Asked why no one is opposing his reelection, Christopher Taylor responds with a broad smile.
From the August, 2016 issue
"Being mayor of Ann Arbor is a great job."
So why don't more people want it?
"I don't know," Taylor says. "I'm delighted to be serving."
There are primary races in three of the city's five wards (see feature, p. 29). But that's down from four last year--and Mayor Taylor has plenty of company on the glide path to reelection. The county clerk, treasurer, prosecuting attorney, water resource commissioner, and sheriff also face no challengers. Nor is there any competition for Ann Arbor's seats on the county board of commissioners--not even for the seat being vacated by Yousef Rabhi, who's running for state rep; Jason Morgan is unopposed to succeed him. [There are primaries in Chelsea and Ypsilanti districts.]
Taylor has received high marks for his collegiality while still taking controversial positions, most notably as the only councilmember to vote against the deer cull. Why hasn't that worked against him?
"On the big issues, I believe that I see eye-to-eye with most of council and most Ann Arbor residents," he says. "Where I disagree with councilmembers on particular issues, I strive to remain agreeable. I try to listen carefully to all sides, explain my conclusions, and avoid denigrating those who see things differently than me. People appreciate that approach."
It's also true that the deer cull has proved less potent politically than opponents had hoped. "I would like to see Kirk Westphal ousted," a cull critic told the Observer last spring. "Chuck Warpehoski needs to go for sure." Warpehoski's opponent, Keven Leeser, opposes the cull, but is primarily running on traffic safety issues. No anti-cull challengers materialized for Westphal. "I was really surprised," says Westphal.
Westphal thinks that his ward's large deer population may be one reason he's unchallenged: "It's a divided issue citywide, but Ward Two is much less divided." But he also frames it in a larger context: "People are generally happy with the quality of life here, and that dissuades folks who run to address specific problems. It
also takes a certain amount of pluck to knock on thousands of doors."
Though it's made his life easier, the one-term rep is concerned about what the lack of opposition implies. "Overall interest in local issues is pretty low--and many of us wish there were more," he says. "We've had problems filling positions on city boards and commissions," and those positions in the past have "led to people to serve on council."
After defeating incumbent Steve Kunselman and a third candidate to win her seat in 2014, "I thought I was going to have a challenger until 3:59 on filing day," says Third Ward rep Julie Grand. But none appeared, and Grand can think of reasons why not. "I spent $4,000 last time. That's a significant barrier. Plus the job requires time, flexibility, and lots of support from family."
Grand echoes Westphal about the absence of anti-cull candidates: "A candidate has to be knowledgeable about not just a single issue but about a range of issues." She also thinks that's why no one has emerged to claim Kunselman's role as an anti-elitist people's tribune: "It's a narrow message with limited appeal."
County prosecutor Brian Mackie won the first time he ran in 1992 and has since had just one primary challenger and three general election opponents. "Four years ago I faced a lawyer who was brand-new and thought it would be a good entry-level job," Mackie laughs--though he also suggests the reason he's so infrequently challenged is that "maybe people view the job as undesirable."
With his quarter century in politics, Mackie remembers a time when "both the Republicans and the Democrats felt they had to put up a challenger for every office. Maybe elected office is seen as not attractive any more. Still you would like to see some excitement."
"I hope it's a measure of confidence in the job I'm doing," says county commissioner Andy LaBarre of the lack of challengers for his job. While admitting he could be "totally wrong," his guess is that "folks feel the people they have in [office] are responsive and in line with their views on local government."
Jason Morgan, former head of government relations at Washtenaw Community College, is virtually guaranteed to succeed Yousef Rabhi on the county board in large part because he'd checked out the situation before declaring. "I asked many people from diverse political backgrounds--Leah Gunn, Kathy Griswold, Sabra Briere, David Cahill, the mayor, Julie Grand--and I didn't encounter any opposition. Yousef was one of the first people I spoke with. I'd known many of these folks for years, since I worked for Congressman [John] Dingell."
Like Westphal and LaBarre, Morgan believes there are fewer contests because "people see things in our community as going very well. When the incumbents are listening to their constituents that discourages some people from running against them. Not a lot of people want to run against somebody they think is doing a great job."
Given the upheavals in this year's presidential election, though, is it really possible that the local electorate is uniformly happy with the way things are going politically?
"I don't think it's broad-based delight," says LaBarre. "In Washtenaw County, there is a sense that many of the problems we face are as a result of the government at the state level."
"That people are satisfied would be marvelous," says Mackie. "That's hard for me to believe. Maybe they're complacent. Maybe they've given up."
This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. Kevin Leeser's opposition to the deer cull, and an acknowledgement of competitive county board primaries in Chelsea and Ypsilanti, have been added.
Calls and letters
Former Third Ward councilmember Steve Kunselman called to correct an error in our Inside Ann Arbor about officeholders unopposed for re-election ("No Contest," August): we'd said that Julie Grand defeated him to win her seat in 2014. "Julie Grand lost to me in 2013," Kunselman pointed out. "She won an open seat in 2014."
[Originally published in August, 2016.]
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