The District 19 Candidates – Part 1

In my last post, I promised to delve into the candidates for the Congressional District 19 Special Election to be held on June 24.  Since then, I’ve found myself struggling with a dilemma. Ideologically, who to vote for is an easy decision, because the candidates’ parties are so polarized. If you’re a Republican, you’ll want to vote for Curt Clawson. If you’re a Democrat, you’ll like April Freeman. If you’re looking for someone less “establishment,” you might consider Libertarian Ray Netherwood or write-in candidate Timothy Rossano. But if we have a responsibility to look beyond the sound bites at the candidates themselves, their backgrounds, prior experiences, how they’ve lived their lives, then the task is much more difficult.

If I’m to add value with this blog, I owe it to my readers to do the work. I’ll try to do so with an open mind, though I make no effort to hide the fact that I am a political progressive.

So here goes. I’ll start with Curt Clawson, with some biographical information from his website.

Curt Clawson

Clawson bills himself as “the outsider for Congress: a business leader, former college basketball player and hardworking American who is fed up with the revolving door of career politicians, lobbyists and special interest groups in Washington, D.C. He is running for Congress in the Florida District 19 Special Election to change the direction of our country and improve opportunities for future generations.”

He was born in Tacoma, WA, in 1959, went to high school in Indiana, graduated from Purdue with degrees from Krannert School of Management and the School of Liberal Arts (Spanish) in 1984, then spent a year on a Rotary International scholarship doing graduate MBA studies in Monterrey, Mexico. In 1986 he went to work for Arvin Industries, a global manufacturer of automotive exhaust systems, as a supervisor on a muffler production line in Columbus, IN. In 1990, he got his MBA from Harvard, paid for by Arvin, then returned to the company for a “variety of management positions of increasing responsibility.”

In 1995, he went to work for AlliedSignal (now Honeywell) as President of the Filters and Spark Plugs Group, eventually becoming President and Chief Operating Officer of American National Can, the largest global manufacturer of beverage cans. From 2001 (at the age of 42) until 2012, he was Chairman and CEO of Hayes Lemmerz International, Inc., the world’s largest maker of steel and aluminum wheels for cars and trucks, with facilities in over a dozen countries around the globe.  During Clawson’s tenure as CEO, the company filed for bankruptcy twice, and in 2012 was acquired by Iochpe-Maxion, a publicly-traded Brazilian conglomerate.

Clawson did quite well financially during his business career, and spent quite of bit of his personal wealth on his primary election campaign.

Googling “Hayes Lemmerz bankruptcy Clawson” turned up a March 2014 article by WGCU News titled “Local newspaper [Naples Daily News] investigates Curt Clawson’s spotty business record”  and an April 2014 Fact Check by the Fort Myers News-Press titled “Critics question Clawson’s actions at Hayes Lemmerz.”  The lead-in to the News-Press piece says, “The race for the Republican nomination for the 19th Congressional District seat has turned into a decidedly negative affair, with hyperbolic accusations and character assassination floated freely in television ads, mailers and news stories.”

The Hayes Lemmerz CFO during Clawson’s time at the company is quoted as saying, “It is an utter shame that the article failed to take into account that Curt Clawson was brought in to fix a problem he didn’t create.  When he took over there was already $2.2 billion in debt and already safety problems at the company.  He made the tough decisions to save hundreds of good paying American jobs and safety was world class when he left.  This is an American success story and he deserves a tremendous amount of credit.”

If you get the chance. listen to Clawson’s 30-minute interview with the Naples Daily News Editorial Board (click here). I was impressed by his discussion of  the business situation he inherited (“the company had more debt than sales”) when he took the job at Hayes Lemmerz and how he dealt with it. You can read both press stories (and more) if you’re interested, but as a former finance person, I tend to agree with the News-Press’s characterization of the accusations as hyperbole.

During the editorial board interview, Clawson was asked about his positions on many of the issues of the day, including the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, taxes and flood insurance. He was given the opportunity to explain his Economic Plan. His said what one would expect from a fiscally conservative former CEO of a global manufacturing company, so I didn’t agree with most of it. But what I found refreshing was his manner of speaking. He was calm, deliberate, thoughtful, and his comments were values-based. He struck me as a reasonable person I might be able to talk to, and someone who might be willing and able to work across the aisle in Congress to get things done.

Another story about Clawson that circulated before the primary concerned his ties to a convicted sex offender. You can read the Naples Daily News story here and the Fort Myers News-Press story here.  This kind of innuendo really upsets me. Does anyone really think Clawson condones sex offenses? If you care to know more about this, read the stories and judge for yourself.

Following the sale of Hayes Lemmerz in 2012, Clawson moved to Bonita Springs, where his parents have lived since 1993. According to the News-Press,  “Clawson visits them every evening and the three attend church on the weekends at the Estero Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints chapel…. Clawson was married from 1995 to 2009 but has no children. He does have, though, nieces and nephews from six brothers and sisters, including seven nieces up in Tarpon Bay. A nephew works in his campaign office.”

Why is he running for political office? He said in the NDN interview he’s running because he thinks Washington can benefit from someone with his business experience in dealing with a company in trouble and having to make tough decisions. He said he came to Southwest Florida to be near his elderly parents. He said he got involved in local (Bonita Springs) governmental issues, and has not ruled out the possibility of running for local office. He said he only thought of running for Congress when Trey Radel got into “trouble.”

Tea Party Express endorsed Clawson  in the CD19 primary, citing his outsider status, Harvard MBA, and career as a “successful businessman and turn-around specialist.” The endorsement press release included this quote from Jack Tymann, co-founder and member of the Leadership Council of the Naples Tea Party:

“As a retired CEO, I am disgusted when candidates who call themselves conservative Republicans tear down those who have been successful in the private sector.… Demonizing achievement and condemning capitalism is what liberals do. We should be holding candidates like Curt Clawson up as an example of what it takes to turn things around: like he did as CEO. Curt Clawson is a true conservative who will exert his talents and leadership skills to get America back on track.”

Other endorsers in the primary, according to Ballotpedia, included former Rep. Connie Mack, Rand Paul, Michele Bachmann and The Eagle Forum.

I think I’ll stop there on Clawson. I’m impressed with the fact that he double-majored in business and Spanish, lived outside the U.S. for a year in his twenties, the fact that after two years with the company, Arvin thought enough of him to pay for a Harvard MBA, and what I’ve read about his business background. I don’t hold his financial success in business against him. I’m not happy that he seems to have used it to buy the primary election, but that’s the way it’s going to be from now on in the post-Citizens-United world, so we better get used to it. In today’s Naples Daily News, editorial page editor Jeff Lytle wrote that Clawson “is declining debates with June 24 election foes,” which is disappointing. But if you were Clawson, would YOU debate?

My bottom line: I’m surprised by what I learned doing my research today. He’s not the caricature of a Tea Party candidate I was expecting. I don’t agree with his positions on the issues (and I’ve seen nothing about his positions on social issues). But if CD19 has to be represented by a Republican (and I’m by no means conceding that point), we could do worse.

If I missed something about Clawson that you think is relevant to readers’ voting decision, please post a comment and website reference to let us know.

And by the way, in Lytle’s column today, he also reported the following about Clawson’s Democratic Party challenger April Freeman, setting up my next post: “Freeman is declining to comment on Detroit news reports, which she calls inaccurate, about her romance with and alleged exploitation of a champion figure skater, now dead of a drug overdose.”

Stay tuned.

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