LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Frank Scott knows he’s a black man. And he knows everyone knows he is favored to win tomorrow’s mayoral runoff.
He knows black folks in Little Rock want him to represent them. But the community banking executive knows that in order to win, he needs to bring the city together and convince white voters he has their best interests at heart, too.
“I’m the first to say that I’m not running to be a black mayor. I’m running to be the mayor of the entire city,” Scott, 35, told me over a plate of ribs at Sims, a popular black-owned restaurant in downtown Little Rock. “But race has definitely always been brought up as part of this race. But the funny thing is, the only minority in the race has never brought up race. It’s always been brought up from other sides of the community.”
Several days earlier, the Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police published a grossly misleading post of him shaking hands with a young black man, Roderick Talley, who is suing the Little Rock Police Department. Officers detonated explosives to break into Talley’s home with a no-knock warrant, a widely used practice by the city’s police a Washington Post investigation argues is likely illegal. Talley later got into trouble in a different county after he failed to appear on time at a court hearing. Once he was taken into custody, Talley managed to free himself from a deputy escorting him, got into his car and hit a police officer fleeing the scene. He turned himself in several days later.
Though Scott was photographed with Talley well before the incident, that didn’t stop the police union from labeling him as anti-cop.
Here is what the Facebook post said before it was taken down:
The guy on the left is Frank Scott Jr. who’s running for Little Rock Mayor. The guy on the right is Roderick Talley. Tonight, Talley is running from law enforcement after fleeing the Cross County Cort House and hitting a Deputy Sheriff with a car. Tell the guy on the left to help us find the guy on the right who’s publicly supporting his campaign.
The Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police want the citizens of Little Rock to know that candidates who align themselves with fleeing felons fail the qualifications for any public office.
The LRFOP has publicly endorsed Baker Kurrus for Little Rock Mayor. We ask for your support and vote for Baker Kurrus during the upcoming runoff elections December 4th.
The Little Rock Fraternal Order of Police did not respond to The Root’s request for comment.
Shortly before we met, I watched Scott deliver his first press conference of the campaign at his headquarters. Local media peppered him with questions about the Fraternal Order of Police post.
“Like I said, I released a statement about that earlier,” he said to one of the first questions. “I am very clear what my thoughts are about that.”
After several more questions, Scott, collected but clearly frustrated, reminded reporters why he was running for mayor.
“This entire campaign has been about unifying our city,” he said. “I want to help our city from being disconnected to being connected. We realize that there is some disconnect, but we’re not so disconnected that we can’t come back together. I think I am the one candidate who can build authentic bridges within this city because I have credibility (across the entire city).”
After taking questions about the police chief and the city’s co-manager system, the presser was over.
“How did I do?” he asked me afterwards.
“Fine,” I told him. “You handled it well.”
It was his campaign’s first PR crisis. It tested how well he could weather the pressure of walking the very fine line between not offending white voters, who may fear a black mayor who would clash with police officers they look to for safety, and black voters who feel they sometimes need protection from the police. Some of Scott’s supporters believe the FOP deliberately tried to undermine his campaign by drawing on some residents’ racial fears.
“It was a play from the Jim Crow handbook,”said Arkansas state representative Fred Love, who is supporting Scott. “We can tell when people use code words. That message was riddled with the code in which it harkened back to a darker day. What I love about this campaign is about unification of the city and looking forward to a brighter future not for African Americans, not for Hispanics, but for all people. I think the message will win out over any negative message the FOP or anybody else can put out.”
While Scott says he wasn’t fazed by the episode, his supporters are being more cautious. A close friend of his from Chicago insisted his son who lives in Little Rock drive him to each of his campaign events for safety precautions.
This is not the 1957 Little Rock that broadcast segregationists, their white faces red with rage, fiercely resisting entry of nine black kids into Central High School. Governor Orval Faubus, a proud racist who deployed the state’s national guard to protect the segregationists, is no longer an acceptable role model for those wanting to lead Arkansas. But Little Rock is still struggling to disconnect from its racist past. The FOP’s Facebook post did little to heal those wounds.
Scott sees himself as a uniter who has credibility with the business community he works with, and the black community where he grew up and still lives. He led the pack in a five-man race, with 37 percent of the vote in the November 6 mayoral race but did not exceed the 40 percent threshold needed to win outright. Scott faces Baker Kurrus, who came in second in November. Most local observers believe he has a great shot at being elected the city’s first black mayor by popular vote. The race is non-partisan. (Little Rock had two black mayors—Charles E. Bussey and Lottie Shackelford—who were appointed city directors by fellow board members, per the Associated Press.)
As much as the focus has been on Scott’s race, and the issue of race in general, a voter’s financial status still resonates loudly. In Little Rock, a person’s economic background is largely determined by which side of Interstate 630, the city’s racial dividing line, he lives on. The further north you go, the more affluent and white you are. For those who live south of 630, you’re likely living in the hood, with Scott.
That dividing line very much plays into the city’s cultural and political DNA. Black residents, who make up more than 40 percent of the city’s population, are more than twice as likely as whites to be poor; their incomes lag significantly behind whites, according to The Urban League of the State of Arkansas.
As the city’s downtown riverfront area and other parts of the city have been revitalized, many black residents feel those changes were not designed with them in mind. Scott, who drives north past 630 to his community bank, where he serves as a senior vice president, knows that and uses his job to address economic disparities. When he has to decline a black person’s loan, Scott goes into intricate detail with the applicant over why they didn’t get it and how they can re-apply. He wants to supplement his private sector work by becoming mayor and use the power of that public office to help everyone in Little Rock—including his own people.
In a national media environment in which black Southern politicians are looking to flex their progressive bonafides with their Yankee contemporaries, Scott is comfortable being the man everyone likes.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, for example, vowed to be the most progressive mayor in Alabama. Jackson, Miss., Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba ran on a similar platform and gained respect from his black base as an activist and benefited from his late father Choke Lumumba, the former mayor of Jackson and well-known black nationalist. Andrew Gillum, who lost the Florida gubernatorial race by half a percentage point, was unapologetically black; his walkout song was “Walk It, Talk It.” Stacey Abrams regularly discussed the importance of black women gaining political power and name-dropped Spelman as often as Jay Z repped Brooklyn in “Reasonable Doubt.”
Both of them, however, were running against GOP candidates who race-baited them at every turn. (See “Monkey this up” and white nationalists with Ron DeSantis, and white nationalists and voter suppression with Brian Kemp.) Most critically, Kemp and DeSantis were backed by Trump, who describes himself as a nationalist and openly appeals to white supremacists.
Comparatively, Scott has not had to deal with such fierce racialized attacks. In fact, Kurrus, his opponent who got the FOP’s endorsement, asked that they take down the Facebook post attacking Scott.
Scott, for the most part, is running a more carefully scripted campaign for the political makeup of the Little Rock he aims to represent.
“The city probably has the highest concentration of Democrats, but you go anywhere outside of the city limits, it’s Trump country,” said Joseph Jones, associate professor of political science at Philander Smith College. “He understands that most of the businesses, most of the people who own the means of production, most of the state politicians are Republicans and they mostly support Trump. That’s the political landscape Little Rock is situated in, so it’s a political enigma where you have Democrats concentrated in one space but having to realize that Little Rock is a blue dot in a red state and Frank is savvy about that in regards to creating a multiracial approach but still understanding and speaking that coded language like Obama did to let black people know that, ‘If I get into this space, I will do something on behalf of the people.’”
I asked Frank, who emphasized to me that he is “unapologetically black,” how he fits within the current black political landscape.
“It’s kind of hard to describe me,” he said. “Number one, I am a Democrat, but I’m also a very independent person. I’m someone that’s made a career of reaching across the aisle. I am an associate pastor, so I deal with a lot of evangelicals on a lot of different things who happen to be Republican. But I am a Democrat. And I am black. I am a banker. I’m a guy that understands inequality.”
Some liberal white residents have taken exception to his banking background, calling him, he says, “a perpetuator of white supremacy.”
“That takes a lot of nerve,” I said.
“It does,” Scott responded.
“Wait, did they say this to you?” I asked. “Or did they say this towards someone you know?”
“No. They would never say this to me directly,” he said.
It was an online comment of which a friend reminded him.
His most prominent Republican endorsements have come from William Rockefeller and his mother, Lisenne. The Rockefeller family’s political and business reach in the state goes back decades, including the state’s 37th governor, Winthrop Rockefeller.
Lisenne understands why much of the attention Scott is getting is because of his youth and his race, but she doesn’t want that to shape the perception of why she’s endorsing him.
“I’m not supporting him because he has the leadership qualifications, the relationships to do the job. I’m not supporting him because is a black man,” Lisenne said. “I’m supporting him because he’s a man who has those skills and happens to be a black man.”
William Rockefeller, who helps run the family businesses, said Scott’s experience as a black man from an African-American community who grew up to excel in a white profession like banking will be essential if he wins.
“One of the things we really appreciated is that Frank grew up in south Little Rock, which is predominately black. He has built connections within the black and the business community,” said William, who first met Scott while the candidate was serving as a highway commissioner. “I think those connections will help unify the city. I don’t know if he can do that. The issues are so insurmountable that maybe he won’t be able to completely address it. But of any of the candidates, he has the best shot.”
Scott seems to be on track to do just that.
He told me about a campaign event in southwest Little Rock a little more than a year ago in which he was explaining to supporters how he’d balance the city’s budget when an older white man in camouflage approached him.
“I really enjoy what you had to say about your business experience,
the man told Scott. “And I enjoyed your talk about safety, and I just want to let you know that I’m going to be voting for you.”
Scott was talking to other people when the man approached him. The man was about 6'3", like Scott, who isn’t used to having to physically look up to another man often. But when he did, the first thing that came into view was the man’s “Make America Great Again” camel hat.
“Here in Little Rock, you have a Trump supporter supporting a young African-American leader,” Scott said. “It goes back to being a mayor. Because, at the end of the day, people just want their trash picked up on time. When they call 911, they want it to come within 10 to 15 minutes, and not an hour. It’s less about the politics of the day and more about being responsible for the citizens.”
CLARIFICATION (4:27 p.m. EST): The Little Rock mayoral race is non-partisan, which was not previously mentioned in the article. The article also said Frank Kurrus is a republican, but that is not clear. We apologize for the mistake and will update it once we get confirmation.