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Monday, February 4,2013

A regular passes

The Legacy of John Pollard

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was corrected to say that Kathi Raffone visited Pollard at his home in his final weeks, not at the hospital.

This ain’t no shell game. I’m no spin doctor selling you snake oil. Friday marked the end of an era in the Lansing City Council chambers. The smoothest, straightest talking — and most fact-based, at least in recent years — Council regular, John Pollard, passed away at his home on Friday. The cause of death for the inveterate smoker was small-cell lung cancer. He was 65.

Pollard used phrases, idioms and alliteration to attack Council members and mayoral administrations on his righteous and raspy quest to unearth development contracts and department budgets. He did so on a weekly basis. In the world of cable’s City TV, he was a megastar.

Listening as a reporter to Pollard from his right side in the first row of the City Council chambers, I often thought to myself when he took to the lectern: “Here we go again” — or — “I’ll be damned.” It was either a redundant rant or a story idea — one that always ended the same with Pollard intoning, “Peace.”

As with political campaigns he involved himself with, Pollard’s effectiveness had mixed success. In 2005, he took last in a four-way General Election for an at-large City Council seat. But four years before that, Pollard was instrumental in blocking a $388.5 million bond proposal for the Lansing School District. City Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar called him the “ringleader” of all the Council regulars, setting the tone for what others would chastise the Council or administration about. Yet, “He in some ways defeated his own purpose by communicating in a way that was probably less effective if he actually wanted results,” she said.

But critics and supporters can’t seem to describe the man without the adjective “passionate.”

“I admired him so much for his selfless commitment to justice and fairness,” said friend and fellow Council regular Kathi Raffone. “He was rooting for the underprivileged and those in need.”

Raffone, known for her own jaded yet sensitive style and joke reading at the lectern during public comment, visited Pollard at his home in his final weeks. She said Pollard had helped her out around the house as she was battling her own health problems and frequently gave her rides to Council meetings. 

He was battling lung cancer, Raffone said, but there were indications he was going to recover. “We were convinced he was going to be all right. … It was very quick in many ways.”

Raffone said Pollard tracked Council business and watched meetings on TV while he was away from City Hall. He left on his own terms, she said.

“He left with dignity. He was not going to hang around,” she said. As Raffone tells it, Pollard didn’t want to “linger” in a hospital bed in his final days: “I will use his words: ‘Get me the fuck out of here,’ he said.”

Who was John Pollard?

John Langston Pollard was born on Nov. 1, 1947. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and later lived on the West Coast while working in the aerospace industry, said Pete Bosheff, a friend and husband of former Councilwoman Ellen Beal. Pollard is survived by his wife of over 30 years, Cartis Mandua, and son Cayenne. Mandua could not be reached for comment.

In fall 1965, Pollard enrolled at Michigan State University to study social science, but he never received a degree, according to the MSU Office of the Registrar. Pollard also bragged that he played on the Big 10 champion ’65 and national champion ’66 MSU football teams, though rosters provided by the MSU Athletics Department do not show Pollard as a member of either of those teams. That’s because Pollard played on the junior varsity football team — reserved for third- and fourth-stringers — after walking on as a running back in 1965, said Sterling Armstrong, who was No. 31. He said Pollard quit after the ’66 season because he “just didn’t make enough headway for his satisfaction after sophomore year.” Pollard proudly wore a championship ring – a duplicate given to third- and fourth stringers in recent years.

Armstrong used to visit Pollard at his Brody Complex dorm in those years. They ended up pledging in the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.

“He was really smart,” Armstrong said, and a talented speed reader.

Pollard was the former director of the Black Child and Family Institute and also spent time at Everett High School monitoring hallways and mentoring students with his friend Cleveland Henry, Bosheff said.

Bosheff recalled first meeting Pollard during a Parks Board meeting on the possibility of bringing a skateboard park to Lansing, which Pollard supported as a Parks Board member, he said.

Also, being around kids so often, Bosheff said of Pollard, “He knew every rap song. He was ahead of all that stuff. It didn’t make any difference if it was Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Jay-Z. He knew all the jargon — he knew it better than the kids.”

Armstrong also mentioned Pollard’s talent for memorizing rap music, which made him all the more accessible to students.

When the Citizens for a Better Lansing coalition — a nonprofit advocacy group that in the early 2000s unsuccessfully sued the city over selling Genesee Park — disbanded, Pollard started attending Council meetings regularly, Bosheff said.

This was also about the time a fledgling City Pulse featured a regular column by Pollard covering City Hall. He’d pick apart city budgets and was often critical of the Hollister administration. In one March 2002 column, around the time Hollister made his budget recommendation to the Council, Pollard jumped on it in the same way he would have on Mayor Virg Bernero 10 years later: “It will take a lot more than voodoo economics, smoke and mirrors, the shell game and spin doctor snake oil to make Hollister’s dream of a World Class City a reality,” he wrote.

Not long after, City Pulse editor and publisher Berl Schwartz told Pollard that he’d have to decide between writing for City Pulse and taking to the lectern on a weekly basis. Pollard called it an attack on his First Amendment rights. The rest is history.

Chewing politicians’ legs

In his absence at Council meetings the past few months, the body elected Councilwoman Carol Wood as president — which delighted Pollard, Raffone said.

“He was so happy that Carol had gotten elected as president for Council, and that Kathie Dunbar (who as vice president was expected to become president) was reprimanded rather than rewarded,” she said.

Wood first met Pollard before she was elected to the Council in 1999 when he was the director of BCFI.

“My interaction with him in the beginning on a professional level is a little bit different compared to his coming down to Council and scolding us for what shouldn’t be done,” Wood said. “There were two different types of atmospheres out there. One thing has always been clear: He was very passionate about kids in Lansing and making sure people were treated fairly. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers.”

Wood said Pollard’s demeanor changed even between full Council meetings and Council committee meetings, particularly on an ordinance that involved assuring minorities have a chance to bid on projects and supplies for the city. “He was much less confrontational at those particular times” during committee meetings, she said.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero remembers first meeting Pollard while serving on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. Bernero and another commissioner enlisted Pollard to help form a coalition against youth violence, he said. As a state legislator, Bernero said he continued to talk with Pollard occasionally. 

“It’s when I was mayor we were most at odds,” Bernero said.

“He was an extremely passionate voice for better government in Lansing,” Bernero said after his State of the City speech Monday. “He was just a heck of a guy. I always enjoyed my conversations with John. I know he gave it his all.”

According to Darnell Oldham Sr., Pollard’s friend and fellow regular, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister told Pollard after he helped defeat the 2001 school bond proposal that he’d never find work in Lansing again. Hollister supported the proposal.

“I don’t recall” saying that, Hollister said Monday. “If I did say it, it was probably out of anger.”

Hollister described Pollard’s legacy as “memorable” and “consistent” — “He did his homework. He wasn’t just blowing smoke, which is what some people do.”

Hollister said his relationship with Pollard, though not particularly close, was cordial with mutual respect: “I respected him. He would start by saying he respected me, then go chew on my leg.”

Dunbar probably has a few teeth marks in her own leg from Pollard. Duhhhhn-bawr, as Pollard would snarl at her from the lectern, lives on the south side “around the corner” from his house. Dunbar said Pollard was known by some as George Jefferson for the way he dressed in suits and walked like the character played by Sherman Hemsley in the 1970s and ‘80s sitcom.

Dunbar, who met Pollard in the early 2000s while she was organizing a neighborhood group, said her meetings with him were always “non-confrontational” away from the Council chambers. “I always found it interesting that he was so theatrical. He definitely turned on the theatrics at Council.”

The 2005 city elections pitted Dunbar against Pollard, Brian Jeffries and Bob Johnson for two open at-large Council seats. Pollard took fourth in that General Election. In the pages of City Pulse, Dunbar accused Pollard of having a “very sexist, archaic view” of her candidacy because she was raising four children. On his campaign website the next week, Pollard said he raised the same issue about Johnson. He believed constituents would have been “underrepresented.”

“I am not sexist. I am ‘childist,’” Pollard proclaimed. “In other words, I believe unequivocally that parents should always put their children and families first. Remember Erin Brokovich (sic)? While she spent her time saving the world, her children suffered and became drug addicts.”

Dunbar said she could find common ground with Pollard’s view on the budget and the city living within its means. 

“He used to say: ‘If the roof is leaking, don’t put an addition on your house.’ In some ways I agree with that,” she said.

Pollard’s passing has had a noticeable impact on other regulars, Dunbar said. “The tenor of the Council meetings definitely changed when he stopped coming. It did seem like he was a ringleader. … John set the agenda for what several regulars would talk about on a weekly basis.”

Indeed, the Council chambers won’t be the same. Sure, some other regulars will likely chide Council members to do their homework on waiving noise ordinance restrictions. Someone is sure to protest a $100 donation by the Council to a charitable organization in the city, citing frugal times. If any are a student of Pollard, perhaps one will show up at an April budget hearing to point out the sinking reserves in the city’s Tax Increment Finance Authority. But nobody, at least in the past two and a half years that I’ve covered City Hall, has matched Pollard’s ability to be so charismatic, smoothly versed and on the latest information.

“I don’t think the city of Lansing is ever going to be the same — I don’t think people have realized what we’ve lost,” said Raffone, who also has been absent from Council meetings in recent months due to her health. She appeared at Monday night’s meeting to pay tribute to Pollard and asked the Council to commemorate the lectern after the man. “He was just such an absolutely passionate, devoted community advocate. It’s rare.”

Bosheff, who worked with Pollard on the skate park, said Pollard was “pretty simple in his mission: He simply wanted open, transparent government. He wanted the city to be the best it could possibly be. He understood without question what a livable community is.

“Not everybody thought John was a hero, either. Those people didn’t really understand what John was about.”


Remembering John

“My interaction with him in the beginning on a professional level is a little bit different compared to his coming down to Council and scolding us for what shouldn’t be done. There were two different types of atmospheres out there. One thing has always been clear: He was very passionate about kids in Lansing and making sure people were treated fairly. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and ruffle feathers.”

Carol Wood, Lansing City Council President


“He was an extremely passionate voice for better government in Lansing. He was just a heck of a guy. I always enjoyed my conversations with John. I know he gave it his all.”

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero


“He did his homework. He wasn’t just blowing smoke, which is what some people do. … I respected him. He would start by saying he respected me, then go chew on my leg.”

Former Lansing Mayor David Hollister


“I always found it interesting that he was so theatrical. He definitely turned on the theatrics at Council.”

Kathie Dunbar, Lansing City Councilwoman


“I admired him so much for his selfless commitment to justice and fairness. He was rooting for the underprivileged and those in need.”

Kathi Raffone, friend and City Council regular


“He knew every rap song. He was ahead of all that stuff. It didn’t make any difference if it was Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Jay-Z. He knew all the jargon — he knew it better than the kids.”

Pete Bosheff, friend

“Salute to John Pollard"
Feb. 9
2 -6 p.m.
Faith United Methodist Church
4301 S. Waverly Road, Lansing
Open to the public

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