Four hours before she must give her first State of the City address as mayor of Pine Bluff, Shirley Washington sits alone at the head of a conference table. It’s about 2 p.m. on March 16 in the mayor’s conference room on the second floor of City Hall. The room has a view of the courtyard, where flowers are beginning to bloom. But the mayor looks utterly forlorn.
She closes her eyes and rubs the bridge of her nose.
“I have a headache and I don’t know why, and I’ve had it for two or three days,” she says, to no one in particular. “I hope it will be gone by 6 p.m. tonight, but if not I will have to power through.”
Since Jan. 1, when Washington was inaugurated before a near-capacity crowd at the 1,900-seat auditorium inside the Pine Bluff Convention Center, the former school principal has been a constant presence in public, attending meetings and speaking at events about a vision of transforming Pine Bluff into the best city in America. Her dress communicates a similar confidence: Bright blue sport coat, matching skirt, puffy, ruffled blouse. Her hair is cropped to perhaps an inch and dyed caramel, slightly lighter than her skin.
But at the moment she doesn’t feel so confident. She’s concerned whether people attending her speech will be able to read the text on her PowerPoint slide. And her desk is not clean.
“I was organized once upon a time,” she says, frowning.
To Washington, every day has to count for something. She hates to look back at the end of a day to find nothing accomplished.
“I’ve always been like that,” she says.
In her time thus far as mayor, she’s been busy, busier perhaps than she ever was in 38 years as an educator and mother to three children. As an elementary school principal, she went to the office on weekends to finish uncompleted tasks from the week. But as mayor, she has to be at events on weekends. There’s a city to manage, and a bureaucracy with hundreds of employees. And she has to have some time to rest.
Like the clutter on her desk, Washington’s first three months in office have been devoted as much to learning on the job as enacting her agenda. Each day brings a new challenge. Before a few weeks ago, she didn’t know what a State of the City speech even was. She’s spent the time since then studying other examples.
“I looked it up,” she says. “You have to have the State of the City within 90 days. It’s been 75. You can’t accomplish everything you want, or can’t accomplish anything, in 75 days.”
She leaves for an appointment. Her assistant, Lanette Frazier, sits at the front desk in the office. In the hallway outside, another employee walks by and points at the wall. Frazier raises her arms in a shrug.
Apparently, Washington hasn’t taken the time to have the typical mayor’s portrait that hangs outside the office replaced with her likeness.
“I guess she doesn’t want one,” Frazier says.
‘She’s doing the right things’
Washington’s critical self-assessment in private is at odds with the bright, confident face she presents to the public. And indeed, there have been accomplishments.
She’s attended hundreds of events. She organized a “unity” breakfast attended by over 500 members of the faith community at which she urged people to work together for Pine Bluff. She led two community-wide cleanup days. And she has organized a faith coalition of pastors to tackle issues such as mental health, domestic violence, education and economic development.
Her tenure as mayor comes at a pivotal time for the City of Pine Bluff. The Go Forward Pine Bluff plan proposes injecting $50 million into the local economy to reshape the city, but it requires a new sales tax that may be difficult to pass. There’s a new library to be built, and a new aquatic center. Work is supposed to begin this year on a downtown streetscape project to beautify the area downtown. Pine Bluff Rising, a coalition of local business, civic and philanthropic leaders, has purchased the Hotel Pines and is looking at other projects.
But there are stiff challenges. Between 2000 and 2010, Pine Bluff’s population declined from 55,085 to 49,083. The loss of population is expected to continue unless something changes. If the number of tax-paying residents continues to decline, it will place an increasing burden on the city to provide basic services. City employees have not received raises in three years, and Fire Department Chief Shauwn Howell has warned that without competitive salaries, the department will continue to lose firefighters to other cities in the state.
Tommy May, the chairman of the Simmons First Foundation, who has publicly led the effort to pass Go Forward, has characterized plan as the “last chance” for Pine Bluff to halt its decline. Thus far, she’s getting good reviews from City Council members. Alderman Bill Brumett says he was originally concerned about Washington’s lack of government experience, but he’s been impressed by her willingness to learn and her outreach to council members in an effort to improve civility at meetings.
“So far, I’ve been impressed,” Brumett says. “She’s doing the right things to create a cohesive group within the City Council, and also bring in people in the community to solve problems. I feel like we’re headed in a very good direction.”
Alderman Donald Hatchett says he thinks the mayor is doing “an outstanding job” because she has opened up lines of communication with other cities to solve problems and also urged the city’s three school districts to work more closely with its two institutions of higher learning. Alderman Bruce Lockett says the jury was still out, both on Washington and on new council members such as himself, who are still learning.
“I think she’s getting the hang of it,” Lockett says. “It’s just two months. Not being a seasoned city councilman myself, I can’t put a whole lot of judgment on how she’s conducting her job.”
Alderman Win Trafford says he thinks things are different not only because of the change in the mayor’s office but also the three city council slots.
“I think there certainly has been a change just because of the four positions that changed,” Trafford said. “You’re finding members to be a whole lot more respectful toward each other than what we previously had. I think that’s important for our city as a whole. We represent our city when we’re out there, and we need to represent our city in a positive way.”
Interim Pine Bluff Police Chief Ivan Whitfield, no stranger to local politics after two campaigns for county judge, is as enthusiastic a fan of Washington as one will find. He points to pre-dawn text messages he’s received from the mayor inquiring about public safety. She’s also a constant at community events, he says.
“She’s out and about even more than I am,” Whitfield says. “And I’m out and about all the time.”
Her son, Codney Washington, says she’s always going.
“To show up and leave, that’s not her,” he says.
The key will be if she can keep it up.
“I’ve been trying to tell her, don’t try to do everything at once,” her son says.
She and Frazier are creating a filing system so that every city department keeps a record of projects and memoranda, with regular progress reports. Still, it’s not enough yet to get a handle on the flood of phone calls from constituents. She wants to build an organization that stretches beyond City Hall down to the grassroots level. One of Washington’s biggest goals is to establish thriving neighborhood associations, where residents can address issues in their local area. The next step is organizing those associations so that citizens can first go there and then are knowledgeable about how to report to a particular city department without having to directly call the mayor with any problem.
“You want to build a city that runs on its own,” Codney Washington says.
Last minute prep
When she returns to her office, Washington seems to be in better spirits. She and another assistant, Catherine Johnson, leave the office to drive the short distance to the Convention Center, where the speech will be held. As she steps into the front passenger seat of Johnson’s car, parked in a basement level parking space, Washington looks up to the ground floor of the Civic Center, where shrubbery pops up above a wall that says “City Hall.”
“I think I’m going to plant flowers all along the edge. What do you think?” she asks. “I think I’ll plant Lantana and let it cascade over the wall.”
Entering the Convention Center lobby at a brisk walk, there are tasks to consider once more. Originally there was going to be a singer, but each of the ones the mayor’s office contacted were booked that evening to other events. She worries it’s a sign that people won’t show up to the speech if they have other plans.
Her phone rings
“Mr. Jones, how are you? OK, I know Kendrick. That would be perfect. Because that’s someone we haven’t used. My next question is, does he have his own soundtrack? Would we need a Bluetooth connection with a speaker?”
Next is the question of the chairs. Are there too many? That’s a concern, given her uncertainty about the turnout. And the projector screen for the PowerPoint presentation. It’s set up to the left of the podium from which she will speak. Should it be behind the podium? she asks. What do you think?
She’s ‘led by God’
Washington grew up in Gethsemane, a small community northwest of Wabbaseka. The second of seven children, she could often be found with her head in a book. But she was decisive from an early age.
“Growing up, Shirley always wanted to be in charge and run things,” says her brother, Willie Moorehead. “Rather than be my sister, she wanted to be my mother. We kind of bumped heads.”
The family lived in a three-room house, and Shirley shared a bed with two sisters. They had chickens and pigs and grew most of their own food in a large garden they called the Truck Patch. Her parents always insisted to the children that they finish high school and then attend college. When they were not in school, they were in the fields chopping cotton. As her siblings talked about where they would move to after graduating high school – Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles – she would just listen.
“I thought it would really be sad for my parents to retire, and nobody would be there to take care of them,” she said.
While each of her five sisters and one brother all graduated from college and moved away, Washington stayed. She graduated from Arkansas AM&N College, now UAPB, in 1972, the final year before it joined the University of Arkansas system. After obtaining a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, she returned to teach in Wabbaseka.
Retired Wabbaseka teacher Delores Burkett King recalled Washington as a teacher who ran a classroom that was “strictly academics,” but who was fair and empathetic.
“She’s the type of person who’s led by God,” King said. “And when you’re led by God, you don’t have to worry about man… . She’s never gone into anything without being directed by God.”
Later she taught in Pine Bluff and raised three children of her own with her husband, Frank. Her son recalls a childhood that was very structured and disciplined.
“She was always saying that an idle mind is the devil’s workshop,” Codney Washington says. “So we didn’t have a lot of idle time. If they were out and they got home and we were watching TV, we went out and did something.”
The kids always had chores, although they did not get an allowance. They knew not to ask for presents outside of birthdays and Christmas. As adolescents, they chopped cotton in Gethsemane for eight weeks in the summer for $20 a day to pay for their school clothes. By the time they reached the age of 16, he and his sisters wanted to work, said Codney, to get extra spending money.
“I remember Codney once told me he didn’t know what life was like after nine o’clock because they were always in bed,” Moorehead says. “We’re talking almost in high school.”
He sees the same patterns today. Moorehead says when he visits the Washington household in the evenings, he often finds his sister dozing on the couch or in the armchair.
“If she’s not successful in that job, it will not be because of lack of effort,” he says.
Taking the stage
One hour before the speech is to start, the mayor is nowhere to be found. People begin to stream in. By ten ‘til, every seat is taken and people are lining up around the walls. The mayor walks in, flanked by an assistant. Asked where she had been, she grabs the arm of a reporter.
“Praying,” she says, smiling nervously.
She takes a seat on the front row by her husband, Frank. After an introduction by Whitfield in which he touts Washington’s background and jokes that she came from “a suburb of Wabbaseka,” the mayor takes the stage. She thanks the assembled crowd and the various politicians in attendance. The lights are bright. Her family is on the front row to her left, the city council members on the front row to her right.
Midway through the speech, she brings up the example of a teenager named De’unta Davis, who had gotten into trouble and was in danger of dropping out. Then, all of the sudden, she goes mute. The audience watches. She grows emotional, speaking about how Davis turned his life around, and will become a mentor next year in the prestigious City Year service program. The crowd cheers, seeming to hearten her. Coming to her conclusion, she announces that she will support the Go Forward Pine Bluff plan, and appeals for a sense of unity.
“The time for rivalry, distrust, the time for division, is over,” she says. “The time for shouting something down just because it wasn’t your idea must come to an end. It’s time for us to begin embracing diversity and differences, because we are one Pine Bluff!”