For a walking, talking piece of El Dorado history, Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer sure sounds like a normal person. Caught between appointments, she apologizes for conducting an interview from the drive-through lane at the local Burger King. Her Honor hasn’t yet had lunch, and the day is growing late.
In between her upbeat answers on the state of the city and deferential descriptions of her entry into politics, she’s just another person in line waiting on an Impossible Whopper on her way back to the office. Which, you quickly get the distinct feeling, is exactly how she likes it — being a productive citizen trying to make her hometown a better place.
“I was born and raised in El Dorado. I’m the third of five children. I went to elementary school at Hugh Goodwin. Went to Rogers Junior High School, which is no longer a junior high school, it’s now Washington Middle School,” she says, ticking off the institutions that came with her upbringing like street cred. “And I graduated from high school in 1988. I had aspirations to be a teacher. I tell people I got out of that because I said there was too much politics in education.”
She laughs. “And now, here I am.”
Here she is, indeed. A scant 12 years after she got her first taste of the political process and a decade after her first run at public office, Smith-Creer landed in the mayor’s chair in 2018, the first woman and first person of color to hold the office in the city’s then-175 year history. It’s an accomplishment she wears proudly, even if it doesn’t impress everybody.
“I guess it’s part of my makeup, being the middle child. I guess I saw [the mayor’s race] as a challenge,” she says. “People told me, ‘Either you’re really crazy or you’re really courageous.’ And I said, ‘I guess it takes a little bit of both.’”
As much as just about anywhere in the state, El Dorado is known for making the most of its opportunities. People tend to expect big things from a place named after a fabled lost city of gold, as evidenced by its retinue of historical nicknames including “Queen City of South Arkansas” and “Arkansas’ Original Boomtown.”
Such talk is cheap, but El Dorado backed it up, rising time and again to the challenge of greatness. In 1921, oil was discovered here for the first time, changing the isolated farming community overnight. Seventy years later, in the 1990s, the first internet service also rolled out here. Hometown heroes include the late legendary writer Charles Portis and equally elite baseballer Lou Brock, who were both born here.
The city has shown remarkable resilience and a penchant for bold thinking through the years. When many communities throughout the Delta languished with population and job loss, the resident Murphy Oil launched the El Dorado Promise, which guaranteed a college scholarship to graduates of El Dorado High School. And, building on the success of the city’s annual music festival, the community doubled down on chasing the entertainment and festival dollar with the creation of Murphy Arts District (MAD), a $100 million endeavor that spawned performance venues, galleries and restaurants to boost tourism.
But like every town, El Dorado also had its more sobering chapters. A long-simmering feud between the Tucker and Parnell families, touched off by disputes that led to a lethal public gunfight in 1902, yielded years of ambush, assault and murder. The residue of the Civil War era — when area cotton farms held slaves to work the fields and Confederate troops mustered here to meet Union forces — was equally slow to dissipate. In 1883, a young Black man, Albert Williams, was lynched here and in 1910 a race riot damaged a number of Black-owned businesses.
Smith-Creer’s campaign platform implicitly or explicitly touched on these historical markers — the glorious and the sorrowful — alongside the more mundane aspects of streets and sewers that fall under the chief executive’s governance.
“My platform included education, because at the time I was still serving on the South Arkansas Community College board of trustees,” Smith-Creer says. “Entrepreneurship and industry, because my husband and I are small business owners, and with MAD coming to town, it was something that I thought was important for entrepreneurs. And as far as industry is concerned, we’d had a lot of industries leave, but we also had a lot of strides going on.
“Also, infrastructure, looking at our streets and all of the buildings. Getting people informed about how to make things better. And then the last one was quality of life; there are a lot of things that go with that.”
Smith-Creer didn’t make race a plank in her platform, but she didn’t have to. The relationship between various communities, such as it is, has always bubbled beneath the surface here. Smith-Creer’s goal on the campaign, as it is in office, was to give everyone a voice in the process.
“I would give [race relations] a C because a C is average,” she says. “Even growing up here, you could tell there was a lot of work to be done. When I look at growing up here and I look at now, I know we’ve made a lot of strides. And when I say ‘we’ I mean the whole community, across the board.
“But it almost feels like we’ve gone backward in some areas. I don’t think there’s enough dialogue going on because I feel like there are a lot of issues that, instead of making change, too many times we feel that’s the way it’s always been, and that’s on both sides. I don’t think enough dialogue has happened for people to really understand why certain people act the way that they do.”
Dialogue and discussion have always been Smith-Creer’s strong points and the hallmark of her career, both within and outside of politics. After graduating from Southern Arkansas University-El Dorado (now South Arkansas Community College), she worked as a substitute teacher as well as the local Walmart and funeral home simultaneously. While she would step back from that to raise her family and join her husband’s small business, she remained vocal and involved in local issues.
“All throughout my daughter’s days in school, I was on the PTO. I always worked with the youth group in my church,” she says. “Then, I joined the NAACP, and I was the president there. Then I started hosting a radio show that aired every Sunday.”
In 2006, she joined the local effort for Mike Beebe’s gubernatorial campaign through the state Democratic party. It was an education she would put to use in her own unsuccessful bid for city council in 2008. Even in defeat, the seeds of something bigger were being sown.
“I continued to work for different candidates, I continued to work for the Arkansas Coordinated Campaign whenever there was an election going on,” she says. “Then, I worked for some individuals as part of their consulting and doing outreach for them because I knew a lot of people in El Dorado.
“Whenever there was something going on and they needed to get to different people, I was kind of a go-to person. People nicknamed me ‘Mayor’; they started calling me Mayor Creer because I always knew what was going on.
“I will say that my aunt told me, ‘When you run again, don’t run for city council again. Next time run for mayor.’ I was like, ‘Really? I didn’t even win city council, and you want me to run for mayor?’”
Smith-Creer might have been disbelieving at that time, but as 2018 approached, she became more consumed with the idea. A deeply religious person, she started to notice signs around her that indicated her time had come.
“My mother passed away in 2016 from multiple myeloma cancer, and my baby sister passed away in 2017 from sickle cell disease,” she says. “Somebody spoke with me about running for mayor then. They said, ‘I know the timing may seem off.’ I prayed about it and thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, when will I do it?’ My mother was taken care of, she was in Heaven. My baby sister had always told me, ‘You’re not doing as much as you can do.’ It was kind of like her voice was speaking to me too.
“So, Christmas Day, I told the rest of my family members that I was going to run. [I] kind of wanted to get their take on it, and they were in agreeance, so I made my formal announcement on January 5, , because five is my magic number.”
Not everyone in her community was as supportive of her candidacy as her family, something Smith-Creer found to be strangely motivating.
“I’m the first woman of color to ever run that I could find. There have been women to run before, but never a woman of color,” she says. “I got all of that; I got some encouragement, and you get the naysayers too. ‘It’s never happened before.’ ‘The men have run before, and they didn’t win.’ ‘What makes you think it’s going to be different for you?’ I even got some women of color that I talked to who told me that people had asked them to do it before, and they wouldn’t do it. So, it was almost like if they didn’t do it, then I shouldn’t even attempt to do it.
“And I have to tell you, it was encouraging; even the negative part of it was encouraging, because you have to understand — I’m in this for a reason. There has to be a reason behind this. Like I said before, I prayed. I said, ‘God, if this is for me to do, there’s a reason behind doing it.’ So, either I’m supposed to win or I’m supposed to win something in the process, even if it’s just people understanding what goes into the run of it, or just shining a light on what it is.”
On Election Night, Smith-Creer made history by a margin of just 87 votes more than challenger Bill Luther. Despite the close finish, Luther was gracious in defeat to cap what had already been a positive and respectful campaign between the candidates. To this day, Smith-Creer credits her opponent, now president of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce, for his professionalism.
“Bill and I had known each other already. We had worked on different boards together. We are as different, I guess, as we could be,” she says. “Bill is an older white man, worked for Entergy, a professional person. I’m a small business owner, a Black Democrat. But, Bill and I were able to have one of the best races. There was never any animosity between the two of us.
“Both of us maintained that whoever won, El Dorado was going to get a good mayor and that he and I would continue to work together. We love telling that story.”
Like any sitting mayor, Smith-Creer can use all the friends she can get. Her first term in office has had its share of challenges, from COVID-19 to a segment of Murphy Oil operations leaving town to crossing swords with the city council.
“We have eight council members, and sometimes it’s just that balance of making sure that everybody understands what’s really beneficial for this city,” she says. “I continue to say that this is a calling for service, it’s not about power. All people in elected positions don’t see that. Sometimes we forget that it takes all of us working together. One of my biggest challenges is getting all of us on the same page.”
Smith-Creer takes the occasional disagreement in stride as she continues to battle for better city worker wages, more transparency at city hall and fulfilling her promises to improve infrastructure, education and all the rest. Even through the challenges of COVID-19, she’s quick to show the positives that have been accomplished by turning the conversation, and her face, to the future.
“You want people to be made aware of different issues that we already have here in El Dorado. A lot of people just aren’t aware of everything that El Dorado has to offer,” she says. “And that’s what it takes — that, and working together. Again, it’s not about power, it’s about service, and for me, this is ministry.
“When I decided to run, it just came to my mind that you can’t run a campaign, you have to launch a movement. Everybody has to see we need each other to be able to work together to make things better. So, I launched a movement.”