A $250,000 Election?
This year's city council race is shaping up as the most expensive in history.
by James Leonard
In November, Jane Lumm and Kirk Westphal spent over $40,000 between them in Ward Two. Their total nearly doubled last year's second-most-expensive contest, the $21,000 Democratic primary between Jack Eaton and Marcia Higgins in Ward Four. And it easily topped the previous record holder: the $34,000 race in 2011, when Lumm beat Stephen Rapundalo.
The average cost of a winning council campaign has more than doubled in the last five years, from $6,000 to $13,500 (see table, below). Though the best-funded candidate doesn't always win--in Ward Three, Steve Kunselman won his last three races against better-funded opponents--there's no question money helps. Take Jack Eaton. He spent $4,700 when he ran and lost in 2010, $7,500 when he ran and lost again in 2012--and $15,700 when he ran and won in 2013.
Citywide mayoral races cost even more. With John Hieftje retiring after seven terms, Kunselman, Sabra Briere, Sally Hart Petersen, and Christopher Taylor have announced they're running for the job. Petersen estimates that her campaign alone will cost $50,000. Our educated guess is that the mayoral candidates between them will raise at least $150,000, and that the total cost of this year's council races will approach a quarter of a million dollars.
The Observer reviewed public contribution records from 2009 through 2013 to find the city's top donors and spenders (see tables below). We found a lot of crossover--half of the top donors are politicians--and a deep division between supporters and critics of the outgoing mayor.
Only two non-politicians--developer Dennis Dahlmann and philanthropist Peter Heydon--gave to both sides. Both gave $1,000--then the maximum permitted by law--to Hieftje in each of his last two elections. Yet both have also given to the mayor's critics, including Sumi Kailasapathy, Steve Kunselman, and Jane Lumm.
Though their total donations are too low to make the list, two of the city's most vocal online commentators also put their money where their mouths are: VA administrator Alan Goldsmith regularly contributes to anti-Hieftje candidates, while banker Stephen Lange
Ranzini--who's talked about a mayoral run himself--jumped in with $100 contributions to Eaton and Kunselman in 2013. Last year also saw two new contributors plump down maximum $500 donations to council candidates: attorney Irv Mermelstein to Eaton and retired engineer Rad Smith to Westphal.
To learn what spurred their sudden activism, we interviewed both Mermelstein and Smith--along with eight other political donors picked for the depth of their support and/or the intensity of their opinions: three on the pro-Hieftje side, three on the anti-Hieftje side, and two who have given to both sides. We asked why they support the candidates they do, what they expect for their money, and whom they'll support this year.
We learned that the people who fund local politics are as deeply divided as council on major issues, including the biggest: what kind of town is Ann Arbor?
The answer is obvious to pro-Hieftje contributors. "We're a city," says Joan Lowenstein, the former city councilmember, current Downtown Development Authority board member, and attorney who's given $1,474 to pro-Hieftje candidates in the last five years. "We're not a small Midwest college town."
So Lowenstein gives money to candidates who support downtown and the DDA. Similar thinking led Downtown Home & Garden owner Mark Hodesh to give $600 to pro-Hieftje candidates since 2009--with one exception.
"I supported Kunselman in 2009, and boy was I sorry," he says with a laugh. "I supported [Kunselman's primary challenger, Julie] Grand this year because she was more inclusive--and less anti-DDA."
Lowenstein makes no secret of her disdain for the mayor's opponents: "Jack Eaton is wrong 100 percent of the time," she claims. "He said you don't always have to listen to the city attorney, even concerning 413 East Huron where millions of dollars were at stake. But he has zero experience on zoning, so for him to say [the city should] disregard expert opinions is flat-out wrong." (Eaton had no comment.)
Both Lowenstein and former county commissioner Leah Gunn also contributed to Sumi Kailasapathy's opponents--Lowenstein $100 to Sandi Smith in 2010 and Gunn $75 to Eric Sturgis last year. And between them, they've given a total of $950 to Jane Lumm's opponents since 2009. Lowenstein hits the Second Ward rep with the dirtiest word in the Democrats' lexicon: "Jane Lumm is a Republican," she says, "and she's against everything I'm for."
Gunn has an even harsher label for council's anti-Hieftje forces. "They're Tea Party Republicans. They believe all Ann Arbor needs is more police and firefighters."
But the Hieftjeites aren't all pure Democrats, either. Rad Smith, who made a first-time local contribution of $500 to Lumm's most recent opponent, Kirk Westphal, says he used to be a Republican himself. The retired engineer says he wanted "a more enlightened and rational representative council"--and also to restore geographical balance in the ward where both current representatives, Lumm and Petersen, live next to "the crime-plagued and fire-ridden [Huron Hills] golf course.
"That's all that can explain their calls for more police and firefighters when the crime and fire rates are so far down," Smith jokes: "An unreported wave of crimes and fires near the golf course."
The anti-Hieftje forces--who now hold a tenuous council majority--do indeed want to have more public safety officers. They also share a dislike for recent development downtown.
"There's been too much development," says LuAnne Bullington, a retiree who's contributed $3,254 to anti-Hieftje candidates since 2009. "They've turned us into a windy city like Chicago. I want city council to pay attention to the neighborhood, to things like sidewalk gaps, street repair, leaf pickup, and what they can do to make life better for the residents. The people I support work for people and neighborhoods and not developers."
"I've been a neighborhood advocate for many years," says Kathy Griswold, a longtime political activist and former school board member who contributed $827 to anti-Hieftje candidates. "I did give money to Hieftje early on because he started out as a neighborhood advocate. But he has not funded basic infrastructure for pedestrian sidewalks and crosswalks." Hieftje responds that he's still a neighborhood advocate--and points to the "flashing beacons and well-marked crosswalks [that] have gone up across town over the past few years."
Alan Goldsmith's disillusionment with the mayor parallels Griswold's. "I started contributing to people opposed to Hieftje in 2008, about the same time I started" posting critical online comments. "Up until then I voted for Hieftje. But it seems like in 2008 he started believing his own press clippings. There wasn't any transparency on council, and there were a group of people who made deals behind closed doors." Goldsmith has given $925 to anti-Hieftje candidates since 2009.
Bullington also bases her support on the candidate's character. "I love Sumi [Kailasapathy]. She's just the dearest, nicest, sweetest person." Bullington thinks as highly of Lumm: "She's honest and fearless."
Attorney Irv Mermelstein, on the other hand, was motivated purely by a single issue: the city's Footing Drain Disconnection Program, which he blames for wet basements in his southwest-side neighborhood. In addition to starting a website and quarreling with city attorneys, he made his first-ever local political contribution last year: $500 to Jack Eaton.
"I made the decision to support another candidate before I met Jack Eaton [because] it was my specific goal to defeat Marcia Higgins," Mermelstein says. As for Eaton, "he's a straight shooter, he's a lawyer, and he's critical of the FDD program. I hope he does the right thing and repeals the ordinance so there're no further FDDs and there's relief for people who've had FDDs: restoring their properties with monetary or other arrangements." (The city staff is now studying the program and is due to report to council this summer.)
With such wide gaps between their views, it's rare for anyone to give to candidates from both sides. But downtown property owner Ed Shaffran has not only given small amounts to both sides (a total of $900 in the past five years), he's twice given to both Jane Lumm and her opponent. "I gave Steve Rapundalo a couple hundred bucks and sent a letter out to my friends asking them to support Steve. A week later, Jane Lumm says she's running, so I sent Jane a check for a couple hundred bucks and a letter to my friends asking them to support her.
"Steve was upset with me, but what could I do? She's my friend!"
Two major donors, Peter Heydon and Dennis Dahlmann, also give both ways. Heydon didn't respond to interview requests, but Dahlmann--the life partner of Observer publisher Patricia Garcia--says his overriding issue is downtown development. As the owner of the Campus Inn and other high-profile properties downtown, including the City Center Building, Key Bank Building, and 301 East Liberty, Dahlmann says his "primary concern has been the massive big box student apartment buildings going up downtown. Ann Arbor is a college town. We're not Manhattan, and the student buildings going up at 413 East Huron and on South University at Forest are out of character and scale with the rest of downtown."
So Dahlmann supports candidates "who are opposed to these big-box buildings." But though Hieftje led the rezoning that facilitated the construction boom, Dahlmann gives to him as well. "He is a longtime friend," Dahlmann explains. "And he's done many good things for the city. For example, Ann Arbor is solvent following the Great Recession, unlike many other Michigan cities."
Some see strings attached to Dahlmann's gifts. "I don't know many people who contribute to do something specific," says Joan Lowenstein, "except Dennis Dahlmann, who gives to people who do what he wants. Recently, [what he wants] is to prevent any hotels from competing" with his Campus Inn and Bell Tower Hotel.
"I can't stop anyone from building a by-right hotel," says Dahlmann. "But the economics of the deal can." And he says the candidates he supports "are made fully aware that [my] support is unconditional."
Given the disparity among most contributors' views of the current mayor, it's no surprise they're divided on who should be his successor.
"I will not support Kunselman," says Lowenstein. "He's all about revenge politics. I would support Taylor and Briere. They're both thoughtful and act logically."
"Sabra is a good listener," Hodesh agrees. "She could be a good mayor. And Christopher Taylor would be an excellent mayor."
Not everybody thinks so. "If I could find somebody to run against Taylor, I would," says Bullington. "His rhetoric is so derogatory." Griswold concurs. "I don't respect Taylor. My first choice for mayor would be Jack Eaton, but he's not planning on [running]."
The contributors are likewise divided on what issues they believe are most critical for the city's future. "It's whether we're willing to spend money on transit, like the Amtrak station and the [proposed high-speed] connector," says Lowenstein. "That's what'll spur development."
"We need intelligent development, buildings, and transportation," says Rad Smith. "Ann Arbor is clearly in a position to become a center in southeastern Michigan by picking up some of the slack from Detroit's decline. We're not a quaint little college town. We're a small city."
The anti-Hieftje contributors see a host of other issues as more important--and not just hiring more police and firefighters. "The streets," Bullington says. "They have been in really bad shape since '08."
"A functional council," says Griswold. "It's been a dysfunctional organization for at least the last five years."
"Unfunded pension liabilities," says Shaffran. "We have to stop elaborate pension plans on a going-forward basis."
With the contributors so divided, it's hard to see how either side could produce a mayoral candidate capable of uniting them, much less uniting the council to undertake meaningful action.
"It's a shame to see such polarization on city council," concludes Smith. "You're either pro- or anti-mayor, and there's no middle ground. I foresee a glum future."
It will certainly be an expensive future. Thanks to a year-end gift from the Republican-dominated state legislature, donors will be able to give more than ever to their favorite candidates this year: in December, Governor Snyder signed a law that doubles the maximum legal contributions to mayoral and city council candidates. With the city so divided, the 2014 election will again be a contest of ideas--but also, more than ever before, a contest of money.
The following table has been corrected since it was published in the February 2014 Ann Arbor Observer.
Ann Arbor's Top Ten Political Contributors
Ranked by donations to city council and mayoral candidates, 2009-2013
Dennis Dahlmann $9,500
Jane & John Lumm 7,015*
Peter Heydon $6,500
Jack Eaton $5,966*
Sally Hart Petersen $5,232*
Leah Gunn $5,007
LuAnne Bullington $3,254
Gwen & John Nystuen $3,025
Ted Annis $3,010
Leslie Morris $1,980
*Includes candidates' funding of their own campaigns
City Council's Top Fundraisers
Ranked by average raised per election, 2009-2013
(Name, races, total raised, average raised)
Jane Lumm, 2, $53,214, $26,607
Sally Hart Petersen, 1, $16,728, $16,728
Chuck Warpehoski, 1, $12,341, $12,341
Jack Eaton, 3, $27,916, $9,305
Sabra Briere, 3, $21,982, $7,327
Mike Anglin, 3, $23,270, $6,882
Margie Teall, 2, $12,300, $6,150
Steve Kunselman, 3, $13,902, $4,634
Sumi Kailasapathy, 2, $8,686, $4,343
Christopher Taylor*, 3, $0, $0
*Taylor raised $14,719 for his last contested election in 2008
This article has been edited since it was published in the February 2014 Ann Arbor Observer. The table of the city's "Top Ten Political Contributors" has been corrected, a paragraph describing donors removed from the list has been deleted, and donation amounts mentioned elsewhere in the text have been corrected.
The following Calls & letters item appeared in the March 2014 Ann Arbor Observer:
Pat Lesko called to dispute her place on our list of Ann Arbor's Top Ten Political Contributors (February). We'd shown her giving a total of $7,849 to her 2010 mayoral campaign, putting her at #4 on the list.
Lesko is correct: her campaign reported total contributions of $7,849, but only $2,625 from the candidate herself.
Kathy Griswold pointed out another serious error: we'd tallied expenditures Monique Wardner and Pat Johnston made on behalf of Jane Lumm's campaign as contributions by them.
We apologize for the errors. A corrected and updated list will appear next month.
We have since rechecked Lesko's contributions as well. Excluding $1,350 in late-filing fees, and $500 given by a political action committee that shares her address, Lesko's donations to her own mayoral campaign totaled $1,625.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]