Neither newcomer challenging Pauline Repp for Port Huron mayor this fall said they took a personal issue with the long-time incumbent’s tenure.
Instead, DJ Palm and Nicholas LaBonte said they just see another path forward for the city — and each in different ways.
Palm, an area native and U.S. Army veteran, said he thought his background — calling himself a “grunt” — has set him up to serve in the role.
“I feel like I’m just relatable because I’ve been kicked around during the recession, working three minimum wage jobs and only really having to provide for myself,” he said, referring to his return from service in 2008 when it was difficult to find a job. For work, he’s currently managing his family’s party tents and rental business. “I can’t imagine how it is for a single parent. My mom was a single parent … and had to grind, too.”
Palm said he was keeping much of his platform priorities close to the vest, and he spoke well overall of both Repp and the current City Council, calling them “seven people who actually have common sense.” But he said he thought he could elevate the mayor position, taking on tasks officials don’t at present.
“I just feel like I’m still a soldier, (though) I dropped the veteran tag a long time ago,” Palm added. “… My lifestyle is grunt style. And we have sworn oath to the Constitution just like elected officials do.”
At 21, LaBonte is the youngest candidate of any race on the city’s ballot this November.
Having grown up in the city, he currently works at Rent-a-Center on 24th Street. He said he disagrees with Repp on “a lot of current approaches” and prefers the city to take different avenues in policy, adding, “I think we should find new solutions to old problems while still using the things that work and people love.”
“It’s not going to be good politics unless the voice of the people is heard,” LaBonte said.
His platform is varied, encapsulating both his personal preferences on financing change or growth and those of others he’s compiled on a long list on his phone. But regardless of the issue, he said he saw running for mayor as his chance to get involved — in part utilizing the experience to elevate concerns.
“I’ve always wanted to help and I saw it as an opportunity to actually do something,” LaBonte said.
Neither Palm or LaBonte have run for or served in city office before.
Repp, already a long-time official and retired city clerk, is in her 11th year as mayor.
She admitted running for re-election every two years can be difficult. Still, she said it was never the candidate pool that motivated her to keep seeking office.
“I think I still have a lot to contribute,” Repp said.
“I’ve never had any strong desire to move on to another position, like you said before, with going to the county or the state or something like that,” the 69-year-old said. “People have asked me, but … I live here in this community, and that’s my passion. So, I want to stay representing this community. I really don’t have the desire to move on.”
In the past, Repp said there have been specific issues that drive candidates forward in an election. Four years ago it was the wake of the city’s sale of the former McMorran junior arena to St. Clair County Community College for some, and two years ago, it was the city’s ballooning unfunded liabilities in covering retiree benefit costs.
But this year, the mayor said she just wanted to keep Port Huron’s current momentum rolling, while taking on challenges like recreational marijuana and local impacts of the coronavirus as they come.
‘You should be always trying to do better,’ mayor says
Repp said that in getting involved in elected office, she never truly retired from the city.
She began working for the city in the early 1980s, rising to the position of clerk before retiring well over a decade ago. Soon after, she served on the commission to rewrite the city’s charter and ran for council.
At the time, the highest vote-getter became mayor. Running for re-election, Repp has had the highest vote count ever since.
Repp ran for re-election in 2013, reaching a narrow victory over one opponent by a little more than 260 votes. Then, in 2016, she faced two others, once again coming out on top by a thousand votes.
At around 4,300 votes, Repp’s 2018 re-election over three opponents came at close to double that of the next highest vote-getter, a sitting city councilman
The seasoned official acknowledged the trend in an interview Wednesday — that her opponents appear to take votes away from each other than they do from her. Even with recent history behind her, however, she said she didn’t want to take her spot for granted.
“People say that, you know? They’ll say to you, ‘You don’t have to worry.’ Well, you can’t have that attitude. You should be always trying to do better,” Repp said. “You should always be putting your best foot forward. And you should always assume that you could lose the position as easily.”
Repp was seated in the pocket park at Water and Military streets — a recently-spruced up gathering space for downtown’s social district.
She said national politics with COVID-19 and other issues has seemed to take much of the attention of local voters this year. But she said reaching them was at the forefront of her concerns.
“I think that’s one of the biggest things that we probably as a city need to address is a better communication system with our residents,” Repp said.
Last spring, after the pandemic hit, Repp and city administration took some criticism for their response despite regular updates to the city’s website and directing focus to St. Clair County, the agency regionally coordinating resources.
The mayor had similar concerns about the level awareness for dealing with marijuana as voters this fall must choose between an outside proposal on the ballot to legalize recreational and medical establishments in city limits despite a set of adult-use rules already in the approval process on council.
Moving forward, Repp said she hoped to continue to tackle issues like blighted properties and maintaining downtown improvements — a place where she thought small details seemed to matter, such as bridge lighting or the social district itself, which allows patrons to drink outside.
“Even just sitting here in this park, simple things like putting some furniture in here and painting it. I was down here Labor Day weekend, and they had the music down here and there’s tons of people down here all being conscious about being socially distant,” she said Wednesday. “… We’re always looking for things to kind of get people outside and do things. I think that we’ve come a long way in revitalizing our downtown, so you know, you want to continue with that. You want to make sure that you’re always looking for new things.”
As mayor, Repp is the current president of the Michigan Association of Mayors and vice chairwoman of Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. She also sits on local boards for the CAN Council, Tri Hospital EMS, Lake Huron Medical Center, and the county’s executive oversight committee for the response to the opioid crisis.
“Thirty-seven years, I have been involved with the city,” she said. “And I think that’s why people support me, especially people who have been in this community for a long time because they realize that I care and that I do have knowledge and background in city government. That’s important, and you don’t want to throw that away.”
‘Everything’s in the specifics’ for young newcomer
On Thursday afternoon, LaBonte sat at a picnic table with his fiancée at Pine Grove Park, talking about his hope to help Port Huron capitalize on its potential.
“Nobody else really has the lakes and the rivers and everything that we have or the culture or the people,” he said. “We have so much untapped potential.”
When asked, LaBonte agreed it was a little like his own potential as a newcomer getting into research different parts of the city after asking other residents about their concerns.
Going down his list, the top items included supporting small business and job creation, more things for teens and kids to do, extending the local boardwalk along the St. Clair River, and screening requirements of sex offenders as local renters.
City officials have said they rely on existing systems with the Downtown Development Authority, incentives for developers, and the city’s relationship with the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County to help businesses and jobs.
In some of his examples, LaBonte said he just wanted the city to take additional action to issues it was already addressing.
“Everything’s in the specifics,” he said. “Mostly, we can just support a lot of businesses, maybe even companies coming here to make appetizing for them. … If you’re relying on one thing, it’s not going to be that good.”
The larger point, LaBonte said, was that he was listening to people and had plenty of ideas.
“Let’s say fishing and boating, all those things are not managed to their full extent,” LaBonte said.
“Imagine if we rented boats and people went out and fished and just enjoyed their time,” he said. “Similar to how they have it in Florida. You pay to go out on a boat … and you can fish on that boat and take those fish with you. Then, we can also use that extra tax revenue because we can tax that specific business to ensure the fish populations are kept at the proper amount. That way we can make sure our ecosystems are even healthier and utilize them more efficiently.”
LaBonte used that strategy in other examples, too, such as “taxing waterfront home to take care of” encroaching water or erosion issues.
LaBonte has also discussed rental issues. Although the city has taken steps within the last several years to elevate fees to weed out bad landlords, he said he wanted to see more done to prevent steep rental pricing and splitting up homes to convert into apartment units.
He advocated for incentivizing inspectors to find errors and preventing bad landlords from using their own companies to make structural repairs once discovered.
First-time candidate wants to be a mayor beyond jurisdictions
Outside McMorran Place Tuesday, Palm said the complex was an example of where good ideas have been applied by city officials but an area where he hoped to see the city step up its game.
He “loved the initiative” of the donated seats installed into the arena this summer, he said. But he said he wanted to see continued improvements to inspire better support of local hockey and better utilization of the arena for other sports and activities in the offseason.
Port Huron has already invested hundreds of thousands into capital improvements at McMorran and is currently utilizing donations and grant dollars to pay for the majority of a $1.5 million rehab of its plaza. At a McMorran commission meeting this month, officials said the facility was slated to break even this year unlike in years past when it relied more heavily on subsidized support from city funds to operate.
Palm talked about McMorran with some nostalgia, recalling specific hockey players and arena details.
He similarly wove emotions in as he talked about other topics, as well. Like remembering people who died while he was in service — “I’m talking about men that were killed within the first month of us being in theater,” he’d said, teary-eyed — when asked about utilizing his military experience to fix problems in the city.
He said it helped him “play politics” better than city officials currently do.
Though he said he had little issue with the current council, Palm has disagreed with past decisions.
In June, he publicly said that racism wasn’t a public health crisis when council passed actionable resolutions in the wake of the death of George Floyd and nationwide protests.
“If anything, there was such the opposite evidence of a public health crisis with racism. The real public health crisis is politicians with a crisis conscience,” the-34-year-old said, referencing the way the community has come together around Knox Field or SONS Outreach over the years.
County health officials have pointed to statistical disparities, supporting the city’s anti-racism resolutions, but Palm said he thought the issue was more related to socioeconomic status, which also impacts white residents.
He added the city could’ve taken a stronger approach to marijuana.
On larger issues, such as civil asset forfeiture, which he said was a “soft, quiet violation of your Fourth Amendment” rights, he wanted the city to take a stand, even though it wasn’t governed at a local level.
That was why he “isn’t running just to be a councilmember,” he said, wanting to defend the city like a soldier as mayor.
“I think it’s a role where you can step up and say, ‘Why is this going on in my county?’” Palm said. “… And I’m the kind of mayor that will not only give you an opinion on what’s going on in DC, or at least my perception of it, but I can might be able to give you an opinion on what’s going on backdoors in Lansing, too.”
“That’s something that the City Council finds that may not be under their jurisdiction,” he said, but is “part of my motivation.”
Contact Jackie Smith at (810) 989-6270 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jackie20Smith.