The Fort Smith mayoral debate on Wednesday (May 2) presented a tale of two cities, but steered clear of personal tensions.
Arkansas House Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, championed the progress Fort Smith has made in recent years with Chaffee Crossing, development of the Riverfront, the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS), and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) among the “proof.”
His opponent, Luis Andrade, a 22-year-old UAFS political science major and outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, saw Fort Smith as a city struggling to retain and attract young people — a “great city” where residents need more transparency, economic development, and no new taxes.
Despite their different visions, the two found time to compliment one another on style and service to their country. Both are U.S. Army veterans. McGill said he admired how bold Andrade was in stepping forward to run for the office, adding that “When I become Mayor, I’m going to call him, and I’m going to find a trusted place where he can serve.” Andrade said he admired McGill for his years of service “to our state, our city, and our military.”
That said, both made clear their reasons why Fort Smith voters should back them in the city’s Aug. 14 primary election. It is not certain the two candidates will be the only mayoral candidates. The filing period for Fort Smith seats begins May 16 and ends May 31.
For McGill, it was a question of experience. He touted his time serving in the Arkansas House, his role as assistant Speaker Pro-Tem, and chair of the committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs. McGill said that, as the next Fort Smith mayor, he would bring “my relationship building skills, all my leadership skills to the table, and all of those things have been proven.”
McGill, following an answer Andrade gave about quality of place in which he rated Fort Smith “about a 6 or 7” in how it sees itself against other cities and a 1 when compared to Northwest Arkansas, said he was “partial to Fort Smith, and in all honesty, I’m going to give it an eight. We’re working very hard on the things that attract investment. In the last 12 months, (Gov.) Asa Hutchinson’s been here about 16 times to announce new jobs and expansions here in Fort Smith. Let’s not get it twisted. We’re doing well.”
McGill had a message for young people, particularly UAFS students and students from Fort Smith Public Schools, whom he said “always amaze him” with the things they accomplish.
“This incredible university — I want to tell them the love this university has for them will never go away, and they should feel the same way about it.”
McGill voiced his support for the proposed FSPS school millage increase also on the ballot for May 22. Andrade did not take a stance, only stating there were “some things I disagree with and others I support.”
“We are not talking about building a new high school or football field. We are talking about security and upgrading our facilities where we’re at least level with competitors in our state,” McGill said, adding that the “first thing new companies want to look at” when they come into an area is the quality of education, facilities, and workforce. “If we don’t (pass the millage), we’re going to be another decade behind, and we don’t have any more time to waste.”
McGill also credited the city’s law enforcement for serving a city where “our front page isn’t filled with murders or bank robberies.”
On the estimated $480 million federal consent decree for violations of the 1973 Clean Water Act, McGill said in the past, the city may have “made some decisions that were not good or consistent practices we needed to follow, but we’re taking care of that. We’re not sitting idly by with that mandate. Our charge now is to get the EPA to help us out. We’re a small city. They should have never put that mandate on us. Shame on them.”
For Andrade, the race is about being a choice “against the status quo,” noting that while he “may not have the political experience,” his family runs a “multinational company with businesses all over the world.” Andrade has said on social media they are cotton farmers and global exporters, adding they have a partnership with Bayer CropScience, a division of Bayer Pharmaceuticals. He also posted several pictures of his family’s operations in action.
Prior to running and self-funding his campaign, Andrade told Talk Business & Politics following the debate that he helped with the business’s research and development. And if he doesn’t have an answer for something as Mayor: “I will surround myself with people who have the expertise that I don’t.” Being Mayor, Andrade said, “is not rocket science.”
“All you have to have is passion, patriotism, and willingness to serve, and I can guarantee that’s what I can give you. How about we shake things up a little bit? We need that. We will bring back the time when people would say that Fort Smith, Ark., is where life’s worth living,” Andrade said, invoking the slogan popularized by the late former Mayor Ray Baker.
Andrade’s major criticisms were saved for city management. On three occasions, he said the administration “made it difficult” for his family to expand their business in the area. He cited the 30-year problem of “kicking the can down the road” that resulted in the consent decree. He also referenced the recent push from some of the Board of Directors to push Next Step Dayroom away from its current location in downtown Fort Smith.
And while he intended to have “a great relationship” with the Board of Directors if elected, he wanted “to make it clear that I’m with the people. I’m doing this to be on the people’s side, and if I feel like the people are demanding something and the Board of Directors are doing something else, that’s when the veto power will come into play.”
When a question from the audience asked Andrade to explain his “Make Fort Smith Great Again” slogan, he first remarked that he chose the slogan in part because Fort Smith’s economic standing has been less significant in recent years than it once was. However, he acknowledged the connection to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” offended some.
“But I continue to be a Trump supporter,” Andrade said. “I think he’s done a fantastic job.”