From left, Incumbent Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., Glen Schwarz, Steve Landers Sr., and Greg Henderson field questions during a candidate forum held Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Little Rock. The Central Arkansas Library System, KUAR, and the League of Women Voters of Pulaski County hosted the forum in the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock’s River Market district. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Three weeks before the Nov. 8 general election, Little Rock voters still can’t learn the big contributors behind the four candidates in this year’s contentious mayor’s race.
And they can’t know how candidates are spending those contribution dollars.
State law doesn’t require campaign finance disclosure information from nonpartisan municipal candidates until Nov. 1, just seven days before the vote.
For Little Rock early voters, who can start casting ballots in Pulaski County on Oct. 24, the deadline for mayor’s race campaign contribution and expenditure reports comes days after they vote.
“There is little benefit to the public in these ‘near-election’ deadlines, as the voters and the media are unable to know who is shaping and influencing the election,” said Karen Sebold, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville assistant professor of political science, who studies campaign contributions.
The Arkansas Advocate asked the Little Rock mayoral candidates Monday to provide campaign contribution and spending information right away to help voters. Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and food blogger Greg Henderson have not responded.
A spokesman for car dealer Steve Landers wrote: “Our campaign will continue to play by the rules and will release the contributions and expenditures as required on Nov. 1.”
Three-time mayoral candidate Glen Schwarz said he has so far received and spent almost nothing. He supplied these figures: $45 in campaign contributions and $400 in expenditures.
The race has featured back-and-forth attacks — particularly between Scott and Landers — on race, crime and ethics issues. Indications are the campaign involves significant contributions and spending.
Monthly campaign finance reports for state candidates and political action committees show former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s HuckPAC is the primary funding source for a group fielding advertising critical of Scott’s re-election bid.
Ads targeting the mayor and citing high crime and other problems have appeared on media outlets in the Little Rock area, paid through Citizens For a Better Little Rock, an independent expenditure committee.
HuckPAC was listed as the biggest contributor to the Citizens group — $35,000 of the $56,700 total collected, including a $20,000 contribution on July 19 and $15,000 on Sept. 16. Huckabee is the father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Republican candidate for governor this year.
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While state campaign filings offer a few lines of information, who is giving directly to mayoral candidates won’t be available until after Nov. 1.
The late deadlines for nonpartisan municipal candidates aren’t typical of Arkansas’ campaign finance disclosure deadlines for state and district candidates or for federal candidates, experts say.
State and district candidates file at least monthly during an election year with the Arkansas Secretary of State. Filing documents are available online and line-by-line data can be downloaded for analysis.
The federal election system also requires monthly reporting during an election year, with the information available within a few days of reporting to the Federal Election Commission, Sebold wrote in an email. That information also is offered electronically.
Arkansas Ethics Commission director Graham Sloan said state law has kept the late reporting deadlines for nonpartisan municipal races and some other local races for decades. One reason is that local races in small towns involved little money, he said.
Citing the fictional Andy Griffith television show town of Mayberry, Sloan said, “In Mayberry RFD, you can run for mayor and spend very little.”
The same was true for county and school board races.
“So many are small races,” he said.
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Another factor is that more cities and counties in the past had partisan races for mayor and other local races.
When those local candidates ran first in party primaries, they were required to file campaign finance disclosure forms in May or June or whenever primaries were held, Sloan said. Then they filed again close to the general election.
But the trend in the past 20 years or so in Arkansas municipal races has been toward more nonpartisan contests, without party nominations, Sloan said.
That has left more local elections with the first filing deadline for campaign contributions and expenditures just days before the election.
Sloan said he hasn’t heard complaints about the late deadlines for municipal races in his 25 years with the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which enforces rules for campaigns.
Resetting the deadlines would require legislative changes to state law, Ark. Code Ann. 7-6-208, Sloan said.
In the meantime, this year’s Nov. 1 filing deadline has other negative effects on Arkansas municipal campaigns, Sebold said.
Besides informing the public, a primary responsibility of campaign finance law is to ensure candidates adhere to laws governing elections, she said.
“The later deadlines certainly make it difficult to investigate potential violations of the law and timely reporting before the election,” Sebold wrote.
However, while they hurt the public and election enforcers, the late deadlines can be advantageous to candidates.
Candidates have fewer filing chores to contend with and the late reporting masks transparency in ways that can help candidates, especially if certain donors to their campaigns “might offend one group or another,” Sebold said.
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