Four for Mayor
The candidates to succeed John Hieftje have very different visions of the city.
by James Leonard
From the August, 2014 issue
The August 5 Democratic mayoral primary marks the end of one era and the start of another.
After an unprecedented seven terms, John Hieftje is retiring undefeated. Since 2000, he has faced ten opponents in primary and general elections, and beaten them all two-to-one or better. Even after opponents of his initiatives began picking off his council allies, Hieftje demolished his last three challengers more than four-to-one.
As long as his popularity remained so high, few dared to challenge him. So when Hieftje announced he wouldn't seek another term last year, an enormous amount of pent-up ambition was released. Four city councilmembers--Sabra Briere, Steve Kunselman, Sally Hart Petersen, and Christopher Taylor--are competing to succeed him.
Each candidate believes he or she is uniquely suited for the job.
"I have a deep passion for city government," says Sabra Briere, sixty-three, who's retired from Ypsi's Corner Health Center, "and there are some things I want to see done and done properly. John Hieftje has taken his eye off the ball on occasion. I won't lose sight of what we're trying to accomplish and how we get there."
Steve Kunselman has been Hieftje's sharpest critic on council. "I'm running to give a choice to the electorate, [a] much more distinct choice than has been offered in the past," says the fifty-one-year-old U-M energy management liaison. "I'm for the working class, for the financially responsible average Joe. And I'm very independent."
"The next era of Ann Arbor needs a mayor with diverse experiences," says Sally Hart Petersen, fifty, who lists councilmember as her job. "I possess the skills and the leadership and the management skills and the flexibility the city needs on the cusp of growth."
"I love the city, and this is an important time for us," says Christopher Taylor, forty-seven, an attorney at Hooper Hathaway. "The next mayor has to have the temperament, the experience, the judgment to work with residents and colleagues to maintain and improve quality of life for people who call Ann
Counting Hieftje, the current council nominally consists of ten Democrats plus independent Jane Lumm. But most candidates see it divided into two camps.
"It's roughly pro-mayor and anti-mayor," says Petersen. "There're five aligned with the mayor: Hieftje, Taylor, [Margie] Teall, Briere--she says not always, but look at her record--and [Chuck] Warpehoski, who tends to go with them. Then there's [Jack] Eaton, [Mike] Anglin, Sumi [Kailasapathy], Jane, and Kunselman. Not me: I vote the issue."
Taylor sees the same breakdown with one difference: "My experience shows Sally and Sabra vacillate between [the] two groups."
"In effect, there are two parties instead of one, and people will shift sides," says Briere. "At this point, Jane, Sumi, Jack, and Mike are one party; Taylor, Hieftje, Teall and Chuck Warpehoski are another; and Kunselman, Petersen, and Briere are flexible."
We asked the candidates where they stand on the city's biggest issues: public safety, infrastructure, development, and transportation.
"Crime is at historic lows," Taylor says. "Nevertheless I supported the addition of three new officers and one more firefighter in this year's budget because they are going to be tasked with neighborhood engagement, traffic enforcement, and other important public safety tasks."
"Everybody acknowledges we're very low crime," agrees Briere. "But we want police to do other things, and when we know what they are, then we can add staffing."
"We're not in a [financial] position to do any more hiring for the next year," says Kunselman. "We need maybe two or three more cops. We need more beat cops downtown [beyond those added this year]. It took years to get to this low level."
"We do need [to hire] more cops as our bottom line improves," says Petersen. "We don't have enough traffic enforcement or beat cops. I get countless complaints for speeding and not obeying the pedestrian crossing laws."
All agree the city needs to improve its infrastructure.
"We need new streets, storm sewers, and wastewater system," says Briere. "The question is, how do we pay for it? That's the question asked all across the United States. We'll have to get federal and state grants for much of it. The question for the rest is: is it more frugal to get a bond and pay it down over time to get it done now?"
"Of course we need to improve infrastructure," says Kunselman. "We've been dillydallying, chasing art projects, and planning a train station," he says. "What is the director of public services doing at an art meeting?"
"Our infrastructure is crumbling," Petersen concurs. "We have potholes in our streets, and our water and sewer systems are crumbling." As with expanding the police force, Petersen believes the solution is "an economic policy that adds revenue to our bottom line."
"We need it all," Taylor argues. "The problem is so much of our street money comes from the state, and Michigan is fifty out of fifty in per capita road spending. Our storm water infrastructure is aging and not designed to handle the amount of precipitation that will come with climate change. The city is conducting a deep dive into our flood mitigating and water quality and infiltration needs, and when the results are in, we need to look under every rock for state, federal, and local funding and take action."
The candidates are likewise all for development--but they're not all for the same development.
"We have to make it desirable for families to live in our town by stressing public safety and roads and sidewalks," says Kunselman. "I'll work for the working class to bring money to our neighborhoods."
"Growth is going to happen, and growth is good," says Petersen. "We need more jobs, because more jobs increase the tax base. There are 12,500 jobs coming in the next three years to Washtenaw County, and I want those jobs in Ann Arbor."
"The truth is our costs are going up faster than our revenues," says Taylor. "If we are going to continue to provide services in the long run, we're going to need to grow. But we need reasonable growth, change consistent with our character."
"I do not automatically favor more or fewer buildings," Briere says--it depends on whether they're well designed and respect their contexts. "I have no problem with more jobs and more employees," she adds. "Diversity away from the U-M is a long-term goal."
And all the candidates are for better public transportation--but some are more for it than others.
"There was opposition [to the AAATA transit millage] in Ward Two," says Petersen. "I was late to endorse [it], because I held a debate in Ward Two because I wanted to bring both parties, and I wanted to hear how AATA defended the millage. I declared two days later."
"I was delighted the bus millage passed," says Taylor. And he's for more than more buses: "Ann Arbor needs expanded rail service, and Ann Arbor needs a new train station. But nothing will happen without federal approval. They'll determine the optimal site that they would fund."
"The train station is only quasi in our control," agrees Briere. "To build a train station, we need federal funding. But if we decide to go forward, we have to put it to a vote of the people. I made certain of that" with an amendment last year.
Kunselman says he wants "to allow [the new] millage revenues to work and see how the transportation authority's plans work out. It's going to take a few years to see how the services work for the residents of Ann Arbor." A new train station, he says, will "be nice someday, but I expect it to be built with a minimum of 80 percent federal funding."
We asked each how they'd govern, how they hope the city would change in their first term--and what they think of their opponents.
Petersen says Ann Arbor needs a mayor "to transform inevitable growth into infrastructure and better city services and quality of life. We need leadership with new ideas, and we need economic development."
She thinks she's the right choice to do that: "I'd be dynamic, shrewd, clever, creative, and collaborative. I'd be someone who is not afraid of bringing together people and finding common ground between them. I have the best combination of leadership, skills, ability, and track record that show I can leverage growth."
Asked how the city would look at the end of her first term, she responds, "General fund revenues will grow, giving us the wherewithal to hire more police and restore infrastructure."
Asked what kind of mayor Petersen would be, Briere replies: "I'm not able to tell because she hasn't been on council long enough ... However, I haven't experienced her bring a new idea forward."
"I don't have anything bad to say about Sally," Kunselman says. "She's very considerate and thoughtful. [As mayor] she would be very nice."
Like Briere, Taylor says "I don't know what kind of leader [Petersen] would be because she's been on council less than a term" and leaves it at that.
Taylor says that "Ann Arbor needs what it's always needed: a mayor with the temperament, experience, [and] judgment to work together with residents and colleagues."
He figures he fits that bill: "I would be an engaged, thoughtful, and collaborative mayor, a leader with a positive vision for the city and an optimistic vision of the future, a leader devoted to preserving and improving the quality of life in Ann Arbor."
After two years as mayor, Taylor predicts, "if we have a forward-thinking council, I believe that we will continue to be financially sound, we will have taken environmental leadership to the next level, and we will have made real progress to address long-term infrastructure needs in our city--particularly in the areas of transportation, walkability, and storm water."
Petersen calls Taylor "the status quo candidate. Under him everything will be the same as Hieftje."
"Taylor is evolution from the top down," Briere says. "Christopher has stated he sees the last fourteen years as good, and he and I frequently agree on goals and means. But sometimes he's tone deaf to the community."
After Hieftje, Briere says, "we need a mayor who doesn't get too far out in front of [public opinion]. That's what happened with trains. [Hieftje] was too early off the starting block. We also need a mayor who doesn't carry personal animosity. I'm the only candidate who consistently collaborated with anybody."
At the end of her first term, Briere emails, "We will have better streets, sidewalks, storm water systems in the works. Council will represent differing views civilly and will work together to understand our community." And, she adds, "there will be no additional major projects (parking structures, buildings) planned."
Petersen contends that "Sabra would be much better as city councilmember than mayor. She's good at details and good with communications with constituents. But she's not a visionary, and I don't know if she gets the big picture."
"Sabra is thoughtful and engaged," Taylor allows. "However, she has described herself as wanting to reflect voters' views, and you can't just go whichever way the wind blows. The mayor needs to listen to all perspectives, then make an independent decision in the long-term interests of the city."
"We need a mayor interested in sharing power with a diverse electorate," says Kunselman, "a mayor who'll appoint people on commissions and committees of diverse opinions; who pursues public safety, health, and welfare as a priority and not progressive policies that cater to elites, like public art and speculative development on the Library and Y lots.
"I would be a tough, courageous, honest, and ethical mayor," continues Kunselman. "John Hieftje supporters tend to personally attack opponents, and no one was attacked more than me. That culture of Hieftje cronyism still exists, but I'm still trying to work with John Hieftje and Christopher Taylor, who campaigned against me. I collaborate, and I compromise, and I've never run a negative campaign, and I won't now. But I will stand up for myself."
Asked how the city would change in his first term as mayor, Kunselman is brief: "My goal as mayor is to have a noticeable visual difference with more roads repaved, more water mains replaced, beat cops patrolling downtown, and more street trees planted."
"Steve is excellent at bringing issues forward the rest of us could be complacent about," says Briere. "And he's frequently right. But Steve is not tolerant of other people, and he says things that are intemperate, like telling the library board that they are fearmongering. How does that move us forward?"
Petersen agrees with Kunselman that he would be "a courageous mayor. There's a lot of fight in him, which may be good in a city councilmember. But the mayor is not about the fight but about getting along with people you don't agree with."
Christopher Taylor has the biggest budget: he aims to raise and spend $60,000. He's also fielding sixty volunteers, the largest force reported by any candidate. His endorsers include former councilmembers Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, and Carsten Hohnke and retiring Fourth Ward councilmember Margie Teall.
Sally Hart Petersen expects to hit her $50,000 budget target and has sixteen volunteers. Her list of supporters includes Martha Bloom, past president of the Ann Arbor Junior League, and Monica Brancheau, development director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Washtenaw County. She says she hasn't sought endorsements from her colleagues because "I think it is prudent for sitting city council members to stay neutral."
Briere hopes to raise and spend between $20,000 and $50,000 and has about forty volunteers. Her list of community supporters includes Roger Hewitt of the Downtown Development Authority, Maura Thompson of the Main Street Area Association, and Campus Inn owner Dennis Dahlmann. But, like Petersen, "I did not ask council members to endorse me," she emails. "There is already entirely too much division on council, and I work with each councilmember."
Kunselman plans to raise just $10,000, and has ten or so volunteers. "I don't ask for community endorsements, only votes," he says. However, Kunselman leads the pack in backing by sitting councilmembers: he says Anglin, Eaton, Kailasapathy, and Lumm are all supporting his mayoral run.
Finally, we asked each candidate how they hope to win.
Taylor responds: "A progressive, practical plan for Ann Arbor. Committed campaign staff and volunteers. Hard work. An earned reputation for temperament, experience, and judgment."
"I am a grassroots campaigner," Briere says. "We are knocking on doors, talking with people ... Our campaign will win if we can reach enough voters with this vision of a city government that embraces Ann Arbor's diversity of thought rather than falling into more bitter, winner-take-all factionalism."
"There's a large part of [the] electorate that doesn't trust their interests have been acted upon" by city council in the past, Kunselman says, "and those are the folks I'm [aiming for]. I'm not going to win the Hieftje supporters."
Petersen is pithy--"keeping up the pace, relentless effort." She's also the only candidate who puts a number on victory in this four-way race: "My team predicts it will take 8,000 votes to win."
[Originally published in August, 2014.]
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