Return of the GOP
The Tea Party revives a moribund party
Once all this was Republican.
For all but fourteen of the seventy years before 2000, Ann Arbor's mayors were Republicans, and so were its city councils. But Republican Ingrid Sheldon saw the demographic ground shift beneath her feet in the 1990s, and council turned completely Democratic during the 2000s.
The same trend held true in Washtenaw County. Though the county's west side still remains resolutely Republican, the county commission is dominated by Democrats. And after having been Republican from time immemorial, every countywide elected post, from sheriff to clerk, is now held by a Democrat.
"Ann Arbor Republicans had a defeatist mindset," says Stuart Berry, a Republican running in Ward Five. "The feeling was we were so far outnumbered in the general election that why bother running."
The mindset changed after the 2008 election and the rise of the Tea Party movement. "That's where the energy is coming from," says Stan Watson, a Republican running for country clerk. The limited-government activists, he says, are "strong on what they believe in, they stand their ground, and they're not going away."
So far, energy hasn't meant victory. Even after a big push in 2010, the only Republicans on the county board are from the west, and the only non-Democrat on the city council is Republican-turned-independent Jane Lumm. Of the four Republicans who ran in Ann Arbor in the last two years, only one got more than a quarter of the vote.
Yet this year, the party is fielding candidates for four of the five countywide offices, all nine county commission seats, and for a city council seat in Ann Arbor. That's the highest total of candidates in the past ten years, and all but one is actively campaigning.
The exception is Jeff Gallatin. Though listed on the ballot as a candidate for sheriff, Gallatin has no website and declines to reply to questions. While that makes it hard to know why the local landlord wants to be sheriff, it makes it easy to guess that
incumbent Jerry Clayton will win a second four-year term.
"The Washtenaw County Sheriff's Office has made tremendous improvement in terms of community leadership, building and sustaining the strong partnerships necessary to create a community environment of enhanced public safety, and improved quality of life," emails Clayton. "I hope that all the voters in Washtenaw County will vote for me regardless of political party affiliation because they believe I have done a good job as sheriff."
No recent challenger for mayor of Ann Arbor has gotten more than 30 percent of the vote. No one expects that to change in 2012.
As a self-described conservative Republican, Albert Howard ran almost-invisible campaigns for president in 2008 and for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Last year, the pastor of the Ann Arbor Different Church ran on a nonpartisan ballot for Ann Arbor school board. He got just 3.4 percent of the vote.
This year, Howard is running for mayor as an independent. He declined to be interviewed in person, consenting only to answer questions by email. Asked why he wants to be mayor, Howard responded that he's running by "Divine Order," after having a vision of "[Mayor] Hieftje ... as Pharaoh." If elected, he writes, he'll declare a "moratorium on all building projects including bus & train stations & library" and "bring AAPD and AAFD back up to national safety standards."
None of the politicians the Observer spoke to expects Howard to hit even 30 percent. They predict that John Hieftje will easily win a seventh term, surpassing Bill Brown (1947-1956) as the longest serving mayor in Ann Arbor's history.
"I want to see the city get through the worst financial crisis since the thirties," Hieftje says. "I'm optimistic but cautious that we've turned the corner. The city is in a solid budget position, and if we can get next year's budget under our belts, we can grow a little.
"I see us getting back to 750 [employees] at some point in the next five or ten years, but I'm not going to still be here. I'm staying until I'm sure we've turned the corner."
When it comes to Ann Arbor's heavily Democratic city council wards, even Tea Party evangelists seem to falter. Republicans are represented in only one race.
Republican Stuart Berry calls his first bid for council last year, when he got 20 percent of the vote, a "learning opportunity." He says he's running this year in west-side Ward Five because "too many on council think of expanding government and expanding taxation ... I would be another voice on council like Jane Lumm. She's been a breath of fresh air fighting for limited government."
Democrat Chuck Warpehoski believes that "what most residents want is that government provide the core services they depend on: safe streets, trash and recycling pickup, safety services, and so on. My job, if elected, will be to make sure these services function as best they can as we continue to rebuild from the after-effects of the housing bubble, the loss of Pfizer, and the reduction of state revenue sharing."
This year, reenergized Republicans are running candidates in all nine county commission districts. Do they really expect to win? "Yes, I do believe so," replies local party chairman John Taylor, "though we have some tough races ahead of us, to say the least."
Ann Arbor's three districts will be among the toughest. Their candidate in east-side District Seven, Dave Parker, got just 21 percent of the vote when he ran for city council last year. Parker says he's trying again "to offer people choices. Ann Arbor is diverse in a lot of ways but not politically."
Democrat Andy LaBarre says he wants to "reform the way we budget for human services. We don't need more, but we would be better off as a community if we had more. [But] we need to do a better job budgeting for them."
The race in District Eight, downtown, campus, and points south, will be just as difficult for the Republican. Joe Baublis ran here two years ago, and got just 24 percent of the vote. In an email Baublis predicts that "over the next few years it will become increasingly apparent to the county residents that their commissioners have not been representing their interests but rather the interests of the government."
Democratic incumbent Yousef Rabhi emails that he wants another term because "I believe that the county has come a long way in the areas of sustainability, fiscal responsibility, social and economic justice, collaboration and community outreach and inclusion, but there is so much more work to do!"
While Parker and Baublis come out of the Tea Party movement, the challenger in the west-side District Nine is an old-style Republican. That distinction didn't make a difference when John Floyd ran for city council in 2010 and got 22 percent of the vote. Floyd says he's running again because "this seat was uncontested, it's in my ward, and without contested elections, it's Soviet-style elections." Floyd says if elected "my job will be to make sure there is a wider range of voices around the table, fresh voices, and not just the same political elite."
Conan Smith, a third-generation Ann Arbor politician, believes he should be elected to a fifth term because "I've helped keep [county finances] stable through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and pushed innovative programming to sustain key services. We're only just getting started with the good stuff."
Republicans also are fielding candidates for four of the five countywide elected offices--and a Libertarian is running for the fifth. But since 70 percent of county voters typically go Democratic in presidential years, none of the incumbents is sweating.
Democrat Larry Kestenbaum has been County Clerk since 2005. "Through emphasis on customer service, transparency, improving technology, and legislative advocacy at the state level, I think I have made a positive difference in the life of Washtenaw County and the state," he emails. Republican Stan Watson has never held elected office, but says he's running now because "I'd like to put balance into the county and thought I could help the younger Republicans put forward the new Republican Party."
Evan Pratt hasn't held elected office either, but the Democratic candidate for Water Resource Commissioner emails that he has an environmental engineering degree and "over 23 years' experience designing and managing drain projects, stream restoration and other water resource projects." Republican Eric Scheie comes from the libertarian end of the Republican Party and earned a respectable 40 percent of the vote when he ran for city council in 2010. He says he's running again because "unopposed elections lead to a sense of arrogance," and chose water commissioner because he's "very concerned about water quality."
Marlene Chockley, the GOP candidate for county treasurer, is a former three-term county commissioner. "I'm running to make people aware of the impact property taxes have on people," Chockley says. "It's a question of, do we care for ourselves rather than have the government do it for us? I think property taxes should go down. The government's grown too big."
Democrat Catherine McClary has held the treasurer's job since 1996, and was a seven-term county commissioner before that. "I have a strong track record of helping prevent foreclosure and protecting public funds and county assets," emails McClary. "I have the experience, expertise, and knowledge to fulfill the duties of County Treasurer."
Libertarian attorney Justin Altman, running for prosecuting attorney, is also for limited government--but with a very specific focus: Altman, who passed the bar last year, charges that incumbent Democrat Brian Mackie has "shown he'll follow the orders of the attorney general in prosecuting medical marijuana." Mackie, prosecutor since 1993, says he doesn't take orders from the attorney general, and doesn't prosecute people who follow the law on medical marijuana. "My opponent is probably a fine person," Mackie says, "but being prosecuting attorney of a county with almost 350,000 people is not a job for a brand new lawyer."
If the Tea Party candidates can't win, why bother to run? The answer is that just putting their names on the ballot advances their views within the local Republican party.
According to chairman John Taylor, all fourteen people running for public office this year will automatically get a seat on the Washtenaw County Republican party's twenty-two member executive board.
With that majority, Taylor says, "we will hopefully move the opinion and the views of the county party towards what we believe the Republican Party should represent ideally, that the Republican Party believes in individual liberties and individual accomplishment, and that this country needs a responsible government."
For that, losing elections seems a small price to pay. "Some of us are going to get beat up," Watson admits. "But it has to be done. We need to start to climb back as a party locally. We've got to get our views out there, and for that, we need to get our people running."
[Originally published in November, 2012.]