The 2018 mayoral race in Little Rock will likely be looked at in history as a key moment in the history of the city. It has nothing to do with Frank Scott becoming the first African-American elected. It has everything to do with Scott becoming the first elected mayor with real political capital to work within the city.
The long-standing City Manager heavy structure of the city has made the role of mayor mostly a cheerleader. Not only were the previously elected mayors part-time, but they also had relatively little power. After his election, outgoing Mayor Mark Stodola worked to strengthen the position and made it a full-time job. Since that point, there has become a steady march of progress toward eliminating the city manager role and setting a strong executive branch led by the elected position of mayor.
It was something that came up at literally every stop along the campaign trail for me this past year. These stops often intersected with the mayoral candidates, so I know they were getting the question as well. I believe Scott will be the last mayor elected that has to contend with a City Manager to share power with. Ironically, how he handles the City Manager position will likely determine how well he can leverage the overwhelming political capital he has coming into office.
Which leads us to Baker Kurrus.
Scott quickly shifted from the campaign to establish a strong relationship with Kurrus. Bringing him on the transition team was a very wise move. The city board (along with the City Manager) still controls the power in Little Rock. That board was overwhelmingly in support of Kurrus’ mayoral run, many of them campaigned directly for him.
While city government is nonpartisan, it sets up a scenario similar to an incoming president facing a Congress that is overwhelmingly comprised of the other party. It will be hard to get the votes passed to make a significant change. One of those changes being able to start the process of removing the city manager, something that can only be done with the support of the board.
Kurrus has shown the ability to be a very good executive and work with boards to accomplish goals. He has a very strong understanding of government budgets, procedures, and how to oversee transitions. Regardless of your stance on the matter, it is a large part of the reason why he was appointed to a transitional role with the Little Rock School District to move it from a democratically elected board to a state-controlled entity.
The move away from a City Manager will not be an easy one and it will not happen overnight. Current manager Bruce Moore would likely fight the move every step of the way. That is why Scott should look to make a recommendation to the board to appoint Kurrus to the City Manager position and work with Kurrus to begin exploring what that transition process looks like.
In this sense, Kurrus would go into the role seeing it as a transitional role, likely for a two-year term. It would give Kurrus the chance to make an impactful change to the city he openly loves, and even work to establish a long-term executive branch role for himself under a strong mayor system.
The move would unify the board under the joint leadership and allow Scott to have an ally as a co-executive which would free him up to leverage his political capital to make major changes in the city without having to worry about being undermined by a person fearful of their long-term role in this New Little Rock.
Both Scott and Kurrus have shown that they can work together to build a bright future for the city. Now that the election is over, it is time for that phase to begin.