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Strongman 

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.

Hays wound up finishing his law degree while working in Washington, D.C., taking classes both there and at UALR. But though he was offered a permanent job with McClellan's office, Hays turned it down because of his own political ambitions: He felt the likelihood to serve in elected office would be minimal if he stayed in D.C.

So it was back to North Little Rock, where he was hired by City Attorney Sam Hilburn. His first official day of work as a lawyer was April Fool's Day, 1974.

Hays made his first run at election in the city attorney race of 1975, but lost to Jim Hamilton. A couple of years later, he won election as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1979-80.

From early on his eyes were on the General Assembly. His father, Arthur Henry Hays, had run and lost twice against Rep. Henry Osterloh. In 1987, the younger Hays took his shot at the incumbent, and unseated Osterloh with 63 percent of the vote.

Ironically, he had anticipated staying in the Ledge for one simple reason — you don't find yourself doing the one thing that local elected officials seem to do every day.

“I don't think any of us like to say no,” he said. “I just sort of felt this job [mayor] would be saying no on a frequent basis. You were just too close to those people who didn't like what you did and wouldn't hesitate to tell you about it.”

“Which is the case,” he added.

Still, he took the plunge in 1988 and unseated incumbent Mayor Terry Hartwick (who was in the midst of a personal scandal) with 65 percent of the vote. Thus started his unbeaten streak as the city's chief executive.

 

A smooth operator

Shortly before 7 o'clock on a Monday evening in May, Pat Hays walked into the Council Chamber at City Hall and paused in the doorway to exchange a few words with someone. When he heard the audience falling silent, he quickly turned to them and said with a big smile, “Y'all still got two minutes, so you can keep going!”

That drew chuckles from the crowd, as did his flub later on when he accidentally introduced the state champion North Little Rock High School softball team as the baseball team. “I was stunned by the beauty,” he explained, drawing laughs from the girls, their coaches, and most of the room.

That sense of self-deprecation is just one reason people like Hays so much. He's not afraid to laugh at himself and, let's be honest, there are plenty of opportunities — he can be a bit of a goofball. His easy manner makes him approachable, and he knows how to connect with voters.

Take, for example, his penchant for issuing proclamations. Are you turning 100? Did you win a blue ribbon at the State Fair? If Hays hears about a noteworthy milestone, he'll have a resolution before the council and be handing you a plaque declaring a day in your name. Last year, when an Argenta resident threw a birthday party for his dog, Hays arrived on his bicycle with a plaque honoring Mojo Day.

You get the picture. Literally: Someone's always taking photos when he hands out those plaques, and those photos doubtless go onto the fridge, or get e-mailed to family and friends, and the folks shaking his hand in the photo aren't likely to forget soon that Pat Hays did this for me … .

That's why, in the judgment of one long-time City Council observer, Hays is the most popular North Little Rock politician of the last two decades, with the possible exception of the late City Clerk Mary Munns.

During his two-decade tenure, Hays has won firm allies both inside and outside of city government. One of them is Martin Gipson, who spent 27 years representing Ward 1 on the City Council and has been Hays' next-door neighbor since the early 1980s. A frequent ally during their years on the council, Gipson said Hays has a number of strengths that have helped him through the years.

“He's a consensus builder, and I think that's one of the things,” Gipson said. “He's been able to keep good people in key positions for most of his time in office. The other thing, too, he's allowed the City Council members to bring issues to the council, whether he agreed with them or disagreed with them.”

How significant is that last? Very, according to Gipson, who notes that, unlike many other cities across the state, no sitting alderman has ever challenged Hays in an election.

Yet for all his political assets, nobody's perfect. So the question was put to Gipson: Does Hays have any shortcomings?

“If he did,” the mayor's next-door neighbor said, “I wouldn't tell you.”

 

Not everyone's a fan

Lloyd, Hays' 2008 opponent, does not share Gipson's compunction regarding areas where the mayor may fall short.

“There is a total lack of transparency in the government we have in North Little Rock,” said Lloyd, who received 36.6 percent of the vote last fall. “We don't know where the money is. They should be more up front with that. At this point, with the economy where it is, we should be more sensitive with people who can't pay their bills and how we're spending money. We haven't tightened our belts fully.”

Lloyd said it was the mayor's support of sales tax increases and rate hikes at the city-owned Electric Department that pushed him into the race, which he described as “a Reagan conservative versus an Obama liberal.”

But that doesn't make him an implacable, lifelong Hays foe.

“First of all, I've voted for him before,” said Lloyd, who owns Ad America, a promotional products company in North Little Rock. “There was a time I thought he was doing a good job.”

But that time is gone. Now, Lloyd says, Hays exhibits a sense of entitlement. He noted that the attitude he sees from City Hall is, “We'll do it now and if nobody challenges us, what have we lost?”

“It seems to have worked for him, to an extent,” he added.

Another criticism from Lloyd is that, despite being in office 20 years and having “taken advantage of strong Democratic ties to the black community,” Hays has never appointed an African-American to head up one of the city's major departments, which he identified as police, fire, code, or water (before it was merged into the Central Arkansas Water regional utility).

“I think that's unusual,” said Lloyd, who believes there are “qualified black candidates” in the city to head those departments. “I think the black community, he's throwing them bones.”

Dorothy Williams has a different view of whether Hays has done right by African-American neighborhoods. A longtime resident and leader in the predominantly black Glenview neighborhood on the city's east side, she says blacks have benefited from the mayor's vision.

“There has not been a lack of basically anything,” said Williams. I've found with Mayor Hays, if anybody has any community things in our area, he takes the time to become involved in it. Let people know he's concerned. As far as his job, I think we've been treated very fair by that.”

All of which sounds pretty typical for a community leader talking about a popular local politician — until you consider that Williams is also a member of the North Little Rock School Board, which is currently suing Hays and the City Council over a last-minute push to divert property taxes for the Enclave condominiums by Verizon Arena to a TIF district, which would then subsidize future development projects.

For her part, Williams dismissed the suit as a factor in her relationship with Hays.

“Everybody has to do what they feel they have to do,” she said. “There's no strain. … Mayor Hays is a fair and honest person and is doing what he thinks needs to be done. It's no barrier, speaking of me.”

Williams added that she believes “the city and the school district will still work together and work things out to make North Little Rock the city it should be.”

 

Uniform opposition

Among Hays' most persistent critics have been the unions representing police officers and firefighters, who have gone to the mat (and court) over issues of manpower and pay. Last fall, members of both unions could frequently be seen campaigning for Lloyd at rallies or on street corners.

In the wake of the election, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 35 president Ray Vance says, the union's relationship with the mayor was “cool.”

“I would say ... you know, you hope for the best, but ‘rocky' would maybe be a one-word summary,” said Vance, a captain with 25 years at the department.

As with past years, Vance said, the union feels like Hays does not make public safety and city employees a priority.

“We've got areas of the city that have not even got fire coverage that have been annexed in,” he said. “We just feel like we are trying to provide the best service for the citizens of North Little Rock that we are able to provide, and we don't feel like the mayor has put up the assets for us to be able to do that — equipment and personnel.”

There are 150 firefighters in the department, which Vance says is about the same number it had in the 1970s, when the city covered half the area it does today.

Another sore spot was that, as of early June, the union was still working without a contract six months after the last one expired.

“We should've had a signed contract by Jan. 1; we have not even sat down with [Hays] at the table to talk about it,” said Vance, who noted he had “not been afforded an opportunity to visit with the mayor” since the Lloyd endorsement. The most recent word, sent to the union via e-mail, was that their latest offer should be sent to Finance Director Bob Sisson.

“So I guess we're going through him now. I'm not sure,” said Vance. “This has really cooked my freaking goose. And you know the mayor does not like me at all, anyway.”

The “lukewarm” relations with the mayor's office predate his term as president, Vance noted, and go back to his predecessor who filed, and won, a lawsuit demanding pay parity with Little Rock firefighters. Despite the situation, Vance said he still tries “to be open with the mayor,” and hopes for a little parity in that arena, as well.

“Mayor Hays, the people have spoken, we understand that, we have no problem with that,” he said. “But I hope he would be professional enough in his job that we could put this behind us and move on and make North Little Rock a better place to live, and put public safety on its place on the agenda.”

 

A penchant for pet projects

The TIF districts — which include areas of Argenta (the city's historic downtown), the Baring Cross neighborhood to its west, and the swamps of Dark Hollow at the intersection of I-30 and I-40 — have become one of the flashpoints of Hays' recent tenure. TIF supporters (including Hays, other council members, and developers) like them because they divert a portion of property tax revenues over a period of 20 years or more to pay for some aspects of development, like utility relocation and site preparation. Opponents (including public school officials and their supporters) decry that loss of revenue for education, and claim many TIF districts fail to address existing blight, which had been one of the claims made by proponents when the state's TIF law was under consideration.

The current legal tussle between city and schools centers on a Dec. 31, 2008, meeting the City Council held to pass last-minute legislation that would create a TIF district to capture the increase in taxable property value — the tax increment, totaling about $84,000 — for the upscale Enclave condominiums before the county reallocated the tax revenues on Jan. 1. Critics objected because there was no TIF district when the Enclave was built and therefore any revenue generated by increased property values should go to the schools.

The lawsuit claims the city failed to meet the legal requirement for giving 17 days notice before considering legislation, as well questioning whether a proper economic review was done by the state and objecting to the emergency clause that put the ordinance into effect the moment it was passed.

Hays spearheaded the TIF effort over those objections, and he defends that course of action today. In fact, he has a reputation of pushing forward favored projects even when objections are aired or questions are raised, though those often get addressed later on in the process — that “seek forgiveness, not permission” mindset Lloyd had alluded to, though when you're the mayor you have a lot of leeway in what you can do before permission is required.

Take the riverfront RV park that was constructed last year at a cost of some $200,000 to the city. The ArgentaNews.com neighborhood blog reported several times on issues related to its construction, such as how it violated the city's own zoning laws, not to mention state Department of Health regulations. Most recently, Argenta News reported on two bathroom facilities installed in the park, raising questions of whether they were “permanent structures” (a violation of flood plain building restrictions) and whether their connection to the city's sewer system was up to code.

Scott Miller, an Argenta resident and businessman who runs the blog, says he generally tries to “stay out” of politics with the site but admits to having “called [out] the mayor on decisions, more often than not.”

“My differences with Mayor Hays and the administration of City Hall are more often than not [about] means and methods, not ends and results,” said Miller.

Specifically, he feels there should be more information made available to the public on the front end about these projects.

Argenta News — and occasionally other neighborhood blogs — have pressed the mayor to make better use of the Internet to inform his constituents of what's going on. Miller, for example, made a fair amount of fuss over the fact that Little Rock had a website detailing how its federal stimulus money would be spent, while North Little Rock had spent thousands refurbishing an office for its stimulus director but hadn't said a word about how the actual stimulus funds would be spent. Miller eventually got a copy of the spending plan and posted it on Argenta News.

Miller, who has run unsuccessfully for the City Council, says he's not an out-and-out opponent of the mayor, but the status quo at City Hall needs to change.

“Make no mistake, we have a strong mayor form of government. It's a good thing and it's a bad thing,” he said. “If you're on the inside and have the mayor's ear, it's a wonderful thing. If you're on the outside or can't get the mayor's attention, it's a bad thing because there are no alternate paths.”

That brings up one piece of conventional wisdom regarding Hays: If you want something done, go to him personally. Years ago, following complaints raised by a neighborhood group, The North Little Rock Times asked Hays how residents could get a streetlight installed. The mayor's answer: “Call me.”

And therein lies another piece of Hays conventional wisdom: He doesn't like surprises. If you need something he can provide, he'd much rather you brought it to him than to the appropriate city department — or, for that matter, the City Council. North Little Rock Times reporters covering council meetings frequently noted how Hays would frown when a resident stepped to the podium with a complaint the mayor had not heard about before. At such times, if he didn't immediately direct the appropriate department head to take care of it, Hays frequently invited the speaker to visit him in his office the next day so it could be sorted out.

The mayor acknowledged that it's true he prefers to handle things personally, and framed it as a matter of efficiency.

“To me, why wait two weeks [to bring something before the council] when I could deal with a problem in two hours?” he said. “We deal with that every day.”

Hays noted that some people bring issues to the council at the suggestion of their alderman, “and that's fine,” but the mayor suspects some of those who opt for a council airing of their grievance have ulterior motives.

“Obviously, there's some feeling there's more motive to get that in front of the public and get it resolved,” he said. “Another thing, too: When I'm hit cold with a problem like that, I don't have any information to deal with the problem.”

However, Hays hastened to add, he wasn't implying that there would ever come a time that a resident would not be allowed to bring their issues to the council meeting and have them heard.

“If someone's interested in the opportunity to have an audience,” he said, “that's there, too.”

 

Going for lucky No. Seven?

Over the years, as Hays approached, then surpassed, William F. “Casey” Laman's record for years as mayor, people began asking earlier and earlier whether he would seek another term. Sitting in his City Hall office just months after his most recent re-election, Hays laughed when the question was put to him regarding a seventh.

“You never make a lame duck out of yourself,” he said, smiling. “Who knows? Maybe.”

So, in the event Hays does decide to seek another term, what advice would Lloyd offer future challengers?

“Start earlier; get your name out there,” said Lloyd, adding own name recognition was just 2 percent when the race began. “Put yourself in a position to be competitive monetarily. And talk about his record.”

And does Lloyd think Hays will run again? That depends.

“I suspect if he doesn't feel a strong challenge coming on, he'll run,” said Lloyd. “He's not going to get a better gig than he's got now.”

 

Eric Francis covered North Little Rock for more than 11 years at The North Little Rock Times. He is now a freelance journalist living in Argenta.

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