Retiring Little Rock mayor looks back on 12 years in office
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — With a little more than a month left in his 12-year tenure as mayor, Mark Stodola has yet to pack up his office.
The room overlooking Broadway in downtown Little Rock still had stacks of papers and file folders, with mementos — plaques, commemorative coasters, a fire helmet — scattered throughout on a recent Friday afternoon.
“My staff is getting a little nervous about that,” he said with a laugh.
He’s still working on several projects, some of which he’s been chipping away at for years. Though he’s opted not to seek a fourth term, Stodola, 69, said he doubts his advocacy for Little Rock will end at midnight Dec. 31.
Stodola’s successor will be determined Dec. 4 in a runoff election between Baker Kurrus and Frank Scott Jr. The new mayor will be sworn in Jan. 1, and Stodola said he plans to help whoever wins settle into the role, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
“The job is bigger than you anticipate,” he said when reflecting on what advice he’d give his successor.
Stodola’s involvement in politics dates to his high school days in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His bid for “homeroom representative” in 10th grade was unsuccessful after he didn’t vote for himself and lost by one vote. He said he learned a lesson but he hopes he’s retained that same humility.
Later, he planned to become a U.S. Air Force pilot, but he failed the vision test. That would have relegated him to the navigator position sitting behind the pilot.
“I said, ‘Nope, not if I can’t fly it,’” he recalled.
His admission to law school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville brought him to Arkansas. After graduation, he decided he “liked the state, liked the people” and moved to Little Rock to practice law in 1974.
A job as a public defender was his stepping stone to becoming a mainstay in Little Rock government and politics. After finishing 2 percentage points behind Chris Piazza in the 1984 race for Pulaski County prosecuting attorney, Stodola became city attorney, serving under former Mayor Jim Dailey.
“He was always innovative and creative in accomplishing what the mayor and the city board desired to accomplish,” Dailey said. “I think that’s one of the reasons he has so much respect in the legal community. He has a lot of his own ideas, but also works with others.”
Stodola again ran for prosecuting attorney in 1990 and won, placing him in the post during the height of gang violence in Little Rock.
“All we did was try homicide cases,” Stodola said.
After an unsuccessful bid for Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District seat in 1996, Stodola opted to practice law in the private sector for roughly a decade. Then Little Rock’s mayoral position came open after Dailey announced that he was retiring after 14 years in the office, and Stodola decided to take a stab at succeeding him.
“Hopefully, I could make a valuable contribution to the city,” Stodola said.
Community activist and former city employee Jim Lynch said he remembers getting coffee with Stodola shortly after Stodola’s intention to run for the position became public. Lynch asked Stodola why he wanted the job.
“He says, ‘I like solving public problems. They fascinate me,’” Lynch recalled.
One puzzle that Stodola said he successfully solved was ushering through a measure to increase the city’s sales tax. Little Rock’s tax was the lowest in the state. The resolution to raise it was sent to voters in the midst of the national economic recession. Voters approved it.
“And now you’re seeing all sorts of things that we’ve done,” Stodola said, pointing to road and drainage improvements, including 11 miles of sidewalk built south of Interstate 630, all made during his tenure.
Stodola said his mayoral terms have been highlighted by public-private partnerships that pulled in funding for city projects. He championed an area of downtown’s Main Street that he dubbed the “Creative Corridor,” which saw more than $150 million in private-sector development, as well as grant- and city-funded street projects that included water filtration work and streetscaping.
Seeing Main Street return to life after 30 years of near abandonment was one of his happiest moments in office, Stodola said. Another was the December night several years ago when the three bridges spanning the Arkansas River were lit up for the first time, thanks in part to a gift from Entergy.
Colleagues in the prosecuting attorney’s office called him “grant king” for his ability to pull in outside money for projects, Stodola said.
Vice Mayor Kathy Webb credits Stodola for finding private funding sources for Jericho Way Homeless Day Resource Center, which opened during his tenure.
“While cities can always do more ... Mark worked hard to get Jericho Way established, and he has been a hard worker to get people to step up,” Webb said.
Stodola said one of his worst days in office was when he was awakened in the early hours of July 1, 2017, by news of a shooting at Power Ultra Lounge in downtown Little Rock that injured 28 people.
Crime rates in Little Rock have roughly trended downward since the mid-2000s but remain a top concern, especially after five homicides in a span of 53 hours last month. After that weekend, some activists and residents questioned the mayor’s commitment to communities that still face violence.
In response, Stodola pointed to the city’s youth development programs, especially a six-point violence-reduction strategy and community rehabilitation plan that launched during the second half of 2017.
“I don’t think we can ignore the fact that we’ve had issues, and people are very concerned about crime,” Webb said. “We can’t pretend that’s not happening.”
Two of Stodola’s ongoing projects seek to move Little Rock residents forward. He said he’s worked for years to close a gap on the Little Rock side of the Arkansas River Trail and is negotiating an agreement to get electric scooters on the city’s streets for a pilot program.
Until his announcement in May, Stodola had indicated that he intended to seek a fourth term.
But he learned that month of a family member’s illness and decided not to pursue re-election. Instead, he said, he chose a path that will allow him the flexibility to be responsive to his family’s needs.
He didn’t rule out future political involvement or the possibility of serving on at least one of the city’s boards and commissions.
He said he plans to return to the private sector as a lawyer advocating for cities and the companies that want to do business with them, basing himself in Little Rock and possibly having offices in Dallas or Washington, D.C.
“I don’t consider this a retirement,” he said, “just turning the page to a new chapter.”
Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com