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End of an Era

Mayor Taylor won reelection. But his opponents won council.

by James Leonard, John Hilton

From the September, 2018 issue

A record 28,608 Ann Arborites cast votes in the August 7 Democratic mayoral primary. Of those, 16,867 were for Christopher Taylor. That was more than all the votes cast in 2014's four-way mayoral primary--the previous record turnout. Taylor beat Ward 4 councilmember Jack Eaton by a convincing 59 to 41 percent.

Yet those same voters rejected four of the five city council candidates Taylor supported. That faction--the Observer calls them the Activist Coalition--has controlled the city almost uninterrupted for eighteen years. Following November's general election, they'll be down to a four-vote minority.

That would seem to make Eaton and his allies--we call them the Back-to-Basics caucus--the new power on council.

"I disagree," says Eaton with a smile.

"I will admit that the change on council means the mayor doesn't have an automatic majority, but I'm not sure that anybody does," the three-term councilmember says in an interview at a park near his southwest-side home. "Each one of the candidates that beat an incumbent ran as being independent of anybody."

Not entirely independent. Eaton endorsed Kathy Griswold and Ali Ramlawi, who won in Wards Two and Five. He also walked doors with Alice Liberson, who nearly took Ward Three. And much of the challengers' anti-incumbent rhetoric echoed his.

Taylor's predecessor, John Hieftje, accepts Eaton's disclaimer: "I don't expect all the folks who were elected to vote lockstep with Jack," he says. "The current majority isn't in lockstep. Jack might say that, but no more than the other side."

Instead, the town's longest-serving mayor sees ambivalence in the razor-thin margins in three races and the closeness of a fourth. "If you turn around about three hundred votes [in three races], there'd be a different majority," Hieftje notes. "Reelecting the mayor shows the voters like the direction the city is going."

In an interview at his downtown law office, Taylor says he thinks he won because "I am a positive person, and I expressed a positive vision for how we can make

...continued below...

Ann Arbor better. I believe that aspirational message resonated."

"Every council candidate that won did better in their ward than I did," Eaton admits. He took only three of the city's fifty-three precincts--two in his home ward plus the First Ward's Foxfire subdivision, which borders the new developments on the old Nixon farm. The Activists approved those projects--and Eaton and his allies opposed them.


Both mayoral candidates say opposition to Donald Trump's presidency spurred more Democrats to vote. A three-way gubernatorial primary, a four-way state senate contest, and competitive races in all five city wards added fuel to the fire.

Most of those council contests were extremely close. The tightest was in Ward Two, where Kathy Griswold beat incumbent Kirk Westphal by just fifty-three votes. In Ward One, Jeff Hayner finished 130 votes ahead of Ron Ginyard, and in Ward Five, 162 votes put challenger Ramlawi ahead of incumbent Chuck Warpehoski. None of the winners got more than 51 percent of the vote.

The vote was close even in the Third Ward, Taylor and Hieftje's base, where Liberson came within 372 votes of beating incumbent Julie Grand. The only clear victory was in Eaton's Ward Four, where newcomer Elizabeth Nelson finished 1,069 votes ahead of incumbent Graydon Krapohl--even with the massive turnout, that worked out to a decisive 60-40 percent margin.

Just as remarkable was the races' ugliness. Ranging from the release of campaign donation forms showing Eaton taking money from the chair of the Michigan Republican Party to the posting of Hayner's inflammatory tweets and documents detailing Nelson's impersonation of a city official, these were easily the nastiest races since 2010, when mayoral challenger Pat Lesko said she'd prefer Satan to Hieftje.

Asked about the tweets, which seemed critical of abortion and gun control, Hayner emails that "I am pro-choice, and I have written many times about the need for, and suggested paths to, better gun control measures." Nelson emails that she has "no additional comment about my neighbors and what they did or didn't do."

Eaton is more forthcoming. He acknowledges taking $500 from state GOP chair (and U-M regent) Ron Weiser, and the same amount from Weiser's wife Eileen, a Republican member of the state board of education. "My campaign sent a fund raising letter to many residents who are active in our community, including the Weisers," he emails. It also paid to circulate a letter from former mayor Ingrid Sheldon and former council candidate John Floyd urging moderate Republicans to cross over and vote for him.

An anonymous group bought the web domain and used it to post a slick website attacking him. A union-backed group mailed flyers detailing the purported flaws of four challengers, three running for council and one for county commissioner (see "End of a Dynasty?"). Many of the same attacks appeared on the Facebook page of the Michigan Talent Agenda, run by former state house candidate Ned Staebler. "Negative ads are effective," Staebler says. "They turn some people off, but the data shows it works."

Maybe. But Eaton says, "it would be a terrible turn of events if that was the kind of campaigns we face in the future."


The two most contentious issues in the campaign were development and the poor state of roads. Eaton says that the new council will look at "our $108 million general fund budget and our $200 million capital improvement budget [and] find a way to make the road repairs happen sooner and better."

The longest-running development fight is over the "Library Lot," the space atop the Library Lane underground parking structure. Last year, the Activists voted to sell the right to build there to Chicago developer Core Spaces for $10 million; the company plans a seventeen-story building on the site. Though the proposal includes a public plaza, Eaton and others think the entire space should be a park; a charter amendment to mandate that is on the fall ballot.

Eaton says that what happens there "will depend on what the voters say in November. Our charter is our governing document, so whatever the charter says is binding on council." Taylor disputes that. "Our Charter is subordinate to state law," he writes. "It is not clear to me that the ballot language has force under Michigan law." They even disagree on whether the sale to Core Spaces is a done deal.

Both questions are being litigated by the project's opponents, and both are sure to come before council again.

The Activists still have a couple of months to try to advance Core Spaces and other projects. The new members won't take office until after the general election in November--when Democratic primary winners normally coast to victory in this deep-blue town. At that point, the initiative will pass to Eaton and his allies.

Whatever happens, Taylor says, "I will respect residents and colleagues and treat them with openness and good cheer, whether we agree or disagree. People in Ann Arbor continue to want a positive constructive leadership at City Hall, and that's what I intend to provide."

Good cheer will be harder to sustain once he's on the short end of seven-to-four votes. But Taylor's mayoral veto gives him bargaining power the Back-to-Basics Caucus lacked when the odds were reversed.

Eaton says he hopes the new council will work together on "improved basic services. All of our infrastructure, our water mains, our sewers, are in sad shape." Since infrastructure has been an Activist theme since the Hieftje era, there should be room for agreement there.

Hieftje predicts that things will work out because "Christopher is very tolerant of other viewpoints and very invested in doing what's best for the city."

Unlike Hieftje, though, Taylor's also very willing to take sides in council campaigns, working to support allies and remove opponents. But any counterattack will take longer this time.

In the past, councilmembers served two-year terms, with half of council up for reelection every year. But the folks elected last year are serving three-year terms, and won't be up for reelection till 2020. And starting this year, all terms will be for four years--which means August's winners can't be challenged till 2022.


While there were nuances in each of the five council races, the biggest issue was development. Ginyard in Ward One and Kirk Westphal in Ward Two both lost their races in precincts bordering Nixon Rd. Hayner got 61 percent of the vote in the two precincts just west of Nixon, and Griswold got 59 percent in the precinct to the east.

"I concentrated where there was development," says Griswold. "I also did well in Jane Lumm's [Ann Arbor Hills] neighborhood. Republicans voted in the Democrat primary. I'm sure they did."

Ramlawi opposed the Library Lane structure and opposes the Core Spaces project atop it, but says that's not why he beat Warpehoski. "Development wasn't the big issue in my ward. It was basic services," he says. "But we still have development issues with downtown."

Hayner still faces an independent, democratic socialist Ryan Hughes, in November. While some Activists are already backing Hughes, as the Democratic Party candidate Hayner can count on a tide of straight-ticket votes in state and national races.

Assuming Hayner wins, he and Griswold, Ramlawi, and Nelson will join incumbents Eaton, Lumm, and Anne Bannister to form a new council majority. At that point, responsibility for getting the roads fixed will fall to them--though just how, Hayner writes, is "a question for City Administrator Lazarus, whom the council directs."

Griswold would do more. "I am going to start studying the budget," she says. "I want to get better metrics from staff."

Ramlawi says he'd spend the entire balance in the road repair fund, "and continue to apply pressure to city officials."

So would Griswold. "This is one of the most dysfunctional organizations I've ever encountered," she says of city hall. "I want to focus on greater accountability and more transparency from staff and hold staff accountable. Howard Lazarus is capable of getting the job done, but he lost track when he started counting votes on council."

End of a Dynasty?

"You clobbered me," Washtenaw County commissioner Conan Smith wrote on his Facebook page to congratulate challenger Katie Scott.

Scott got 66 percent of the vote in the Ninth District-a victory she attributes to talking to close to 2,000 people.

"The doors were the campaign," she says, while on break from her job as an ICU nurse. She says just 5 percent of the folks she spoke with even knew what the county commission was.

Smith says he lost because he "wasn't prepared for the tremendous uptick in voters. I talked to 8,000 people, but it wasn't enough."

The fourteen-year county board veteran says Scott beat him "with great civility and friendliness." But mailers from the Great Lakes Renaissance Fund focused on his failed 2016 bid to head the county's Office of Community and Economic Development. Though he ultimately resigned from the board to pursue the job and was later reelected to the board, the ensuing controversy dogged Smith-though he doesn't think it cost him the election. "My loss is a part of the powerful force for women in office this year," he says.

Smith is the grandson of Al Wheeler, Ann Arbor's first black mayor. His mother, Alma Wheeler Smith, served in both the state house and the state senate, while his aunt Nancy Wheeler was a judge for decades. Does Smith's defeat mark the end of the family dynasty?

Not at all, he says. Even if he never runs again, he says, "I've got nephews! I've got several second cousins! My mom is still out there!"

Back to Lansing

The four-way race for the Democratic nomination in the State Senate District Eighteen was another cliff-hanger: former state rep Jeff Irwin squeaked past county commissioner Michelle Deatrick by just 241 votes-less than one half of 1 percent of the 55,845 votes cast.

In a year when women ran strongly, it's not the exception it might seem: fitness entrepreneur Anuja Rajendra got 14,673 votes, compared to just 1,597 for the other white male in the race, WCC student Matthew Miller. Between them, Deatrick and Rajendra got 61 percent of the vote.

Though Irwin still faces Republican Martin Church, he's probably not sweating that one. In 2014, Rebekah Warren got 72 percent of the vote in this deep-blue district.

Warren, who's term-limited in the senate, steamrollered Shauna McNally with 77 percent of the vote to win the nomination in House District Fifty-Five. Republican primary winner Bob Baird should do better than McNally in November, but Warren's on track to two final years in Lansing.


This article has been edited since it was published in the September 2018 Ann Arbor Observer. Elizabeth Nelson's winning percentage, and our characterization of its decisiveness, have been corrected.     (end of article)

[Originally published in September, 2018.]


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