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Strongman 

In North Little Rock, Pat Hays is showing exactly what a strong mayor can accomplish. Not everyone approves.

click to enlarge PEACE OUT: North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays.
  • PEACE OUT: North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays.

November 2008: For the first time in years, it seemed the heat was on North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Henry Hays during an election.

He had a widely-known and reasonably well-financed opponent in businessman Walter “Bubba” Lloyd (plus two no-name challengers); the police and firefighter unions had thrown their support to Lloyd, not the first time they'd bet against Hays, and his forays into tax increment financing (or TIF) districts had fueled tension with school district officials and drawn critics to speak out at City Council meetings. He was getting ribbed for his direction of city dollars to downtown projects — including the Maritime Museum display of the Razorback submarine. Some commentators on neighborhood blogs were raising the question of whether, after 20 years in office, the city's longest-serving mayor had developed a sense of entitlement.

Election Day arrived, and Hays drew his smallest share of the vote in any of his mayoral races — yet he still walked away with 55.7 percent and a sixth consecutive term in City Hall.

Hays is on the kind of roll politicians dream of. Over six campaigns, his average take of the vote has been 76.4 percent. He's served more years than any previous North Little Rock mayor and is tied for the most terms (with Ross Lawhon, who won six two-year terms but didn't serve out all of them). In 2000, his popularity was such that he didn't even draw any opponents, only the second time in the city's history that has happened; the other was Lawhon in 1951. (Hays had no General Election opponent in 1988, his first campaign for mayor, but had beaten incumbent Terry Hartwick in the Democratic primary; subsequent city elections were nonpartisan.) 

Given all this, some political insiders have a title for Hays: Unbeatable.

Asked if he thought anyone could take the mayor in a straight-up election, Ward 4 Alderman Charlie Hight didn't mince words.

“Not at this point in time, no,” he said. “I don't think anybody in their right mind would run against him.”

 

Born to run for office

“I've always been interested in politics, government and various leadership opportunities,” said the 61-year-old Hays in his high-ceilinged office at North Little Rock's 1915 City Hall. “I enjoyed public service and had been leaning toward elected service.”

The son of a railroad worker, Hays grew up in the Baring Cross and Park Hill neighborhoods of North Little Rock. He graduated from the city's public high school in 1965, then attended college and law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, while working for Union Pacific during the summers. He still recalls sometimes finishing his finals in Fayetteville, then taking a midnight switch engine back to Little Rock.

“I was somewhat envious of people who had five-day jobs and were off on weekends,” he said.

Despite his family ties to the railroad, Hays says he knew his future “wasn't as a fireman or engineer on the railroad,” but he also acknowledged his grades alone — “mostly Bs, a few Cs, a few As” — weren't going to land him a job.

So during law school in 1971, he started applying for internships. He wrote the congressional offices of Wilbur Mills, William Fulbright, John McClellan and George McGovern, as well as the Union Pacific legal department.

It was McClellan's office that offered him a position, and Hays credits his experience in the student division of the American Bar Association — he'd been elected its president that summer — with helping him land the spot.

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