Bob Carr’s Uphill Climb
Former state ward is vying of a seat in the U.S Senate
By Craig Manning | May 19, 2018
By all accounts, Bob Carr is an underdog.
The Mackinac Island native seeking a seat in the United States Senate looks to be up against some heavy hitters in August’s primary race — John James, both a combat veteran and the president of supply chain management company James Group International; and Sandy Pensler, a former economics professor at Harvard and Yale, and the owner of private equity firm Pensler Capital.
Even if he wins the GOP primary in August, come November, he’d face incumbent Debbie Stabenow — who has represented Michigan in the U.S. Senate since 2001 — for one of Michigan’s two Senate seats.
Complicating Carr’s mission: His contention for the primary race has been called into question. Sites like Ballotpedia list him as withdrawn from the race, while the Detroit Free Press does not have him listed on the ballot. Carr claims there was “interference” with his nominating petitions, which has created some confusion about whether or not he is running. Nevertheless, he said his campaign is working to resolve the confusion and ensure he’s on the ballot August 7.
Still, Carr is staying positive. He thinks the polls aren’t telling the full story — especially given the confusion surrounding his candidacy. He also thinks Stabenow has lost some of her focus on Michigan, at a time when many of the cities and towns throughout the state are downtrodden and tired. Someone who connects with the people, he thinks, might have a shot at an upset.
Carr knows a thing or two about being dealt a bad hand. As a child living on Mackinac Island, he had a mother who was addicted to pain pills, and he and his sister were left malnourished and neglected. They became wards of the state, and Carr ended up living in 22 foster homes before he reached high school age. Sometimes, he got to live with his sister. Other times, he said, they passed each other “like ships in the night.”
Eventually, Carr ended up at boarding high schools, first in Illinois and then later in California. He worked for his keep and education at both schools — and also in college — learning the ways of agriculture on beef, cattle, poultry, dairy, and fruit farms. After college, with his farming and foster care days behind him, Carr discovered a philosophy that is still driving him to this day: “It only takes one person to change a life.”
Case in point: “When I got out of college, my number was too high, so I didn’t get drafted,” Carr said. “So five of us decided to go into the inner city of east Los Angeles and take over a great big house that didn’t even have glass in the windows. We cleaned it all up and started a house for runaways. I also chose to run the telephone hotline [for troubled teens] from midnight to eight in the morning. What I learned was that I had 10 seconds to turn somebody’s life around.”
That discovery sent Carr in a few different directions. Back in his home state of Michigan, he helped launch a soup kitchen in Benton Harbor — one that he says has only missed three meals in 37 years. Later, on a trip back home to Mackinac Island in 1974, he saw a derelict lighthouse from the ferry. The landmark — the Round Island Lighthouse — had only half its foundation and hadn’t been painted in decades, he said. Carr was so struck by the sight that he drafted a letter to the editor of the Mackinac Island Town Crier, listing out 14 ways to save the lighthouse. Before long, he’d been recruited to lead the preservation campaign.
In the years since, historic preservation has become Carr’s calling. He’s helped save antique rail cars, wrought iron bridges, and ruins of old, historically significant churches. The project to save the City Opera House, meanwhile, brought Carr and his wife to Traverse City, where they now spend half their time. (The other half is spent on Mackinac Island.)
Carr was also instrumental in rescuing Building 50 and the rest of the Traverse City State Hospital from demolition. After the hospital officially closed its doors in 1989, debates raged about whether to keep the buildings — already listed on the National Register of Historic Places — or tear them down to make way for more green space. The night the vote to demolish the hospital took place, Carr stood up and passed out a letter he’d written to the editor of the Traverse City - Record Eagle. The piece urged for the restoration and use of the state hospital buildings, and it ignited a conversation among community members that stopped the demolition vote from ever being taken.
As most know, the hospital eventually became the home of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a micro-community within Traverse City that is both a thriving spot for businesses and an in-demand residential destination. Carr says the key was finding an identity and theme for The Village that would make it unique.
Carr wants to apply a similar strategy to Michigan cities and towns. His platform revolves around revitalizing the downtown areas in economically distressed communities throughout Michigan. By creating unique places where people want to live, work, and visit — not unlike The Village at Grand Traverse Commons — he thinks he can help rebuild communities that have been marginalized and forgotten.
“I’m traveling around seeing these towns, and they’re tired,” Carr said. “They’re just boarded up. But here’s what we can do: We can take these old towns and come up with a theme. Every one of them is unique. So let’s establish these themes, and let’s decide to move back into the downtown areas.”
Carr has never been elected to public office. In 1996, he mounted a campaign for U.S. Representative in Michigan’s First Congressional District. He won the Republican primary but lost to Democratic incumbent Bart Stupak in the general election.
Still, Carr contended that when the Republican party approached Carr about running for Senate last year, his ’96 race was part of the reason why. They liked that he’d gotten so far with limited funds and no negative campaigning. He’s using a similar strategy for this election: spending next to nothing on advertising and playing nice with his fellow candidates. Instead, he and his wife have been traveling to communities across Michigan, meeting voters in the cities that Carr wants to save.
“When I go to these towns, and I get to speak, I always try to have a story to illustrate something about that town, and about what we can do [to make things better],” Carr said. “I make it very personal to where those people are. And so, you take 300 people here, and 500 people there, and suddenly, you’ve got votes.”