Jan. 11 2017 11:53 AM

McClurken takes on Yorko for City Council

James McClurken is mad as hell. Mad enough to run for the Lansing City Council.

He made that official Tuesday when he filed his paperwork to take on Jessica Yorko for the 4th Ward seat. But he’s not just running against her. He’s running against the Lansing Board of Water & Light and ultimately against Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.

And if he does the hard work — the door knocking, the fundraising, the candidate forums — he will be a formidable candidate.

McClurken vows to not be a one-issue candidate, but one issue has driven him into the race: Scott Park, six acres at Washington Avenue and Malcolm X Street. The Council, with Yorko’s support, gave it to the BWL for a new power substation. The decision means that where the Scott House stands, a 40-plus-foot-high power grid will take its place. And the nearly 100-year-old Sunken Garden will be moved to a parking lot, destroying its historical integrity.

McClurken not only opposed the plan as a citizen preservationist, but also as a Bernero appointee to the Park Board, which backed the plan.

“Had this been any other park, there would have been a public vote to deaccession parkland,” he says. “That happened with the Waverly and Red Cedar golf courses. Even though I hated to see those parks go, the city actually voted. In the case of Scott Park, there was no vote. There was a gray area of the law that was exploited to deaccession the land. There were no numbers to prove that it was the only site that could have been used. Had that happened, I probably wouldn’t have thought seriously about it at all.”

Yorko told me during the fight that she intended to vote for the BWL plan, because otherwise the public utility would delay closing the coal-burning Eckert plant. Eckert is scheduled to be closed in 2020, but the BWL cannot close it without the new substation. Were it to miss the 2020 deadline, the BWL contends that necessary upgrades to satisfy the state and federal governments would cost so much that they could only be justified by keeping Eckert open till 2027.

Says McClurken: “Had Jessica looked into this more carefully, she might have reached a different conclusion that would also have allowed Eckert to be closed within a fair time.”

But don’t expect him to campaign only on Scott Park. He has other issues. One is the rest of Yorko’s record.

“She’s been in the trenches now for two terms,” he says, “and I fail to see that she’s really representing the people. A lot of people I’ve talked to are really dissatisfied with her. She may be progressive in her presentation, but she hasn’t really contributed very much to the well-being of the 4th Ward.”

Another issue is development. He is skeptical that the tax breaks the Bernero administration has handed out to developers are justified. In his early door knocking, he says he has heard that view from neighbors.

He says he has also heard from residents on the west side about the “nonmaintenance of parks,” another slam against Bernero.

Regardless of where McClurken stands on issues, he will be competitive because of who he is: a longtime progressive activist with many friends, including politicians.

He and his husband, Sergei Kvitko, frequently open their house to support various causes, including political fundraisers. And since their house is the Potter House, one of the true mansions in the Country Club of Lansing neighborhood, that’s a big draw.

Among pols he has helped is Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann, a Yorko supporter — until now. Lindemann confirmed that he is backing McClurken, “a loyal supporter of all the causes I believe in.”

McClurken, 63, came to embrace progressive causes despite growing up on the conservative west side of the state in a family of Dutch farmers. As an undergrad at tiny William James College in the ‘70s, he co-wrote an oral history book on Native Americans. In the ‘80s, he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology at MSU, where he fell in love with a professor who left his wife for him. McClurken said he was one of only two openly gay faculty members at MSU in the ‘80s and the first faculty adviser to the school’s gay fraternity.

He is an elder at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Lansing, where he has been involved in community outreach programs. He also lived for years on the east side. Drugs, delinquency, industrial sprawl: “I’m tuned into those issues,” he says.

Yorko, who lives in the less grand Genesee Neighborhood, may try to paint McClurken as an elitist. If so, here’s what he will say:

“When I bought this house, I might have been able to claim upper middle class standards, but with the crash of 2008, I live paycheck to paycheck.

“I am self-employed, so I work 50 to 60 hours a week,” he adds. “I’m a working guy.”