Without Hays on the ballot, the mayor's race in North Little Rock is wide open 

Patrick Henry Hays, Esq., a lawyer who won the mayor's office in 1988 and made it his own, fending off all comers and establishing a reputation as a steady and sometimes strong-armed administrator, is finally retiring. His City Hall office overlooking Main Street will have a new occupant for the first time since the Reagan years. The city's riverfront navy — which Hays single-mindedly built over sometimes vociferous objections to the cost of bringing in a WWII submarine and trying to acquire a Pearl Harbor tugboat — will need a new admiral.

Residents of the state's sixth-largest city have four wannabes to choose from. Conventional wisdom would give the advantage either to Joe Smith, the city's director of commerce and government relations and Hays' right-hand man for a quarter-century, or Tracy Steele, an accomplished campaigner who represented parts of the city in the legislature for 14 years and would be the first black mayor if elected (he's the second black mayoral candidate). Likewise, bookies would give steep odds against former City Council member John Parker, who's running simultaneously for mayor and Ward 3 alderman, or Mark Clinton, a first-time candidate who expounds fiscal conservatism and traditional values. All races for city office are nonpartisan, so nobody is running on a party ticket.

But North Little Rock has a history of picking a dark horse now and again. There was Terry Hartwick in 1984, who beat incumbent Mayor Reed Thompson. In 1972, the mayoral heir apparent John Blodgett lost to Bob Rosamond, in large part because of his "Pin A Rose On Me" jingle. Back in 1947, Eldor Johnson (who has a Burns Park pavilion named after him) came along as a total political neophyte and beat James N. Laman (father of the future mayor Casey Laman) in a race without an incumbent.

So there's no telling which candidate's appeal could tweak the heartstrings (or spike the outrage meters) of north-side voters. Throw on top the fact it's the first election in 24 years where nobody named Hays is running, and this contest might be a lot wider open than it might first seem.

North Little Rock is a two-degrees-of-separation kind of town, where everybody seems to know everybody through somebody else, often because they've done business with them. (Full disclosure: I once worked on contract on a grant for the city and worked with Joe Smith in that endeavor, and I've done freelance editing for Tracy Steele's Stand Foundation. Both jobs were several years ago.) The most successful politicians here have always had a touch of the populist — they know you by name, and your kids' names, and how many grandbabies you have — and their tactics embody the retail politics tradition of Arkansas.

Talk to enough people and you'll come away with an impression that, for a large chunk of the population, this election is a referendum on the tenure of Pat Hays. The six-term incumbent often embodied the city's contradictory nature. He was immensely popular, only once drawing less than 65 percent of the vote in a mayoral election. Comfortable in any sort of a crowd, he generally found warm welcomes in all the city's precincts — wealthy and poor, white and black, young and old, white-collar and blue.

But he also never sat well with a certain subset of the city, one that itself defied easy demographic description. Some folks just didn't like Hays, didn't trust him, and didn't appreciate how he ran things. He got crossways with the police and firefighter unions early on and they never quite got over it. Hays could also govern with a heavy hand when it suited him (which wasn't often), and he wasn't afraid to flex the muscles of a strong mayor's office.

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