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When Helena and West Helena merged last year to form the not very creatively named city of Helena-West Helena, the consolidation could easily have been a suicide pact.
Both cities were in dire financial straits, with aging infrastructure and outdated equipment, and the merger brought together their accumulated debt. They were also used to being rivals, and unification meant destroying two longstanding fiefdoms with the hope that old competitors could work together.
On top of that, the new city effectively doubled a recipe of outsized personalities, sensitive egos and racial animosity that has been the toxic brew of Arkansas Delta politics for decades.
But after a year of marriage, the union appears to be working. Tensions are easing and for the first time in anyone’s recent memory, residents are optimistic about the future of the area.
And it all comes down to the leadership of the man who made the merger happen in the first place: the 38-year-old mayor, James Valley.
It was never obvious that Valley — no stranger to controversy — would end up being a unifying force.
He had famously sued the local school board to force redistricting and new elections, angering the entrenched power base there. And before that, he opposed previous unsuccessful efforts to merge Helena and West Helena.
But Valley changed his mind in 2004, when he was hired to be the lead attorney for a group pushing for a public referendum on consolidation.
“Two years prior, I was against it, and I was against it because I saw it as an effort to unseat some elected officials, not as an effort to bring communities together,” Valley said. “I became involved as a lawyer for this group merely to get them an election, and then, as I started to investigate the pros and cons of consolidation, it began to grow on me — one, that this was more than just legal representation. It was an issue that I wanted to carry forward because of our condition financially in both communities. … So I read the study they did 10 or 15 years ago about the need for consolidation. Also a report that dealt with the fact that both cities, if they continued down the same path, may be bankrupt in five years. We weren’t in a condition where we could sustain ourselves.”
Andrew Bagley, one of the leaders of the consolidation bid who had served with Valley on the Phillips County Quorum Court, said Valley’s change of heart was the difference between success and failure.
“I convinced the others that were involved at the beginning to bring him on as the attorney,” Bagley remembers. “I told them that if anyone could get us an election on this, it’s James. And he proved to live up to the billing. He single-handedly forced the election to take place when the West Helena City Council was refusing to follow the law and call it. He was able to put it together in less than a year and force the election.”
Given a chance to vote in March 2005, residents of both cities overwhelmingly approved a merger. But that only set the stage for another conflict over who would lead the new municipality.
“I had no intention of being the mayor or playing any role in it,” Valley says. “There were a couple of people who mentioned that maybe I ought to consider it.”
‘Not too black, not too white’
Two of those people were Ernest and Cathy Cunningham, and their support illuminates a significant aspect of Valley’s political appeal.
The Cunninghams are well-respected pillars of the white community in Helena-West Helena. Ernest is a former longtime state representative. Cathy is the community development coordinator for Southern Financial Partners.
“When we did realize that we were going to have a new city and that we would have an election for mayor, my husband and I both encouraged him to run,” said Cathy Cunningham. “We thought he would make a really good mayor. And the primary thing was, we thought, number one he’s young. Ernest and I both felt that it was time for some of us older people to step aside and let some of the younger ones to come on, especially if they were interested and had the ability. And we thought James was both interested, had the ability, and he’s very articulate — he would make a great presentation and represent the community well.”
Valley candidly acknowledges the racial dimensions of the city’s politics.
“We needed somebody who was willing to shed him or herself and their comfort zone to be in the middle — that is, not too black and not too white,” Valley said. “Because what we’ve had is black elected officials who kind of catered to the black community, and we had white elected officials who kind of catered to the white community. And you needed somebody who would cater to the middle, so that you could get them both to the table, because both of them are important in their own ways. The dynamics here have several nuances, but the white community is essentially in control of our economy and the black community is in control of our ballot.”
The population of Helena-West Helena is roughly 70 percent black. In his first run for mayor in 2005, Valley faced two other black candidates (including the former mayor of West Helena, Johnny Weaver) and one white opponent, former Helena mayor Joann Smith. After the November balloting, Valley ended up in a run-off with Smith and subsequently dispatched her by a roughly 60-40 percent margin.
But even though the contest pitted a black candidate against a white one, the vote didn’t adhere to traditional racial lines.
“In one of the debates, one of the things I mentioned was that black people said I wasn’t black enough and white people thought I wasn’t white enough,” Valley recalls. “I lost some black support, but that was from people I wouldn’t have had anyway.”
Bagley said, “What ultimately put James over the top was his ability to draw more crossover voters in terms of race. When it came to James’ ability to draw in some white voters, it was because of the experience they had had with him through the consolidation effort. He had shown an independence from being told what to do by anybody, and he had showed a level of intelligence that made people believe he could handle the job, and with that people gave him a chance.”
Still, some of Valley’s white supporters, like Bagley and banker Bill Brandon, suffered consequences for resisting the usual race-based allegiances. Brandon, another well-known community leader who is chairman and CEO of First National Bank, lost a runoff by 12 votes in the 2006 Democratic primary for state representative, and in the same year, Bagley was defeated seeking his fourth term on the county quorum court.
“I, along with Bill Brandon and others, made a very public commitment to James, and we paid a political price for that,” Bagley said. “I think it was the margin of loss in Bill’s election for sure. I was on the campaign trail, and in two or three different places I got hit with being called the ‘n’ word as a white guy. For those people, backing James was proof that I was not necessarily committed to the same values and positions that they felt like I should have been.”
Which is what? To support white people?
“Yes, basically. I think that was the message that was being said to me. And it was the one sent to Bill.”
A crucial first year
Even if Valley had lost that first election for mayor of Helena-West Helena, he thinks his candidacy would have been a sign of progress for the community.
“It made the black people feel like we have something to look forward to,” Valley said. “Even if I had lost the race they would have felt like times had changed.”
But Valley won, and under the terms of the consolidation arrangement, the new mayor would serve for one year before another election would be held for the full, four-year term.
That meant he had 10 months — from January to November — to produce some demonstrable results from an unruly mix of incompatible administrative systems and combative personalities.
“My biggest challenge was convincing the council and the public that I was for real,” Valley said. “That is, that I really wanted to be the mayor and to lead the city in a positive direction without alienating people. Then to try to get some things accomplished in one year that weren’t temporary, that were sustaining, such that when the next person came in — whether it’s me or someone else — they could pick up from there and go on.”
Valley set his sights on three goals: re-opening the landfill, re-establishing a central fire station and passing a sales tax increase to stabilize the city’s finances.
He got two out of three. The new Fern Hill fire station opened in March 2006, and the landfill was operating again by November.
Also, Valley managed to get through his first year without provoking a lawsuit against the city, and that did not go unnoticed.
“We live in a very litigious county,” said Ben Steinberg, the president of Southern Financial Partners, which has developed a strategic plan for the area. “Once consolidation moved forward, there have been no lawsuits challenging consolidation or the decisions made, and I think that required a lot more than logistic effort. It required keeping everybody on board the train, because we live in a very fractious and divided community.”
That was apparent in the sales tax election. Many of the same forces who opposed Valley’s bid for mayor aligned against his tax proposals, which included two separate one-cent sales tax increases. This time, they were successful, defeating both ballot measures by roughly the same margin, 60-40 percent.
It was a setback that affected Valley’s re-election campaign later that year. He faced six other candidates, but in reality, it was a re-match against Smith and her coalition.
“In the second campaign, he probably didn’t appear to have the white support out front that he did the first time,” Cathy Cunningham said.
That’s because some members of the white business establishment thought Valley had been less than diligent in presenting his budget rationale for the sales tax increase. Smith’s campaign slogan was “It’s about trust,” and she accused Valley of attempting to raise taxes to pay for his salary, which had been increased after consolidation to $68,000 a year.
Despite the bitter campaign, Valley came within 62 votes of winning the seven-person election outright, and he defeated Smith handily in the runoff.
“I had more white support this time than I did the first time,” Valley contends. “I think by the time the election came up, they had the opportunity to see how I had acted and interacted with people. They saw the number of appointments that I had made, that I had been balanced. I tried to have women, black, white, old, young, from old Helena and old West Helena. I tried to be diverse in my appointments to various commissions and committees, so I think that helped.”
However, Bagley says that Valley benefited from negative, racially charged advertisements that Smith produced.
“Up until that point, there had been some in his traditional base vote of African-Americans that could be considered soft supporters, at best,” Bagley said. “And then there were some in the white community that were on the verge of being scared off of him. Well, [after the ads ran], those in the white community who had supported him in the past said, ‘No, we can’t have this. This is going backwards. This is the Phillips County of the past.’ And then his African-American supporters said, ‘No, we’re not going to have anybody talk about him like this.’ And they rallied to his side and he ends up winning 60-40.”
Even with all of the political drama, it’s clear that Valley is more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of being mayor.
Try to get him to talk about the big-picture issues affecting Helena and the Arkansas Delta, and Valley quickly steers the conversation back to water systems and the sanitation department. He effortlessly integrates statistics into casual conversation (“The average household, according to the EPA, generates 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day,” he said at one point), and he could seemingly go on for hours about insurance service office ratings.
When this is pointed out to him as he gives a tour of the landfill he re-opened, he responds, “I’ve had to mind the details. You have to know the specifics of what’s going on. Landfills are highly regulated entities and we have to comply with Arkansas law and federal law as we go through the process of operating the landfill … .”
“Wait!” begs the listener. What we mean is that you seem to like this stuff, the details, getting your hands dirty.
“Actually, I’m very hands-on,” Valley says. “I’ve driven this equipment out here, I’ve driven our garbage trucks, I’ve driven our garbage routes, I’ve picked up mattresses and sofas, I’ve picked up wasted trash, I’ve been out on the fire trucks, the police cars. Whatever our employees have had to do, I’ve done it with them. I kind of want to know what the needs of the city are, so when I ask the taxpayer to pay for it, I’m telling them exactly what it is based on my own information, not in total reliance upon somebody who just wants us to spend more money.”
Valley’s allies have noticed this tendency, too, and some even worry that it could be a liability.
“He truly immerses himself in all the details to the point where those of us who support him have told him it’s time to delegate,” Bagley said. “He almost wants to be the hub of the wheel instead of the top of the pyramid.”
“He hates to call on people to do something,” Cathy Cunningham said. “I think he feels like he’s asking them to do something that he may think they may not want to volunteer to do. He may not feel that comfortable yet in asking people to do things, but I think he is growing in that regard.”
However, Valley is pretty blunt in expressing his feelings about governing by committee.
“I tried to stay away from committees altogether, but it didn’t work because this community has this desire for committees,” he said. “Every time something comes up, they want a committee. I don’t think that’s the best way to handle things. I subscribe to the theory that says a committee is a group of the unfit appointed by the unwilling to do the unnecessary.”
Valley comes from his own committee, of sorts.
The tenth of 13 children raised in West Helena, he overcame a deprived childhood to arrive as the leader of the city where he was born.
“I can recall growing up in a two bedroom house,” Valley says. “My parents had a room and we had a room. I was in 11th grade when I got my own bed to sleep in. I was a junior in college by the time I got my own room. We came up essentially poor. My father was a laborer. He worked for McKnight Plywood for 40-plus years. I do recall, in his final years, year 41 or 42, I was in law school and working at McDonalds in Fayetteville. He was making $7 an hour and I was making $7.25 and he had been working 40 years.”
After going through the public schools in West Helena and Helena, Valley received a scholarship to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he earned a bachelor of science in education, and he remained there for law school. He then got married and returned to West Helena to practice law. Valley and his wife, Renee, have five children.
In many ways, Valley represents a departure from the black leadership that has existed in Helena-West Helena for several generations, and he recognized that when he came back home after law school.
“The ’60s were over,” he said. “And we still, in some ways, with our local NAACP and some of our other efforts, were trying things the same way they did in the ’60s. We had to be more conciliatory in our approach, while standing up enough that black folks didn’t think you were giving away the farm, so to speak.”
“I think his age makes it easier for him to work with people on the other side of the aisle, the white people,” Bagley says. “He comes from the generation of integrated schools, to the extent that public education is truly integrated over here, so he’s used to being around white people in settings other than work. Whereas those from the previous generation went to segregated schools, fought the war, fought the battle, and for some on both sides, white and black, the war’s not over, as witnessed by how tumultuous and difficult our elections are.”
Valley disagrees somewhat. “I think the black community saw my youth as important, but not nearly as important as the fact that I’m a lawyer, that I’m educated, that I speak in complete sentences and that I represent what either they believe or would like to have as representative of them.”
Cathy Cunningham noted, “I think being African-American, he could probably do some things that a white mayor couldn’t do. I think that he is gaining confidence in the white community, but he will have to involve them more. … I think if a white mayor had tried to do some of the things he’s tried to do — for instance, letting several city employees go because of drug tests — if a white mayor had done that, we would have had lots of lawsuits.”
Valley has several items on his agenda for the next four years, but his biggest priority is re-visiting the sales tax increase. He has not yet presented a specific proposal, but he expects another public referendum on the matter by the end of May.
“I’ll probably ask for a penny-and-three-quarters,” Valley said. “That includes some money for water, streets and parks. But I’m willing to live by whatever the citizenry will pass. We probably need two pennies, but we can probably get by with a penny-and-one-quarter up to a penny-and-three-quarters.”
Pushed to name some big-picture goals, Valley says, “One of the things I’d like to see us try to do is position ourselves, in terms of communications and the fiber optic infrastructure, to be the call center capital of the United States,” pointing out that Bell South put a major call center operation nearby in Greenville, Miss.
That kind of confident vision — even if there is no evidence suggesting it could happen — is something entirely new for Helena-West Helena. And combined with some of the other positive developments that have been happening there, it may be an indication that things are finally changing for the better after years of hopelessness.
There is the KIPP charter school, which is earning national accolades for the educational opportunities it is offering young people there. A biodiesel production facility operated by Delta American Fuels is scheduled to open in the area later this year. Earlier this month, a series of $1 bus routes — the city’s first public transportation system in 25 years — began circulating in the city. And other major investments are in the final stages of negotiation, according to economic development officials.
“If all those things start hitting on cylinders at the same time, James could end up being the guy that goes down in the history books as the one who turned this around,” Bagley said.
Valley thinks the atmosphere already has changed.
“Race has been a big issue in this community for a number of years,” he said. “I can’t sit here and say that all of the problems have been solved, but I think one of the successes that this administration has had is that race is not the first thing we consider anymore. Whereas at one point it was.”