Hollingsworth claims PB mayor’s seat

Editor’s Note: Debe Hollingsworth’s victory in the 2012 Pine Bluff mayoral election has been selected by The Commercial’s newsroom staff as the No. 1 story of 2012.

Debe Hollingsworth’s 2012 political debut will long be remembered.

The political novice had little name recognition when beginning her quest for Pine Bluff’s mayoral post, but her campaign message seemingly struck a mounting chord with voters. Eventually admitting that she grew to believe she might have a chance for a runoff victory, she instead scored an unexpected knockout of sorts — stunning two-term incumbent Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. and dominating a nine-candidate field in achieving an outright Nov. 6 general election win.

In the process of earning widespread support among voters of varied ages and education levels, her appeal appears to have narrowed racial and socioeconomic gaps. That’s an achievement that many observers rated as nothing less than “monumental.”

“She raised a lot of money and spent a lot of money, and ran a great campaign that stretched for nearly two years,” said Jefferson County Election Commission Chairman Trey Ashcraft. “She included everyone with her message and was unafraid to reach out to every group.

“She did very well with all demographics,” Ashcraft said. “For her to get the results that she did and wind up less than a percentage point shy of attaining over 50 percent of the votes in a nine-candidate field is a pretty amazing accomplishment in my estimation.”

Hollingsworth — who will be publicly sworn in at 11 a.m. today in the council chambers at city hall — received 8,323 votes, a 49.48-percent share. Redus netted 3,004 votes for 17.86 percent. Among the seven other hopefuls were two city council members, Alderman Steven Mays and Alderwoman Thelma Walker.

“We had no clue the results would be what they were,” Hollingsworth said soon after the balloting. “I expected a runoff.”

Ashcraft had also anticipated a runoff. He figured Hollingsworth would lead the ticket and “suspected” Redus would be be the runner-up, but didn’t foresee anyone receiving more than 30 percent of the initial vote.

Commission Secretary Stu Soffer and Ashcraft agreed that at its onset, the race reminded them of the 2008 mayoral contest in which Redus, who is black, led a smaller slate but was forced into a runoff by a white opponent, Greg Gustek.

Terming the 2008 election a “polarized vote,” Soffer, who is also a member of the state election commission, described the 2012 decision as “remarkable,” because “people voted their heart, not color.”

Hollingsworth, who is white, “reached across racial lines and brought people together, and the people indicated they wanted a change,” said Soffer.

Hollingsworth credited her victory in part to her “door-to-door canvassing.” She said she campaigned “everywhere,” including the city’s “poorest” neighborhoods. Recalling her experiences in the Shady Grove area, “which some might not consider as desirable,” she said, “we met some of the most gracious and receptive people.

“I was overwhelmed by them, and I think they were appreciative that we brought our campaign to them,” she added. “I don’t know if anyone else did or ever had.”

A businesswoman and former state bank examiner, Hollingsworth campaigned on a five-point “New Direction” platform, citing crime fighting, economic development, city government enhancements, bettering the city’s image and improving education as her primary goals.

She garnered the most votes at each of the city’s 15 polling places. Redus led in just five of 113 precincts.

After the election, Redus said he believes he lost some support because of “misunderstanding” concerning a failed lawsuit he filed in September.

Redus had sought to halt the election and gain a two-year extension on his current term with a new election schedule based on the city’s population having fallen below 50,000, asserting the change was necessary for the city to comply with state law. In October, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Jay Moody — appointed to hear the case after all the judges in Jefferson County had recused themselves — rejected the argument.

“I’m obviously disappointed, but the citizens of Pine Bluff knew we were trying to make sure that we followed the law,” Redus said immediately after the decision. “I’m going to double my campaign efforts between now and the election.”

If he had been granted his requested extension, Redus would have automatically qualified for 10-year retirment without having to earn a third term.

Redus said he was “disappointed” but not bitter after losing the election.

“I was surprised in as much as I didn’t expect the outcome,” he said. “But the fact that I had eight opponents is indicative of the divide-and-conquer strategy that has been used in this community for quite some time.”

He thanked “the citizens for the opportunity to serve them for eight years,” noting that their confidence in his “ability, skills and vision” had allowed him to “fulfill my dream of returning to and leading my hometown.”

Redus said he felt he would be exiting the mayor’s office “on a high note.”

“I believe I’ll be leaving the city in a better condition that it was when I took over,” he said. “You never heard me say anything negative about Pine Bluff. You never will. I love this city and all the good people who are as proud as I am that it’s their home. I chose to come back and help move our city forward, and that’s the course I’ll remain on.”