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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.

Whether it's fair or not, those same voters see Joe Smith as representative of another term for the Hays administration — and Hays has, in fact, endorsed Smith's candidacy.

Smith is a fourth-generation North Little Rock resident. He and his wife Missie live in the Overbrook area, which borders on Sherwood, and have a son, a daughter and two granddaughters. Before joining city government in 1989, 11 months into Hays' first term, Smith was a partner with Mack McLarty in several automobile dealerships ("I sold Renaults in Hope!" he boasts with a laugh) but traded 15-hour days, seven days a week for being available to the mayor 24/7. His current salary is $78,514.

"My goal will not ever be to fill the mayor's shoes," said Smith, who is on leave from his city job while campaigning. "I will have to buy my own pair of shoes. I'll just have to see where I'm comfortable in this role and how the citizens of North Little Rock want me. If they want me at a dog's birthday party" — a nod to the incumbent's flair for turning up anywhere, anytime, to deliver a proclamation or shake some hands — "then I will try my best to be there, or have someone from the city represent us. We want to be a part of everything."

Talking about city issues with Smith feels like inside baseball; his job (and Hays' trust) means he's had his fingers in the city's every pie at one time or another. He sees that as a strength for his campaign, the ability to provide continuity for the people of North Little Rock.

"One reason I feel so motivated to run for this position is the city is going to be in a very unique situation, because you've got three top managers — the mayor, me, [Finance Director] Bob Sisson — well, the mayor's retiring, Bob is retiring, and probably two or three department heads are going to retire here in a year or so," Smith said. "I think it's very important we have management in place in the mayor's position that knows what it takes to make these selections of these department heads."

Smith sees a need for more business-style management in the city. He anticipates shifting some department heads around so they're in posts better suited to them, and wants to continue finding talented young people to bring into the administration. He says he'll structure things so there won't be a crisis if unexpected departures or retirements make it necessary to shuffle people around. And he says he won't be cutting any city jobs.

"I've got 15 to 18 years in private enterprise," he said. "I've run companies, I've had to deal with those issues."

Steele counts himself a North Little Rock native, for all that he was born in Toledo. His family had spent several generations in Arkansas but his parents — the late Frank and Susie Steele — had moved to Ohio where his father had found work. They were back in North Little Rock by the time Steele was 7 and he attended city schools, then he took his academic acumen and basketball skills to Rice, where he majored in political science.

"Opportunities as a Rice graduate were pretty plentiful back in the '80s," he said. "But I made a really conscious decision to come back to Arkansas, specifically to North Little Rock, to give back to my community. I always loved North Little Rock, this city. It would, to me, be the ultimate honor to use my experience and skills to help take this city to another level."

Steele and his wife of 19 years, Cassandra, live in the old Cassinelli house on nearly an acre of land in a mid-city neighborhood a stone's throw from the high-density lots of downtown. Their daughter is 15 and attends Parkview Arts Magnet High School, and their 10-year-old son is at Gibbs International Studies Magnet in Little Rock "but he can't wait to get to Lakewood," Steele says.

Having spent part of his childhood in the Shorter Gardens public housing development, then spending years as a legislator in the State Capitol, Steele says he understands the issues that affect people across the economic spectrum and that he can be "a mayor for all neighborhoods." He says that engaging communities will be a keystone of his administration; he says more openness will help avoid the kind of surprises that led to public outcry such as the proposed sale of land in the old Big Rock Quarry, below Emerald Park, to private developers. To that end he'd form a "citizens' council" made up of representatives of neighborhood groups.

"I, as mayor, would meet with the council on a quarterly basis, talk to them about issues so there would be no surprises," he said. "They have a responsibility, as well, and that is to communicate back to their community organizations. That's how I want to see North Little Rock government become more open."

And by the way, if he wins, Steele promised the Indian Hills crowd, his first day as mayor will start early. On a garbage truck.

"I made that commitment to my trash guys long ago," he said. "I want city employees to know they will have a friend in the administration."

John Parker, who represented Ward 3 on the City Council from 2005 to 2009, says he's running for mayor because the opportunity to seek the office without challenging an incumbent doesn't come around that often.

"Frankly, I'm as qualified as any of the others," said Parker. "I served on the City Council before and would like to again."

In fact, he's running a concurrent campaign for the Ward 3 alderman's seat, which he calls "a default race."

Parker is a lifelong city resident with two grown sons and two grandchildren. He was educated in the public schools here and approves of the district's ambitious plan to replace or renovate every school building, funded by a recent millage hike. Parker lives in the Scenic Hill neighborhood and has worked as a district manager for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 24 years. That job takes him all over North Little Rock on a daily basis, he says, which means he's intimately familiar with one of the city's needs: Better roads.

"We haven't had a resurfacing program going on in ... well, I can't remember the last time we had crews out resurfacing our streets," said Parker. "It's not just a matter of potholes, it's a matter of taking up asphalt and putting it down again. On some of our streets, it's like driving on a washboard."

Parker also said an east end fire station would be a priority. In fact, he said, it had been a priority back when he was on the council.

"Why it hasn't been addressed is a mystery to me," he said.

As far as a funding source for projects like these, Parker wants the city to live within its revenue means; to that end, once the city's hydroelectric plant is paid off, he thinks the money that went to pay those bonds should be put to work to handle the necessities for the residents of the city. (The city will realize savings on its hydro payments soon because it just restructured its debts, including the hydro bonds, to lower interest rates; total principal on the hydro bonds will be paid off in 2025.)

Parker isn't dissatisfied with the direction of the city as a whole. He said North Little Rock has been progressive and should continue to be so, but where there are deficiencies, they must be addressed. One of those areas is the relationship between the mayor's office and the police and fire unions.

"It's a matter of having an open discussion and being able to communicate with the police department and fire department and make them understand we're all here to serve the people of North Little Rock, and we'll do it with the best-equipped, best-trained departments we can possibly have," he said.

Parker wouldn't mind seeing the U.S.S. Hoga tugboat brought to the city as planned, as long as it was paid for with private funds. Likewise, as mayor he would work with Union Pacific on establishing some sort of railroad museum that would pay tribute to the city's long ties to that industry, but only if it can be created without expense to the taxpayers.

Ask him an open-ended question, though — "What else would you like to see for the city?" — and Parker will pause, then explain that speculation isn't his style.

"I don't have canned answers," he explains. "I believe in North Little Rock, I think that North Little Rock is one of the best places in the world to live, and I would like to see everyone as proud as I am and sell North Little Rock, make it a destination for work, school, and a place to raise your family."

Clinton, in his first run at elected office, is a third-generation resident. His grandfather was an engineer for the Missouri Pacific Railroad; his father was an educator for the state Health Department, his mother a librarian for the city's public school system, which Clinton attended. He's 16 years into his second marriage, to pediatrician Kim Clinton, and has raised four adopted children. He lives in the Overbrook neighborhood and is an independent risk management consultant.

"The tipping point on running was Mayor Hays deciding not to run," he said. "I was entertaining a run anyway, with the success that [2008 mayoral challenger] Bubba Lloyd had last time and the closeness of the race. The property rights issues ... the hillside cut, all the rest of those things prompted my entry into the race."

The hillside cut refers to a proposal by First Pentecostal Church on Interstate 40 to build a new parking lot involving excavation into the hillside behind the church, on top of which sit homes on Skyline Drive in the Park Hill neighborhood. Residents of the area had complained the plan put their property values at risk, and the City Council ultimately rejected it on a unanimous vote.

A Republican and a member of the Tea Party, Clinton doesn't consider himself a Tea Party candidate ("They've definitely not helped to the extent I'm a candidate of theirs"). Instead he's positioned himself as the independent businessman who's outside the system and can see the city's problems better for it.

"I'm a private business person. I don't have investors, I have customers. I don't get paid unless I work," he told the crowd at the Indian Hills Neighborhood Association's political forum on Oct. 9.

He promised more transparency, not only in government but in the mayor's own business. Clinton said he'd post his personal financial dealings for everyone to see as a way to lead by example — and he said he would ask board and commission appointees to do the same. The end, he said, was to make sure there were no instances of people turning city business to their own advantage.

"Particularly with real estate deals, there's definitely the potential if not the actuality of people in the know profiting from those deals," he said. "I'm not saying anyone has done anything wrong, what I am saying is the potential is as plain as the nose on my face."

Clinton said he'll reveal his corporate and personal tax returns, and his checking account statement, and he and his wife won't invest in any other real estate than the home they already own. He envisions this as the equivalent of the federal Stock Act signed into law this year, which prohibits members of Congress and their staffs from using non-public knowledge gained during performance of their duties to pursue insider trading and personal enrichment.

"I'm perfectly willing to put all our information out there to the public," he said. "I don't think I can expect anyone else to be forthcoming if I'm not forthcoming."

Open government was the common theme of three of the candidates at the Indian Hills forum (Parker was absent). Smith said one of his first acts would be to create a communications department that would be tasked with keeping the public up to date on all government activities, something "we do an average job at right now, but I think we can do a much better job to get out word of what's going on, what legislation is going to be, what kind of developments we're working on, so that you'll know." And Steele promised "a government that is fair, above board, completely transparent," and also proposed something along the lines of a City Council Road Show.

"I will have actual City Council meetings in every ward in this city," at least quarterly, he said. "There's no reason why they all have to be downtown."

Public safety and street repairs were also common themes. If Clinton mentioned building a fire station in the city's eastern stretch beyond Rose City once, he mentioned it half a dozen times. Steele, too, brought up the fire station, and while Smith may not have named it as a top priority, he did praise the police and fire departments as the equal of any in the state.

"I don't think they've been underfunded," Smith said, "but they've probably been underpaid."

Public safety is some of the rougher ground Smith will tread on in this campaign. Four years ago, the police and fire unions endorsed Hays' opponent, Walter "Bubba" Lloyd, and members hit the streets campaigning for him; Hays still won 55 percent of the vote, but it was his smallest margin of victory as mayor. This year, both the Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Fire Fighters locals have endorsed Steele. And that just might sting a little for the son of a career North Little Rock cop, G.L. Smith, who retired as assistant chief.

"Daddy hated politics," said Smith. "I think he ended up retiring maybe four or five years earlier than he wanted to because of the political turmoil going on in the city in 1979."

And Smith acknowledged that his father's distaste for politicking, in part, kept him from seeking office earlier.

"He has gently rolled over in his grave, no doubt, since the first part of this year," he acknowledged with a smile. "My mother, on the other hand, is probably standing up cheering 'Go, Joe, go!' "

But with Hays stepping down, Smith says he saw a void to be filled and he felt his experience in running the city made it his responsibility to step up and give the residents of North Little Rock "an opportunity to continue the progress and successful management we've had over the past 25 years."

Management figures heavily in Smith's pitch to voters. During the Oct. 9 forum he mentioned his experience managing city employees, managing city contracts, managing the city's electric utility (the state's sixth largest). If his retiring boss was known for style first, Smith was flogging his substance.

"Do your homework," he told the crowd. "Research me, research my opponents. Find people who have worked for them over the last 20 years and see what other people think. Find out who's got the management experience, who's got the leadership experience."

And where Steele can cite the public safety unions' backing, Smith notes that many past presidents of the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce have endorsed him and "they know what it takes to be mayor and they know I can do the job."

Steele, though, is not about to concede questions of leadership. He points to 14 years split between the state House of Representatives and Senate — he calls that "an eternity" in the age of term limits — and the nonprofit Stand! Foundation he runs, which is dedicated to leadership training among youth. It also paid him a $77,000 salary, according to a 2010 IRS filing, and some critics (including this paper) found fault with Steele soliciting donations for the organization from businesses while serving in the legislature.

Steele also notes that Smith isn't the only one to be mentored by a popular mayor. As a boy of 8 or 9 years old, Steele was brought to council meetings by his mother.

"I thought it was cruel and unusual punishment to be sitting through a City Council meeting," he said. "But I think it was my third one when I started to become interested, get familiar with some of the names.

"Something happened to me that I'll never forget; after a meeting a gentleman came up to me, and he looked down and I looked up at him, and I thought he was a giant," laughed Steele, who would grow to 6-foot-4 and lead the Rice Owls basketball team in assists in 1984 and 1985. "He reached down and shook my hand and said, 'How are you, young man? My name is Casey Laman.' "

That handshake marked the start of a long friendship, Steele said, but it also marked his first exposure to public service.

"I decided then I wanted to do something that was important, that would really help people," he said. "My mother, maybe without knowing it then, exposed me to something I would do for a long, long time."

Whether or not the 2012 mayor's race is a vote of confidence in the outgoing incumbent will probably be hashed out in the neighborhood diners and bars of North Little Rock long after the actual election is over. But the mere fact that the ubiquitous Pat Hays, with his phenomenal name recognition north of the river, isn't a candidate means things are wide open.

Shortly after the filing period closed, Clinton says, he was shown a poll that showed 16 percent support for Smith, 22 percent for Steele, and 11 percent for himself, while the undecideds clocked in at a whopping 51 percent. He calls those "orphan votes" and believes that if enough of them break his way, his chances would be as good as anyone's. Of course there's no telling which way those votes will go, or if there will be an outright winner or a runoff. This is a city where it's especially imprudent to count your chickens too early.

Or as Clinton put it: "In North Little Rock, anything can happen."

Eric Francis, a freelance writer living in Argenta, is a former editor of The North Little Rock Times.

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