You may not know attorney Robert Newcomb, 67, but you've seen the full-figured lawyer with the snowy beard repeatedly in the media doing his annual turn as Santa Claus. He's everywhere, from Children's Hospital to CARTI events and all over TV and the papers.
He's long played Santa in the Downtown Little Rock Christmas Parade. For at least nine years, he's dovetailed that role into an appearance at the Capitol, where the Christmas lights are turned on at the end of the parade, fireworks are set off and hordes of children walk through the rotunda to have their photos made with Santa. Santa and Mrs. Santa typically walk up the Capitol steps for the lighting ceremony.
Newcomb says the secretary of state's officed called him about six weeks ago to help again this year. (No pay is involved.) He said sure. Then, late last week, an employee of the office called Newcomb to say his services were no longer needed. She said she didn't know why.
Newcomb believes he does. He's the lawyer for an African-American woman who's filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission about her firing as a member of the Capitol police force after more than a dozen years on the job. (The police are under the control of the secretary of state.) She was accused of sleeping on the job. Newcomb said she was on medication.
The complaint dates back to last May, well before Newcomb's return invitation. But within the last two weeks, though Newcomb can't speak in detail about his client's case, he says an effort to mediate the dispute with A.J. Kelly, the secretary of state's attorney, failed. Newcomb also asked to speed up the process by which the Justice Department certifies a complainant's right to sue.
Was Santa fired as retribution for his representation? "Yep," says Newcomb. "I feel like it was a petty act."
Secretary of State Mark Martin's press secretary, Alex Reed, says the change was no such thing.
"A member of our staff came forward and wanted to play Santa and so we're going to let him play Santa," Reed said. He's Brent Reaves, a member of the Capitol police, too, it so happens.
Reed insists the change had no relationship to Newcomb's work and his call about doing it again was an accident. "Decisions about Santa are made on a lower level and it has nothing to do with that."
Newcomb officed near Kelly when Kelly was in private practice. He said he told Kelly after Martin was elected that he'd be happy to continue to play Santa and did for Martin's office last year. "It made no difference to me who the secretary of state was." Newcomb, admittedly a Democrat generally, said "being Santa is not a partisan issue. I just looked at it as a public service."
Newcomb, who does a lot of work representing police and firefighters, said he'd sued virtually every police chief in the county and other agency leaders, but had managed to do so without personal animosity, with one exception. Former Little Rock Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr refused to use him as Santa in a toy campaign for kids after his legal action against her on some employee issues.
Newcomb said his schedule would still be full this year without the Capitol gig. Perhaps he can don the black Santa hat someone once gave him — emblazoned with the words "Bah, humbug" — as he slinks off into the night after the Christmas Parade.