The Politics of Nuking ‘Em: An Interview With Fifth Ward Council Candidate Newcombe Clark
Newcombe Clark is running against Fifth Ward City Council incumbent Carsten Hohnke, as well as Republican candidate John Floyd. Clark holds undergraduate degrees in both mechanical engineering, and Japanese language and culture from the University of Michigan. At the moment, he is pursuing a graduate degree in business at the University of Michigan, and works as the VP of Markets for Detroit-based Jones Lange Lasalle. He’s a volunteer board member at several local high-profile non-profits, including the University of Michigan Museum of Art, The Ann Arbor Symphony and The Michigan Theater. In 2006, Crain’s Detroit Business featured Clark among their “Twenty in Their 20s.” In that piece, his claim to fame was identified as being, “an advocate for keeping young people in Ann Arbor.”
Newcombe Clark is a classic over-achiever, a young man moving at light speed away from a childhood in Ann Arbor that included both nine trips to India with his yoga-teacher mother before age 14, poverty, and Food Stamps until age 16. He’s popular, and he’s not. In this interview, he says his mother routinely fields insults about her son’s work as a local developer. At age 29, he’s the youngest of the three candidates running, and for him the contest is obviously generational. The title of his campaign web site is: “Common sense and creative ideas from a new generation of leadership.”
In many ways, Newcombe is not of the generation to which he belongs, the so-called Peter Pan generation. According to those who study demographic trends, the members of this generation have a “perceived penchant for delaying some rites of passage into adulthood, longer periods than most generations before them.” This does not describe Clark, or his personal and professional accomplishments.
Clark has brought some interesting ideas to the race, particularly his focus on generating revenue, and his recognition of the fact that there is no way to cut the city’s budget to profitability. A woman whom he refers to as a “matriarch of the local Democratic party” has dubbed him a “bad Democrat” for, one presumes, running against Hohnke. Predictably, AnnArbor.com recently described Clark as “going against the grain” on the DDA Board, and framed his penchant for questioning financially unsound DDA Board decisions as problematic.
Clark, a non-party affiliated candidate, has just a slim chance to win—thanks to the sheer number of straight ticket voters who will go Democratic or Republican on November 2nd. He has said that, if elected, he’ll only serve one term, and in this interview that if he loses, he won’t run again.
I wouldn’t be prepared to take any odds on either of those promises.
1. Do you prefer blue or black sweater vests? (I couldn’t help myself, sorry.)
Newcombe Clark: Whatever is back from the cleaners and my girlfriend lets me out the door wearing.
2. It’s obvious from comments posted to AnnArbor.com and elsewhere that people assume you’re running because Carsten Hohnke didn’t support The Moravian. You decided to run after the Moravian vote, according to AnnArbor.com. Let’s have it for the record: what prompted you to run for City Council?
Newcombe Clark: In my mind there are two aspects to that question, with two slightly different answers. 1) Why did I run for Council? and 2) Why did I choose to run against Carsten now?
In regards to 1), it’s no secret that I’ve been becoming increasing concerned about some of the actions (or inactions) Council has taken over the past few years. Arts, beat cops, economic policy, transportation, the surface lots, the DDA—I’ve gone on record with all of these issues, before, and after, the votes on my [development] projects. I was content to be patient with my concerns (and yes, often my frustrations), because I do believe the majority of Council is trying to move this city forward. But I am no longer convinced that all of them are.
That leads me to number 2). To be blunt, I stopped having trust and confidence in Carsten’s ability to be an effective leader. Yes in part because of the way he voted (or didn’t show) on my projects, but more so with how he choose to message against those votes. Keep in mind that a lot of people were upset on those votes, some much more than I. I have already earned my fee, so there isn’t any more financial upside for me at this point. Besides, if I win, I can’t vote on them. Given that, I’m confused people think this a sour grapes run.
I’ve got plenty of other things that take a lot of time and money that I can invest my spite into. So yes, [I’m running] in part [because of] the votes, but when grouped with other actions or inactions he’s [Hohnke] taken over the past two years, I felt we deserved better leadership in the 5th. There are those on Council that I disagree with, but I still respect their convictions and their continued efforts to seek compromise. They listen, make an informed decision based on the evidence and then they take a stand, a true stand, and stick with it. I respect that, even if I don’t always agree with that stand. That’s my idea of leadership and, in my mind, Carsten hasn’t shown it, or at the very least, lived up to the promise to those that supported him in his first election (myself included).
I tried for months to find someone else who had an interest in challenging him. When it came down to the filing deadline, I was it.
It is true that I am a reluctant politician. I work full-time at a job I enjoy. I’m taking on an incredible amount of work and debt as a grad student at night at Ross, and personality wise, I’m not someone who enjoys censoring my opinion out of the risk of conflict. Being a Council member doesn’t exactly fit into that lifestyle, now or in the future. But I do love this city. It’s given me everything. I am concerned that political expediency by some (including Carsten) may not be in the best interest of the city I love. To put it another way, yes it’s a run of self-interest for the love of my town, but no, it’s not personal to Carsten alone. If I lived in another ward and another one or two council members were up for re-election, I’d challenge them, as well. And no, I won’t say who.
3. Why are you running as an independent which, in Ann Arbor, many people presume is “code” for a closeted Republican. Why didn’t you run as a Democrat? Ward Five is, after all, one of the largest Democratic strongholds in the city.
Newcombe Clark: To be a stickler, I’m running Non-Party Affiliated. I’ve been a voting Democrat locally and nationally for every election I’ve been able to participate in (ok, missed a couple of School Board votes). On every social issue that can be identified as a Democratic value, I’m lockstep (as well as most financial issues, which honestly probably doesn’t make me as successful as a business man as I could be). I’ve spent my entire life living in the same neighborhood (our Democratic stronghold), my late father was an artist and carpenter, my mother was a piano teacher and now is a yoga instructor—heck, I was on welfare until I was 16. If there are any Republican tendencies in my body, I must have caught them from a dirty doorknob, because I certainty wasn’t raised with them.
I didn’t run in the August primary for a few reasons:
1). I got a late start.
2). I honestly believe we should be determining Council runs in November, when voter turn out is higher.
3). During the beginning of the summer, I had a complex sell-out of my company of five years, and had a very heavy course load at school.
4). And most importantly, my girlfriend was defending her dissertation in Germany the last few weeks of the primary season. I was given a very simple choice with simple consequences on where to spend those weeks. Win or lose in the General Election, I think I made the right choice.
4. Other than with respect to development issues, what distinguishes you politically from Carsten Hohnke? What other votes has he cast that you would have cast differently?
Newcombe Clark: I’m not entirely sure exactly what Carsten feels about most issues. It’s been difficult to get him to commit to specifics in the debates he’s attended; he hasn’t filled out the voter guide for AnnArbor.com; his web site doesn’t offer much. Voting wise I’ve not been happy with his stance on:
1. Beat cops, and safety issues in general. He doesn’t seem to make it a priority over Ward pet projects. Meanwhile, in our Ward we have armed robberies, attempted rapes in middle school parking lots, crazy aggressive panhandling, dead bodies in flower planters…that’s just been in the last 6 months. What did he trade for it? Another year without a sustainable funding plan for Mack Pool, and no [parking] meters in the neighborhood. I want to keep Mack Pool, and I want no new meters, but we have to come up with more money somewhere, which I’ll get into more with answers below, in the meantime, experimenting with our safety has proven to be disastrous.
2. The [Fifth Avenue underground] parking deck. Nobody seems to remember that Carsten pulled it back from extending to 5th Ave, the night of the vote. Now, it looks like we’re going to have to open up the street all over again for Blake Transit Center and for City Place. His rationale at the time was…”we can always add the extra space later.” Be you for or against the deck, he didn’t take a true stand, and now it appears the vote is going to have huge cost implications, and result in another year of the street ripped up.
3. Arts Funding. He claims 415 Washington is of interest to him, but let’s not forget there was a ready and willing arts purchaser who had the means to rehab the historic building, create a community arts center, and build the first part of the Greenway onsite. The deal fell apart from pressure to maximize sale revenue from the land, and from capitulation to a few who wanted the entire site for a park. Carsten was part of that.
4. A2D2. Carsten still hasn’t allowed the recommendations from the A2D2 Task Force (which were confirmed by the Downtown Development Authority) to enter into the conversation. It’s part of my professional skill set to understand A2D2 (as it stands) will make it easier or harder to develop in the downtown, especially on the surface lots. Without those adjustments, it’s gotten harder, under the guise that it’s easier, which perhaps is why it’s like that…to make everyone happy without making anybody happy. Net result? A2D2 is toothless, and we get no new projects easier than before.
6. Argo Dam. Take a stand. Either it’s in or it’s out, and if it’s in, show me the cost/benefit and if it’s out, show me that cost/benefit.
7. Single Stream Recycling. I dig that it’s easier and that we can recycle more stuff. It makes no economic sense that we incentivize people to increase their waste. In Germany and Japan (and most of the modern world), people have to pay more if they exceed their quota on waste. The net result, less waste.
8. Porch Couch bans w/o adding resources to actually inspect the houses. I know for a fact that we’re almost 50 percent behind on inspections any given year. It’s easy for someone to drive by and see a couch and write a ticket for a $1,000. It actually takes some effort (and some cost), to get out and see if the rest of the house is safe and up to code. You want to save kids, that’s how you really do it. How do we pay for the extra inspections? Make all the violations a $1,000. Believe me, it will be a money maker. Have you been in those houses? Yikes!
9. Unaccounted tax revenue. I told Carsten, among others, and the Press about it over a year ago…no public action taken until I mention it in a debate…wait, still no public action taken, only acknowledgement of the problem.
10. All of the issues I’ve brought up relating to the DDA, and how we’re treated. I personally have no issue with funneling extra revenue to the General Fund. According to the DDA charter, any money not used for the system shouldn’t be collected in the first place. Given that we don’t control the parking rates (Council does), any additional revenue we are asked to collect over our costs is a tax and, therefore, the responsibility of elected officials to spend. My issue has been in that instead of calling a spade a spade, they’ve been trying to manufacture (after-the-fact) some basis for the payment. I’m not alone in feeling this way, I’m just one of the few left willing to keep talking about it.
There hasn’t been an idea presented yet that I see other than calling it a tax, so I haven’t been in favor of the contract breaches we are allowing. I do think selling the surface lots to the DDA so we can develop them and put them on the tax roll is a win-win-win, especially because it will give cash up front to the city, and take pressure off of the near downtown neighborhoods. Just because I’m involved with two projects that aren’t on surface lots, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t exist if I weren’t involved. There is demand and low supply. We, and others, wouldn’t be spending the money or going through the hassle of trying to meet that demand in realistic ways if it weren’t the case. Let’s finally get the vacant lots in play so we can stop the painful late-night meetings, and the continued threats screamed at my mother about how she’s raised a neighborhood destroying monster.
5. Judging from the tone and content of the Council emails FOIAed by Noah Hall in 2009, and revealed to the public by the Ann Arbor News in a June 2009 feature article, it’s quite clear that there is significant animosity between the council members supported by John Hieftje (Carsten Hohnke, i.e.), and those not (Steve Kunselman, i.e.). The easy answer is that you will work with everyone. The hard reality is that the council majority may not work with you. How do you plan to keep yourself from being politically marginalized?
Newcombe Clark: It’s true, there’s a split. The best I can say is that before I decided run and became a “Bad Democrat”—in the words of a certain well-known matriarch in the party, I was well-liked by what can be considered the majority on council. The simple truth is that I still probably have those relationships and, if elected, they’re not going to be that hard to repair. I fully expect that the Democratic Party will quickly work to get me to declare allegiance so I don’t sit on there for two years as non-party affiliated. Yes, there are a couple of Council members whom I may have personal issues with. That has more to do with direct lies to my face, and blatant political expediency over doing what’s right. But it’s only a couple, and those biases are not enough to create any gridlock on any particular issue, even with a supermajority vote requirement.
Look, if I am vocal about a new or controversial idea and it’s a bad one, great, let’s talk about it. If it’s a good one? Great, let’s talk about it. The point? Let’s talk about the ideas. My skin isn’t so thin that I’ll take it personally if my ideas get shot down…and my ego is large enough that I don’t much mind if my personality is shot down either.
6. I know why I believe it’s a conflict of interest for a City Council member to sit on the DDA, please tell me what leads you to conclude that it’s a conflict of interest.
Newcombe Clark: Explained above. Directly relating to parking agreement, bonds for city hall, and the potential to sell/purchase city lots. I love me some Sandi Smith but you can’t occasionally wear two hats without occasionally wearing two faces. What I would like to see happen with the DDA will actually be a lot easier if I’m not on both sides of the table.
7. The media recently tagged you as having a reputation on the DDA Board as “going against the grain,” and questioning the Board’s decisions (as if such behavior were problematic). Can we expect you to “go against the grain” and question the decisions made by City Council, as well as the various boards and commissions?
Newcombe Clark: I will always have questions, and I will always have opinions. I’ll be honest with my rationale, and I’ll listen to others. I don’t believe in horse-trading, but I do believe in picking my battles. I prefer inquiry over advocacy (there’s a big difference in my book). I don’t throw grenades (or drop bombshells) just to get my name in the paper or make people squirm. I do, however, believe the more rocks in the tumbler the shiner the stone. And I will never shoot down an idea without offering an alternative solution. There is way too much of that on Council, and especially in the blog-o-sphere. You got ideas, bring them. You got complaints, take a number and get in line. We’ll get to you once we’re through taking care of the business at hand.
8. One of your top issues is providing “affordable, diverse housing options.” Ann Arbor is losing population, households and educated residents over 25, according to the latest data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The city has a large pool of foreclosed homes, rental homes, homes for sale, and the vacancy rates in the apartment stock are higher than the national average. Local developer Ed Shaffran says the problem is that the downtown is being overbuilt. Obviously, one of the main reasons housing is not affordable is that our property taxes are some of the highest per capita in the state. Comments?
Newcombe Clark: Agree with all of it. But as a 29-year-old, who works with housing and taxes for a living, and studies macro/micro economics and supply and demand as a graduate student…it’s a bit more complex than just saying, “You there, YP. You want a house? There are plenty of them. Go live there, and I don’t care if you don’t feel safe, or clean, or that you can’t afford it.” We believe that what we’ve been trying to create in housing serves a need that hasn’t yet been provided for.
Our taxes are high because we’ve voted to make them high. If we want our taxes lowered we should stop renewing millages. If we don’t want to give up services and amenities in the process, we have to raise the tax basis. That only happens with increased property values (a macroeconomic issue not entirely in our control), or allow new development (a microeconomic issue much more in our control). Ann Arbor has a unique problem for a city in Michigan. People actually want to invest here. People actually want to live here…assuming we can provide for their needs. And of course, to find some more money we could clean up some of the issues with assessments in the short term.
9. On your web site, you refer to the unfunded city employee pension liability as “the waterfall at the end of our wild spending river ride.” (I like that image!) Fixed expenses are a huge part of the General Fund, and even with cutting 200 employees the city is spending more on employee compensation. Are you saying the city has a spending problem rather than a revenue problem? If so, how do you propose to stop the ride (or slow it down)?
Newcombe Clark: As I said in the debate (and apologies about reusing the line), whether a spending problem or a revenue problem, it’s still a problem. We can fix it with more cuts and breaches, and/or negotiated adjustments to legal obligations, or we can raise fees and taxes, or we can find new revenue through increasing the tax basis. All in all, I don’t see any possible way we can cut ourself back into the black. I for one don’t feel too great about going first to people that gave our city their working lives, and then now reneging on our promises to them—especially while Council people take salaries for a job that should be volunteered. If concessions are possible, great, but they’re not guaranteed. The only specific idea Carsten has put forth to fix the problem is to get those concessions. I’m going to plan on packing a snack until I know for sure that dinner is going to be served. Come next Spring, we’re starving, and by my calculations…it’s about a cool $7,000,000.00 for 2011/2012. We’re not finding that in consolidation of IT services, especially because we already did it.
10. You were recently quoted as saying, “I bet it would be easier for some if we didn’t demand transparency and fairness from our officials and their dealings.” You obviously believe, in some ways, current officials are neither transparent nor fair in their dealings. Whom are you referring to? What are the particular instances to which you’re alluding?
Newcombe Clark: I’m not dropping new bombshells here, but I (for better or worse) am much more aware of the history and results of most of the major decisions taken over the past ten years in city government. I know these things both through my relationships, through my business, and through my board work. This city has secrets, as every good city does. To rehash: I don’t like the known breaches to the DDA contract; I’m not thrilled with what happened with the [new] city hall / underground deck / 3-site horse-trade, 415 Washington, the Y site, The North Main city lot…these are all known to be less than entirely transparent or fair (or resolved) situations…but they are decisions made in the past. I prefer to be more open with decisions moving forward. We’re a smart community with good ideas. As I mentioned above, I have no fear of controversy, and I have no tolerance for licking my finger and testing the political wind before I take action. A good idea is a good idea, and I have enough trust in us that all of the complaints against change will just become noise in the absence of progressive alternatives.
11. On October 17th, Trevor Staples, who is a leader in the effort to have a skatepark built at Vet’s Park, tweeted to his followers: “Hey Ward 5 in Ann Arbor! Your choices Nov. 2 are a Republican, a developer, or @carstenhohnke. Vote Carsten for Council!” It was a crude classification, but relatively accurate. We all know the downside of electing a developer. Share some of the pluses you see you’d bring to Council and your representation of the people of the Fifth Ward.
Newcombe Clark: I’m confused about your statement “we all know the downside of electing a developer.” The same could be said about “the downside” of electing an accountant, or a gym owner, or a dolphin. Yes, there are people in my business that give it a bad name—as there are in every business for every reason. If I’m honest, well-intended, and have the ability to effectively communicate my honesty and good intentions, it would seem that it would be a positive thing to have someone at the table with the professional expertise of understanding our built environment, how we use it, and most importantly, how we tax it. As for Trevor’s Tweet (Say that five times fast),—I reprint my reply “@trevorstaples I would hope you and I and other 5th Warders vote with more of an educated mind than to choose based on occupation alone.” ….feel free to retweet that.
12. How much have you spent on your campaign thus far? Anywhere near the $40-$50K you hinted to AnnArbor.com you might spend?
Newcombe Clark: I don’t have the final number yet but I know we have a filing deadline coming up the end of the week. No, we’ve spent no where near that amount yet, not even half that. We have been very fortunate to have had quite a number of services donated.
Honestly, having never run a campaign before and doing it without the help of any party—I had no idea what it would take. My initial budget had everything but the kitchen sink in it. Time, cost, and gravity have brought a lot of my ideas back to sea level. Ah well, I’ll spend more next time. Just kidding; there won’t be a next time.
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