March 8 2017 11:28 AM

Former Olympic medalist makes bid for Lansing Mayor’s Office

Brown Clarke
Olympic Silver Medalist Judi Brown Clarke has signed up for what may be the run of her life. Last week she announced she’s seeking to become Lansing’s first African American and female mayor.

The announcement was “the worst kept secret” in the city, Brown Clarke, a first-term Councilwoman, said Thursday during a press conference at the Michigan Women’s Historical Center. Brown Clarke touted her work as diversity director for the National Science Foundation's Bio-Computational Evolution in Action Consortium Center at Michigan State University and her work with corporations like Nike as evidence she can bring a new energy to harnessing hi-tech jobs in the city.

“I have an incredible toolkit, and it's not just within politics. I can sit at the table. One of the beautiful things of working at Beacon and the Science and Technology Center is bringing together different scientific skills and coming up with a common language to solve a problem,” she said on the “City Pulse Newsmakers” TV show last week. “I have that ability, having sat at so many different tables, of sitting at the table and problem solving solutions for Lansing in this area, so being an elected official they're a parallel within my professional background that rival or actually surpass because they're not within a very limited scale of just creating policy.”

She also pitched a call for a renewed sense of decorum and respect in the city. She called for “a community of grace,” and while she denied it was a commentary on the leadership of Virg Bernero, it certainly is a contrast to the “angriest mayor in America” schtick he’s perfected.

“A community of grace is one in which everyone feels empowered,” Brown Clarke, 55, told supporters and the media of her vision of the city under her leadership. “Everyone feels like there is a place for them. There is a destination and they're being cultivated in a way which they have a level of independence and a level contribution.”

While Bernero has announced he will not seek a fourth term, she’s still facing an uphill battle. State Rep. Andy Schor, the only other declared mayoral candidate, has done well in pre-filing polls. Those polls put Schor over Bernero and Brown Clarke in third place in a three-way primary. City Clerk Chris Swope has also said he is considering a run.

Brown Clarke enters the race with a serious financial handicap. Her campaign committee — which has not filed a required end-of-year report, and has been fined $25 by Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum — had a deficit of over $12,000 in loans owed to her and her husband, 54-A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke Jr. On Feb. 23, a fundraiser hosted by attorney Edwar Zeineh (see related story), raised over $20,000, she said. But Schor enters the race with over $70,000 in his campaign war chest.

She acknowledged, in an interview with City Pulse last month, that if she got in the race she would be the underdog. However, she also asserted that her depleted campaign account was a strategic move in order to avoid drawing attention to herself.

She has served as a member of City Council at-large for the last three years. Asked to identify a successful ordinance or resolution she took the lead on, she declined, saying she was a "team player." She pointed instead to being named to leadership roles for the last three years —twice as vice president and once as president.

“I think during the time that I was president last year I've heard tremendous feedback on the decorum and how we carried ourselves as a Council, that we were cohesive,” she said. “Now we didn't always agree, but we didn't agree on the issue. There wasn't a lot of personal attacks and things like that.”

Brown Clarke rolls into the race with some negative political baggage.

Key among them is a whisper campaign that she would end up sharing the power of the Mayor’s Office with her husband, Judge Clarke.

“Anyone that thinks anything that my husband has the ability to influence me in realms that he has no expertise — It's offensive and quite frankly sexist because this question would not be asked of Virg Bernero nor would it be asked of Andy Schor,” she said. “So that question is put to bed.”

A skeleton is her dismissal as the head coach of the MSU women’s track and field team in 1997. She was dismissed in January 1997 after it was revealed she and a volunteer track coach had violated NCAA rules, she said in an interview with the Marshall Chronicle at the time. At the same time, an MSU men’s wrestling coach was also found to have violated NCAA rules. He was given a two-week paid suspension, while she was terminated.

Brown Clarke, who at the time had not married Hugh Clarke and thus was known as Judi Brown, was found to have allowed ineligible students to use hotels paid for by the MSU track program and permitted an ineligible student to live in an on-campus apartment with an eligible scholarship athlete without paying full rent. The most serious allegation was that she directed student athletes to mislead investigators about their knowledge of a volunteer coach’s participation.

“A lot of times athletes — because they're close to their coach — will come to their coach and say, ‘What do I do?’” she said of the allegation. “And at that point in time it was like I can't talk about it and so on, but I shouldn't have even said that. Anything that I would say was considered me talking or coaching them.”

She said the experience has taught her and allowed her to grow, noting that she was recently awarded a diversity leadership award by MSU President Lou Anna Simon.

“I've grown,” she said. “I'm a leader and I've learned from that.”