The start of a new year is always a time to reflect on the past and future. Looking back, the fact that the casting call for the mayor of Pine Bluff yielded nine candidates is one of the most noteworthy and fascinating events of 2012. For some it reflected our discontent and disgust with the administration of Carl Redus. The large pool was seen as a call for radical change among all segments of the city’s population. Apart from disgust, others saw it as a reflection of the best of our democracy, namely grassroots citizen involvement in government. Still others saw in the large number of candidates the usual ego-centric, self promoting behavior that characterizes American politics at all levels of government. Clearly, there is merit in each of these views.
In my view, other civic impulses are also evident. The large turnout may reflect a citizenry that in recent years has been gripped by what I will call the “city that would be mayor” syndrome. And not all aspects of that syndrome promise to set a positive and progressive tone and template for our city as it attempts to solve the many economic and social problems we face.
This “city that would be mayor” syndrome reached its zenith after Redus’ firing of former police chief Howell. Clearly; there were many other missteps and failures of leadership displayed by the former mayor during both terms of his 8-year tenure. And I was among those who voiced my displeasure with some of his actions and inactions. Yet, that singular moment, the firing of Howell, and its aftermath marked a dramatic turn in public perceptions. It raised racial tensions to a boiling point not seen perhaps for several decades. As an attendee in the hallways of the city council chambers during the first council meeting following the firing, I can attest to the rawness of the emotions of that time.
Thankfully, due to the calming words and actions of many Pine Bluffians of all races at the time, the racial tensions quickly subsided (at least as publicly expressed). But the hiring of Brenda Jones-Davis set in motion those sentiments, actions and reactions underlying “the city that would be mayor” complex. Somewhat ironically, the core of that complex was marked by precisely the kind of “micro-management” efforts that Redus was accused of engaging in within city hall itself. That is, we Pine Bluffians, having grown “fed up” with Redus, began to scrutinize and criticize each and every move made by him and his administration. The Commercial, our civic/journalistic eyes and ears, led the vanguard. Beyond the printed page, our conversations on the streets, shopping venues and other public gatherings inevitably led to impassioned critiques of what was going “right” or “wrong” in city hall.
For sure, to engage in such scrutiny is our civic duty. But looking back to 2011-2012, our citizen-led and journalistic critiques at times became much more of an exercise in nitpicking, second guessing and micro-managing than the kind of dialogue we sorely needed to begin to move the city forward. A modern 21st century city of our size, and one that wants to grow even larger, will not fare well if we all believe or act as if we are, can be, or should be mayor. There is something to be said for patiently allowing the workings of a representative democracy that uses the ballot box itself as our major vehicle of change. Ultimately, that is what we did.
Now, as 2013 dawns, we have a brand new administration as mayor Hollingsworth picks up the reins at city hall and attempts to move us forward toward being the kind of economically prosperous, less crime-prone, and well educated city that we all yearn for . Let’s wish her well, and let’s do our parts to assist in that effort. Yet, at times, I fear that we still have not gotten over our “city that would be mayor” syndrome. It’s our call, Pine Bluff.
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Darnell F. Hawkins received a doctorate in sociology from the University of Michigan and a law degree from the University of North Carolina. He currently lives in Pine Bluff after retiring from the University of Illinois at Chicago where he specialized in criminal justice.