Nov. 13 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing City Councilwoman-elect Judi Brown Clarke’s return to the spotlight with teamwork spirit


There’s never been someone quite like Judi Brown Clarke on the Lansing City Council.

On one day, she can be joining her college coach, Jim Bibbs, as a volunteer track coach at East Lansing High School. The next she can be hosting a fundraiser featuring her friend who happens to be the greatest track athlete in Olympic history. She can point with pride to two Pan American Games gold medals and an Olympic silver, but demonstrate equal joy about the kids she has mentored over the years.

She’s been on the cover of Sports Illustrated, elected to multiple sports halls of fame and set world records.

In short, the 52-year-old political newcomer has star power. But most important right now for the city of Lansing is that she brings a clean slate to the often fractious world of city government and a reputation as someone who understands and champions teamwork.

“I think she’ll diffuse it,” predicted college teammate Molly Brennan. Brennan, like Brown Clarke, was a world-record-setting track star and collegiate All American who became a Rhodes Scholar. Brennan, who lives in Farmington Hills, doesn’t know the particulars of the City Hall wars, but she’s confident in how her ex-teammate will respond.

“She’s not going to join one side or the other. Judi’s just an easygoing person. I think she likes to find common ground. If there is someone who could handle that situation and handle it well, it would be Judi.”

Probably nobody outside of her immediate family has had a bigger influence on Lansing’s newest At-Large Council member than Bibbs.

The legendary MSU track coach, now 84, agrees with Brennan that she has the perfect personality for what can be a highly contentious job.

“It’s hard not to like Judi,” Bibbs said. “She always had a great personality. She could charm a snake.” (Insert your own City Hall joke here.)

Before track

Judi Brown arrived in East Lansing the summer before her senior year in high school. Her father, an electrical engineer with Oldsmobile, had been transferred from Kokomo, Ind. Her mother was an elementary school teacher. At the time, her athletic future was much different. Brown was a two-sport standout in high school. The combination of athletic ability and a powerful 5-foot-10-inch frame made her the target of college recruiters for volleyball and basketball.

Brown’s close friend on the East Lansing High School basketball team, Tonya Bibbs, saw her as someone who had the potential to be a track star. According to her father, Tonya Bibbs said, “This new girl is a good basketball player, but she’s better at track.” Tonya Bibbs died of MS-related complications in 2002.

After her first year in East Lansing, Brown hung around Bibbs’ summer track camp on campus after she enrolled at MSU. Even so, she ended up joining a track team by default. Volleyball was her favorite sport, but MSU didn’t field a volleyball team back then. So she joined a Spartan track team already loaded with talent, a team which would go on to win MSU’s first Big 10 championship in 1982.

Brown Clarke credits the late Dr. Nell Jackson, MSU’s women’s track coach, with inspiring her to continue her academics after graduation. Brown Clarke ultimately earned a masters degree in education from MSU and a Ph.D. in public administration and public policy from Western Michigan University.

“She (Jackson) was the first one to let me know that there was an ability to be both an athlete and have academic success,” Brown Clarke said in a 2010 interview with MSU’s sports information office. “I just knew I was going to get my doctorate because I just so admired that of her, that she pursued athletic excellence and also academic excellence. She expected the best of you.”

‘I didn’t like him at all’

In a life with few missteps, the big exception was her first marriage. Brown married Garland King just two weeks after the Los Angeles Olympics in what became a local media event.

She said the timing of the wedding was a huge mistake. While she and King stayed married for 10 years, she said, “We were young and had competing goals,” ultimately growing apart.

At about the time that marriage was ending, Brown played in a fundraising softball game. She was chatting in the outfield with her friend and mentor Bibbs when a player from the other team “thought it would be funny” to hit a ball in her direction. It rolled between her legs, and she wasn’t happy. The offending batsman was Lansing criminal defense attorney and now District Judge Hugh Clarke.

“I didn’t like him at all,” she recalls some 20 years later. Despite the initial dislike, when Clarke called the next day, she agreed to a date. They have been together ever since.

Into politics

Until this year she had never run for political office, leaving the campaigning to her husband’s efforts to become a judge. But at age 52, the Clarkes decided the time was right to make a move.

From the beginning, she took care to avoid taking sides in the Virg Bernero- Carol Wood/Brian Jeffries squabbles. She preached inclusion and building consensus.

She was the only Council candidate to win the endorsements of the Lansing Area Chamber of Commerce, UAW and Greater Lansing Labor Council. Her strategy was to be every voter’s “2nd choice” for one of the two at-large council seats, leaving the slugging to incumbents Kathie Dunbar and Jeffries.

Brown Clarke had no public record on city issues and didn’t push a policy agenda. What she promoted was her resume: Academic, athletic, public service and business success all rolled up into one package, coupled with a personality featuring a nonstop smile and easygoing laughter.

Bibbs was proven right when he said it’s hard not to like her: She finished first or second in 42 of Lansing’s 43 precincts. At-Large seats on the Council are elected by voters citywide, as opposed to ward seats

Although endorsed by Bernero, Brown Clarke pointedly described herself as independent from the mayor, an attitude she maintains after winning. On election night, she held her own celebration two blocks down the street from the combined celebration of Bernero and the other three members of his ticket. While some see the new Council as split 4-4 between Bernero supporters and opponents, with Brown Clarke in the pro-Bernero camp, she said: “I’m definitely ‘4-3-1’. There are no factions in my head. I’m ‘Faction Lansing.’” Even before her election the buzz had begun over Brown Clarke’s next move, believed by many to be a run for mayor in 2017. In an interview on City Pulse radio last week, Brown Clarke did nothing to discourage the speculation by admitting that she hasn’t ruled out any possibilities

Longtime political observer Bill Ballenger, founder of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said her next step depends on the answers to two questions: Will Bernero step down after three terms as mayor and how will Brown Clarke perform as a Council member?

“Is she going to be a strong member?” Ballenger asks. “Will she develop a following? She’s a totally new kid on the block and nobody knows much about her other than her illustrious athletic career and maybe that she’s married to Hugh Clarke.”

As for Brown Clarke, “I have absolutely no idea what Virg will do.” But she plans to continue to use the lesson that made her a world-class athlete: focus and dedication.

“If you look at any athlete who has excelled, it’s what you do when people aren’t looking,” she said.

The only sure thing for the next four years is that, 30 years after her Olympic triumph, Judi Brown Clarke will again be in the spotlight.