography.

However, the homicide rate and some stumbles at City Hall have since drawn the involvement of Republican-backed groups. They include a campaign that was backed by former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Political Action Committee.

Crime in Little Rock is also factored into other races in the state.

An ad from Republican gubernatorial candidate Sarah Sanders — the former White House press secretary and Huckabee’s daughter — mentions violent crime in the city.

Scott blasted the former governor’s involvement in the race, with a letter warning voters, “don’t let Mike Huckabee bring Donald Trump’s policies to Little Rock.”

Political observers say the Republican attacks could backfire.

“It adds a new dimension to it, it’s essentially become a partisan race and there are a lot of Democrats in Little Rock,” said Skip Rutherford, former chairman of the Democratic Party in the state.

Since involving GOP-backed groups, Scott’s campaign has rolled out endorsements from Democrats and high-profile groups, such as retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes. It was also endorsed by some of the black students who entered Central High.

Scott defended his handling of crime, noting that Little Rock’s overall violent crime rate is down from the same time last year.

Mayor and police say spike in homicides this year, unlike city in early 1990s, not due to gang activity but domestic violence or crime between acquaintances. In a statement over the weekend, he said the city has put social workers on the ground, 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 handling of City Hall, including an arts and music festival he championed that was abruptly canceled days before it was due to take place . The city manager canceled Little Rock’s contract with an outside company hosting the festival following questions about the financial arrangement with the company.

The city’s police chief, whom Scott hired, retired in May after three turbulent years marked by lawsuits and confrontations with officers. Little Rock is also facing criticism over a lack of transparency, prompting the local prosecutor to express frustration last week at the number of Freedom of Information Act complaints he has received at About the city.

In his re-election bid, Scott touted the city’s economic development offerings, including a delivery station and Amazon warehouse.

“Little Rock has the opportunity to be a catalyst for the new South,” Scott told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year.

Rachel Luckett, who voted for Scott in the early vote, said she was concerned about crime but wanted to give the mayor another chance.

“I think he did as well as any other mayor that’s passed,” Luckett said. “That won’t change overnight.”

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