Editor’s Note: This is the second-most important story of 2017, as selected by the Commercial. Please see Sunday’s Commercial for the top story of the year.
On Jan. 1, 2017, Pine Bluff and Jefferson County made history.
On that date, Shirley Washington was sworn-in as the first black female mayor of Pine Bluff, and Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV was sworn-in as the first black county judge in Jefferson County and one of the first in the state. Washington, a retired educator and a political newcomer, was one of four candidates to challenge incumbent Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, joining current Alderman Steven Mays, Alderwoman Thelma Walker and Theodis “Ted” Davis.
After Hollingsworth and Washington finished one-two in the Democratic primary, the other three candidates all threw their support to Washington in the party run-off. There were no independent or Republican challengers for the position.
At her inauguration on Jan. 1, Washington detailed her plans for growth, saying, “It will be our goal to work harmoniously together to form a positive and productive legislative body working to move this city forward. As your mayor, there is nothing more important to me as investing in our citizens’ potential. I will work with educators and businesses to develop workforce training for all our high school students.”
Wilkins, a veteran member of the Arkansas House of Representatives, finished second to incumbent County Judge Dutch King in the Democratic Party primary, then defeated King when the third candidate in the race, Pine Bluff Police Chief Ivan Whitfield, announced he would support Wilkins. At a black-tie banquet and ball in mid-January, Wilkins said: “I’m going to do an excellent job so your vote for me will not have been in vain.”
In addition to his service in the legislature, Wilkins was the senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church before stepping down earlier this year. When he announced his bid for reelection, Wilkins said he has written grants and sought out opportunities to strengthen the financial health of the county, and is continuing to support for the $3 billion ESP (Energy Security Partners) project planned for Northern Jefferson County to improve the tax base.
While Washington was elected to a four-year term, Wilkins’ term was two years, so he is a candidate for reelection this spring.