It’s not surprising that some people got confused over Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck’s intentions about seeking a seventh two-year term — there were many mixed signals.
Saddled with a bad limp while awaiting hip replacement surgery last year, Cluck said he thought long and hard about not running again.
During that uncertainty, friend and long-time community leader Jeff Williams asked Cluck about his re-election plans as he contemplated his own candidacy for mayor.
Saying his decision would hinge on the surgery’s outcome, Cluck said he asked Williams to check back in a few months.
“He came back and I said, ‘Jeff, I’m glad to tell you I’m great. I haven’t been this good in a long time and I’m going to run.’ He said ‘I pray you don’t.’ I know he was very disappointed that day,” said Cluck, 76, and Texas Health Resources Arlington Memorial Hospital’s vice president for medical affairs. “I suggested ‘if that is the way you feel, go ahead and run.’ And he did.”
Williams, 55, past chairman of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and president of civil engineering firm Graham Associates, will face Cluck in Saturday’s election in a race that appears to have captivated the interest of Arlington voters. Early voting totals reported through Monday showed that almost 12,000 ballots had been cast already — substantially more than the 10,906 voters participating in the 2013 Arlington mayor’s race, the last time Cluck ran.
Jerry Pikulinski, a 76-year-old retired economist who is making his fifth bid for mayor, and Didmus Banda, a 38-year-old banker, are also on the ballot.
Williams acknowledges that he met with Cluck several times to discuss early campaign strategy and his vision for the city’s future. Cluck said that early on he offered to transfer some of his campaign war chest, which topped $100,000, to Williams, who is making his first run for public office.
“The impression everybody had at that time was this transition was underway and it wasn’t going to be a contest between these two men. It was going to be an orderly transition,” said former mayor Richard Greene, a former supporter of Cluck who now backs Williams. “Bob Cluck had decided Jeff would be the next best mayor and was working closely to support him in that effort.”
Williams said he and his supporters were frustrated to learn Cluck had changed his mind.
“He said ‘I want two more years.’ It was very disappointing,” Williams said. “He knew I needed to move forward. He was very much aware of all my planning.”
Williams is Cluck’s first serious challenger since becoming mayor in 2003, said Allan Saxe, an associate professor of political science at University of Texas at Arlington. With prominent endorsements and campaign donors on both sides, Saxe said he couldn’t predict a winner but expects the results will be close.
“It’s the most intensive mayor’s race we’ve had in a long time,” Saxe said. “It makes the community sit up and look at what’s going on. A highly competitive race stirs up the water. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Cluck touts his 16-years of council experience while Williams says he’ll bring much-need fresh ideas and energy to the city. But both men agree Arlington’s priorities should include attracting good-paying jobs, promoting quality education, participating in regional mass transit and investing in infrastructure and amenities to make Arlington attractive for businesses and families.
“This has been a competitive race without real differences,” Saxe said. “It’s all for the good of the community.”
Williams, who also chaired the 2014 Arlington school district bond election committee, said business and community leaders, including former mayors Greene and Elzie Odom, recruited him to run for the council’s top seat.
Supporters say they were disappointed that Cluck changed his mind, which he has done before.
Victor Vandergriff, a prominent Arlington businessman and son of the late mayor Tom Vandergriff, said Cluck had encouraged him to run for the mayor’s seat three times — in 2009, 2011 and 2013 — but in each case ultimately decided to seek re-election.
“He never definitively promised me he was not going to run,”said Vandergriff, who supports Williams. “He wanted me to succeed him if he didn’t.”
Creating jobs is big issue
Creating more jobs has been a common theme on the campaign trail.
Cluck points to recent headlines such as negotiations to land an MGM Grand hotel and a proposed $1.2 billion General Motors expansion as examples of Arlington’s continued job growth.
“It’s the biggest investment ever made by General Motors in this city, $1.2 billion, if they go through. It’s a lot of money and a lot of jobs,” Cluck said. “It’s important for us to continue fighting for jobs because the one thing people can’t do without is a source of income to provide for their families and themselves.”
But Williams says Arlington has lost too many high-profile economic development opportunities to other cities, such as the Dallas Cowboys training facility that went to Frisco and the Toyota headquarters that went to Plano. If elected, Williams said he would more actively pursue major employers to create new jobs and help expand the city’s tax base.
“The trickle down effect of bringing jobs to your community is tremendous. When you have jobs, it gives people hope and a way to provide for their family. When you bring in business partner in a community, then you have the opportunity for increased revenue for the city to help improve quality of life, such as police and fire and streets and parks,” said Williams, adding that businesses can also support a city’s schools and nonprofits.
Arlington purposely did not pursue Toyota, Cluck said.
“We are a General Motors town. They’ve done so much for us and we for them,” Cluck said. “I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that relationship.”
Williams’ campaign has also been critical of the lack of development around the $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium, questioning whether pawn shops, vacant buildings and used car lots are what city leaders envisioned when promising taxpayers in 2004 that investing in the sports venue would bring new businesses and high-paying jobs to town.
“The current mayor was key in bringing the stadium here. He expected that with the stadium being here that business opportunities would come to him. What has come to him has not been very good,” Williams said. “The reason has been because all the communities around us are being proactive. They research what they want to bring to their cities and recruit them very heavily. That is what we need to start doing.”
The city’s economic development office is too small and isn’t being used to its fullest potential, Williams said.
Cluck said he isn’t flustered by the criticism. The stadium, which opened in 2009, has brought numerous high-profile events, including a Super Bowl, an NBA All-Star Game and the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship, to Arlington. Because of higher-than-expected sales tax revenue generated in large part by the 85,000-seat venue, Cluck added that the city expects to pay the stadium bonds off a decade early.
“The other thing being thrown around is ‘We built this gigantic stadium and there is still no development around it.’ OK. True. I don’t care. It will fill in whenever the economy is right,” Cluck said. “It’s amazing how much money is flowing into the city. That is why we can pay that thing off in 20 years instead of 30 years.”
Cluck said he did take offense at Williams describing Arlington as “stagnant” while on the campaign trail.
“He’s a friend but that word just doesn’t resonate with me. It makes me think of a dirty, old closed-down city. We are anything but,” said Cluck, pointing to the city’s low crime rate, low unemployment rate and prestigious bond rating. “We are a vibrant growing city who is very active in economic development. It doesn’t mean that everything we go after we get but we certainly have been successful.”
Plans for the future
If re-elected, Cluck said he would like to see the council discuss the possibility raising the city’s sales tax rate from 8 percent to the maximum 8.25 percent to create an economic development fund that could be tapped to lure business relocation or expansion. An extra quarter-cent generates about $12 million a year.
“There are so many possibilities with the quarter-cent we have open today,” Cluck said. “What I suggested strongly is we spend enough time on what to do with that sales tax, all the possibilities, and we all agree which seems to be most advantageous to the city.”
Williams said he would establish a volunteer task force and he would also tap resources at UT-Arlington to identify and pursue the best economic development opportunities for the city.
“I will bring in the great expertise that we need in our city to help us. Timing is everything when you are recruiting jobs. With the North Texas economy booming, we’ve got to move quickly before a downturn occurs. It could literally cost us a decade or more in advancement if we miss this economic cycle.”
Cluck, whose supporters include the Arlington Police Association and Arlington Professional Fire Fighters, said he’s not certain why he’s lost support from some community and business leaders who once backed him.
“I don’t know. I’m doing my job. They may think I’m too old to continue doing it. I’m not,” Cluck said. “Whenever I feel I’m not on top of my game, I’m out of here because it becomes dangerous then. I feel great.”
Cluck said his campaign was not behind former Arlington City Councilman Dick Malec’s robocalls targeting Williams as a lobbyist who wants to raise the city’s taxes. Some people on Facebook expressed disgust with the last-minute attack ads, saying they made Cluck seem desperate.
“He is absolutely not working for us,” Cluck said.
Greene said Cluck has brought some great things to Arlington during his 12 years as mayor but it is time for new ideas.
“I am a first-person witness to the difficulty in letting go but I did,” said Greene, who served as mayor for a decade. “A transition in leadership is healthy and good for the community.”
Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639
Campaign finance reports
In campaign finance reports posted Friday, Robert Cluck reported $16,830 in campaign contributions and expenditures of $52,638.81. That was in addition to the contributions of $15,145 and expenditures of $59,501.30 reported in the filing period that ended April 9.
In campaign finance reports posted Friday, the Jeff Williams Exploratory Campaign Committee reported $38,700 in campaign contributions and expenditures of $39,502.30. That was in addition to the contributions of $56,125 and expenditures of $70,137.31 reported in the filing period that ended April 9.