I have a theory about how to cover those who seek elective office. It applies across the board, but especially to politicians who advertise themselves as reformers.
Their background in managing money is important to voters and fair game for inquiry.
Gavin Clarkson, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Mexico’s southern district, disagrees with me.
Clarkson became a candidate after serving about six months in President Donald Trump’s administration, a period that included controversy and criticism about his prior work involving a loan guarantee for an Indian tribe in South Dakota.
Clarkson, 49, said he left the Trump administration for another form of public service.
“On December 29th, I resigned my position as deputy assistant secretary for policy and economic development at the Department of Interior in order to enter the race for the seat being vacated by Congressman Steve Pearce in New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District. That’s where I need to be to stop the swamp and protect New Mexico,” Clarkson said.
While Trump talked about draining the government swamp and Clarkson spoke of stopping it, I reviewed lawsuits involving Clarkson. One stood out.
He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in 2012, listing liabilities of more than $10 million. Most of his debts were discharged in August 2014 by a court in Texas.
Clarkson, who holds a doctorate from Harvard Business School and graduated from Harvard Law School, asked me to explain why his personal bankruptcy is relevant in his campaign.
I told him a candidate’s biography is always relevant.
“President Trump had six bankruptcies,” Clarkson said.
I couldn’t dispute that fact. But Trump’s bankruptcies don’t nullify voters’ interest in Clarkson’s background. Plus, Clarkson is campaigning in a four-way Republican primary as an economic development professional.
Voters should know about his bankruptcy, especially because Congress manages money, I told Clarkson.
“Congress appropriates. Treasury manages the money,” Clarkson said.
Rather than debating congressional spending practices, I asked Clarkson about a particular item in his bankruptcy filing.
“I’m not going to go through this line by line,” he said.
I did just that.
Clarkson’s biggest creditor was a bank in Michigan that said he owed it $4.62 million. An Oregon company listed another of his debts at $2.22 million.
The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe claimed Clarkson owed it $1.23 million, and a New York company said he was in arrears another $1 million. Both those claims involved breach of contract.
Clarkson said he “personally guaranteed a bunch of commercial real estate loans,” only to see the businesses and his investments crippled by the Great Recession that began in 2008. Clarkson said none of the debt was because of fiscal mismanagement by him.
“The pace of the Obama non-recovery was so slow,” he said of the former president who took office in 2009.
Republicans once preached personal responsibility and self-reliance. But Clarkson was quick to fault Obama for an economy that started to collapse when Republican George W. Bush was president.
Other claims against Clarkson included about $62,000 for a “guarantee of an RV loan,” credit card debts of more than $32,000 and a judgment of $44,000 in a trademark infringement lawsuit brought against him and a half-dozen other defendants by a corporation called Java Jungle.
During interviews that became contentious, Clarkson went on the offensive, saying he suspected I would write “a hit piece” about him.
Many politicians use that term when they field questions on an uncomfortable topic. By claiming something as significant as a bankruptcy is old and unimportant, they hope to stave off any coverage about it.
I told Clarkson columns about campaigns are for readers looking for information, not for politicians seeking elective office.
Like many who run for Congress, Clarkson said he is not a politician.
Then he headed back to the trail, soliciting campaign donations and asking voters to send him to Washington.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.