Ending division and fostering cooperation for the good of the community was a common theme among candidates for Pine Bluff City Council seats who participated in a Candidate Forum on Thursday night at Breath of Life Church.
Co-sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., BETA and Breath of Life Community Awareness Ministry, the event was moderated by longtime Arkansas journalist and broadcaster Steve Barnes.
“Finally I’m where I belong, behind the pulpit,” Barnes joked as he took his place between the candidate tables at the front of the church sanctuary.
The incumbent candidates up for re-election include Ward 1 Alderwoman Thelma Walker, who is being challenged by the Rev. Milton Jenkins and the Rev. Jesse Turner; Ward 2 Alderman Wayne Easterly, who is being challenged by Glen Brown Jr.; Ward 3 Alderman Bill Brumett, who is being challenged by Sheila Moon and Michael McCray; and Ward 4 Alderman Steven Mays, who is being challenged by Christopher Blunt Sr.
Walker was absent, saying during a post-forum phone call that a family emergency had kept her from attending.
“I couldn’t concentrate and just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for a debate,” Walker said.
Cooperation a must
Barnes took up a theme mentioned in opening statements by the candidates and asked them to discern what is keeping the people of Pine Bluff apart if they are divided in the manner asserted by some of the candidates.
Moon led off the responses.
“We must get away from the mindset of me and mine and you and yours,” Moon said. “If you’re on an airplane flying in first class and the plane goes down, first class is going down right along with those flying in coach. People must realize that black and white alike we will succeed or fail together.”
Mays said that people are in fact cooperating to some degree.
“Pine Bluff is working together,” Mays said. “But so many of our youth have so much hate and anger in their hearts. I’m working with the Dollarway School District and we are making progress in helping the youth there with that anger. There are fewer fights now than there were before.”
Blunt said much of the division could be addressed through better communication between different branches of city government.
“There is a lot of miscommunication between the city council and the commissions,” Blunt said as he offered examples of same taken from his experience as part of the city’s parks and recreation commission. “When it comes to the future of this city, we are not black or white but instead one color.”
Jenkins said a general lack of togetherness is at play.
“I’ve been told that a house divided will not stand,” Jenkins said. “We must work to end this division.”
Turner agreed that color lines must be worked across.
“We cannot succeed unless we realize our common future as a community,” Turner said.
Easterly said things may not be as bad as advertised.
“We’re not as divided as one would think,” Easterly said. “Out in the community people are working together.”
Brown advocated a halt to negativity.
“We have people who live here but who speak negatively about Pine Bluff,” Brown said. “We need to start talking good about the city.”
Brumett also said cooperation is more common in Pine Bluff than the popular narrative goes.
“I wish everybody could have been at the Business Expo breakfast this morning,” Brumett said. “The speakers had positive things to say about our town. I coached softball for a number of years and I always told my players that the word team stands for ‘together everyone achieves more’ and that is the truth. If we all strive together we will achieve more.”
McCray was more direct in his assessment.
“I believe that the division we see in the community is due to a failure in leadership,” McCray said. “Nelson Mandela didn’t seek payback when he was released from prison. Instead he brought together an inclusive coalition that netted him a Nobel Peace Prize. We’re all fighting for a piece of a shrinking pie, so we need to bake a bigger cake.”
The early voting period for the May 20 preferential primary election and nonpartisan election begins at 8 a.m. Monday at the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Early voting will continue from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday, ending at 5 p.m. May 19.