The November 8 city election
State and national politicians get a bye in odd-numbered years, but in Ann Arbor, half of the city council stands for election every November. Since the mid-2000s, when the city's last moderate Republicans switched parties, the November election has been pretty much a formality: the winner of the August Democratic primary has typically advanced unchallenged. But as city budget cuts bite deeper, four wards are contested this year--three by Republicans aligned with the conservative Tea Party movement, and one by a former Republican councilmember hoping to reclaim her seat as an independent.
For the first time in eight years, Ann Arbor's experiment with single-party rule is being contested.
After city council became totally Democratic in 2004, only one seat was contested in the general election over the next six years. Then last year, a Republican and an independent ran. And this year, a remarkable four council seats are being contested on Tuesday, November 8--three by Republicans and one by an independent.
Two trends are converging. One is that people who once identified themselves as moderate Republicans began running as Democrats or independents. This year, two of the incumbents and the independent candidate are former Republicans. The second trend is that more-conservative candidates have stepped forward to run on the GOP line: all three of this year's Republican challengers share Tea Party associations.
Last year, three Tea Party Republicans ran against Democratic incumbents for county commission. None got much more than a quarter of the vote, and it's unlikely any will win council races this year. But in Ward 2, Republican-turned-independent Jane Lumm is supported by both dissident Democrats and neighbors incensed at what they saw as incumbent Stephen Rapundalo's insufficient commitment to Huron Hills Golf Course. More technocrat than campaigner, Republican-turned-Democrat Rapundalo barely survived a write-in challenge by Huron Hills neighbors two years ago. With no national or state election to turn out the Democratic vote, he could be vulnerable again this year.
In Ward Two, not only are incumbent Stephen
Rapundalo and challenger Jane Lumm both former Republicans, but both have run unsuccessfully for mayor against John Hieftje: Rapundalo in 2000, Lumm in 2004. Rapundalo ran for council as a Democrat in 2005 and won by a 52 percent margin. He kept his seat by that same slim margin against write-in candidate Ed Amonsen in 2007, was unopposed in 2009, and weathered another primary challenge this year.
Jane Lumm represented the Second Ward as a Republican from 1993 until 1998, when she gave up her seat to run for state representative, only to lose in the primary. Lumm says she's running again because "the city has lost touch with the residents and with what the taxpayers value and are willing to pay for. We have to recalibrate our spending priorities. We have to provide basic services, and public safety should be job one. And since councilmember Rapundalo took office, it's been straight cuts for police and fire."
Asked why she's no longer a Republican, Lumm, fifty-eight, replies, "Look what's happened to the Republican Party. It's moved to the right of me. I'm fiscally conservative but socially progressive."
Stephen Rapundalo, fifty-three, says he's no fan of cutting safety services. "But we have to balance the budget, and the unions have been pretty stubborn about making concessions. I don't want to see any more cuts." He's no fan of Lumm's either. "When she was on council, the fund balance fell--in boom times--and the infrastructure crumbled." Lumm disputes that, pointing out that the fund balance more than doubled during her three terms in office.
Asked why he switched parties, Rapundalo says, "Philosophically, I don't know how much I switched, but anybody who knows Jane knows she's a hardcore Republican. I wasn't the same shape Republican as Jane then--never was, never will be."
Ward Three is a more straightforward match between a Democrat and a Republican. But as incumbent Steve Kunselman says, "I'm certainly not part of the majority, though I don't consider myself part of the minority. Let's just say there are independents on council, and we recognize things a little differently."
First elected in 2006, Kunselman lost a 2008 primary to a challenger more sympathetic to the mayor. Two years ago, he won a three-way primary by just six votes; this year, he beat back two primary challengers by a solid 59 percent margin.
"When I came, it was 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'" says Kunselman, forty-eight. "Then they tried to take me out. Now I'm a seasoned veteran with some cynicism." This cynicism extends to many things backed by the mayor: "I disagree with him when he gets beyond public health, safety, and welfare."
Challenger Dave Parker has never run for public office before and says he's running because "I believe it's important to have choices. Right now, whatever Democrat wins the primary is the winner. In government, we spend too much money concentrating on the wrong things. We should concentrate on public safety--not public art."
Parker, fifty-six, describes himself as "a Republican moving towards Libertarian." He's also listed as a member of the Willow Run Tea Party Caucus. "We have to keep taxes as low as we can," he says, "so we have to be efficient and keep to the main purpose of city government: public safety. We've been going in the wrong direction for a decade. But crime keeps growing, and we have to keep the police and firefighters we have now." When reminded that crime has been falling for the past decade, Parker responds that he expects it to go back up again in the future.
In Ward Four, the once-Republican Democratic incumbent faces a "small-L libertarian" Republican challenger. Marcia Higgins served three terms on council as a Republican, starting in 1999, switched parties in 2005, and has since served three more terms as a Democrat. Higgins says she switched because "I was asked to leave by a Republican. And the next thing, I got a call from the Dems asking me to join."
Higgins, sixty-one, notes that if she's reelected, she'll have served on council longer than anyone in recent memory. She says she's running again "because we're at a pivotal point in Ann Arbor. We've laid good financial groundwork. We've cut but maintained services. Now the question is 'How do we move forward?' And I want to be part of that conversation."
"If you're a Republican, you've got to hide in a closet because of the vilification of Republicans in Ann Arbor," says first-time candidate Eric Sheie. I want the freedom to be a Republican."
Sheie says he's running "because Bill Bigler asked me to." Bigler, a key player in several local Tea Party groups, encouraged the three Republican challengers in last year's county commissioner race and was campaign chair of the Washtenaw County Republican Party until he resigned in September.
"I don't like government messing with my life," says Sheie, fifty-seven. "It should concentrate on basic services like police and fire and road repair, and this city likes grandiose projects like the Fuller [Road] transit station. This administration doesn't have any restraint and not enough accountability."
The Ward Five contest resembles Ward Three's: each has an independent Democratic incumbent and a libertarian Republican challenger. Mike Anglin ousted a pro-Hieftje incumbent in the 2007 primary and beat back a challenge from a pro-Hieftje candidate two years ago. His opposition to the new police-courts building and the "library lot" parking structure took him outside the mayor's majority before he took office, and he's stayed there temperamentally ever since.
But Anglin, sixty-seven, rejects the notion that there's a factional split on council. "It makes for a better story, but the truth is we agree on all major issues. For example, we all agree on rebuilding of the infrastructure. But while I think the Fuller Road transit center is a fantastic idea, we're expanding the AATA now, and we can't afford to do both. Sometimes, we have to be content with what we've got."
Challenger Stuart Berry, like Parker and Sheie, has never run for public office before. He's doing so now "because we have to get the government back under the control of the people." And like Scheie, Berry got the impetus to run from Tea Party organizer Bill Bigler. "I like his vision--and I share it."
As Berry explains, "My vision of government is that they do basic jobs well, and one of those jobs is police and fire protection. Yet in Ann Arbor these basic services are not being met. Earlier this year, the council finalized a budget that laid off police and firefighters. This can't be right. They say there's less crime, but we don't know if there's a one-to-one correlation.
"We need a new voice on city council with a different opinion," concludes Berry, fifty-four. "Right now, all ten members and the mayor are Democrats, and there's very little public discussion of the issues."
Based on last year's showing, it's doubtful that Berry, Parker, and Sheie will ever sit on council. But how well they do will be a measure of the Tea Party's local appeal. And if Lumm wins, it will be the end of one-party rule in Ann Arbor.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the November 2011 Ann Arbor Observer. Jane Lumm's response to Stephen Rapundalo's statement about the city fund balance has been added.
[Originally published in November, 2011.]