The Activist Coalition vs. the Back-to-Basics Caucus
From the September, 2014 issue
Kirk Westphal was puzzled. In October 2013, he got a mass email from Chuck Gelman inviting people to "attend the democratic [party] meeting and support jane lumm or the candidate of your choice. this [meeting] is an attempt to get party support for the mayor's 'boy'."
Since he was then running against independent Jane Lumm in the Second Ward, Westphal knew that Gelman meant him. What puzzled him wasn't the message--as the city's planning commission chair, he often heard from Gelman, who lives downtown--it was the idea that the Ann Arbor Democratic Party might endorse a non-Democrat. "I thought the mission of the Democratic Party is to support Democrats," he says.
Though Westphal had already been backed by the party's executive committee, that decision could be overturned by a supermajority vote at the next general meeting. "I was alarmed," says longtime Democratic activist and former water resources commissioner Janis Bobrin. She saw the message as "an effort to subvert the party by endorsing a so-called independent instead of a Democrat." To block that, "I attended and encouraged friends to attend as well.
"When I walked into the room [at the Ann Arbor Community Center] there was a lot of anger on the floor," Bobrin recalls. "There was a clear effort to endorse Jane Lumm. First there was the motion to rescind Kirk's endorsement from Jack Eaton that we presumed was prefatory to an effort to endorse Jane.
"But the votes were not there, and the motion failed," Bobrin continues. "This was only the case because many good Democrats showed up to prevent it. Why have a city party if we give endorsements to anybody who shows up? Next time, why not Republican or Libertarian?"
Eaton points out that he never asked the Democrats to endorse Lumm: "I made a motion from the floor that the party remain neutral and nothing more. There were a lot of Democrats supporting Jane Lumm, and it seemed divisive to me to offer him the endorsement.
And to do an endorsement in an executive board meeting seemed sneaky and underhanded."
"The executive committee endorsed Kirk Westphal because he was the Democratic candidate," responds local chair Mike Henry. "The idea that the Ann Arbor Democratic Party would not endorse the only Democrat against an independent who presents like a Republican is bizarre to me."
That's how it goes in Ann Arbor politics these days. The last serious campaign by a Republican was in 2004, when Lumm challenged Democratic mayor John Hieftje--and lost 70 percent to 30 percent. After that debacle, Republican councilmembers Stephen Rapundalo and Marcia Higgins became Democrats to keep their seats. Lumm defeated Rapundalo to return to council in 2009--but she ran as an independent, not a Republican.
A Republican would call every local Democrat a progressive. But during primary elections, the local party splits in two. One faction--we'll call it the the Activist Coalition--seeks to shape the city of the future through initiatives like public art and mass transit. The other--the Back-to-Basics Caucus--worries more about preserving the character of the city of the present; its members see many of the activists' ideas as frills that steal time and money from essentials like public safety and sewers.
Such differences once played out on party lines. "In 1961 the whole city council was Republican, including the mayor," points out Democrat Larry Kestenbaum, �Washtenaw County clerk and politics buff. By the end of that decade, however, "Ann Arbor had acquired a national reputation for being radical and liberal--and the perception fueled the reality ... Ann Arbor is now and by a large margin more liberal than it has ever been. A Democrat couldn't lose an election in Ann Arbor."
Actually, it's happened twice: in 2011, when Lumm beat Rapundalo, and last year, when she successfully defended her seat against Westphal. On council she's an integral member of the back-to-basics coalition.
Many local politicians reckon the local parties are all but useless. "Other than creating a structure for city politics, the parties don't have the critical function they once did," says Kestenbaum, once the local Democratic Party's vice-chair.
"I don't know that [the Ann Arbor Democratic party] has a function anymore," Mayor Hieftje agrees. "There's no candidate vetting at all in the primary or the general elections."
"The city Democratic Party does not push issues," says councilmember Christopher Taylor, who as the winner of August's Democratic primary is all but certain to be the next mayor (see Inside Ann Arbor, p. 11). "The city party is a home for conversation rather than a generator of conversation."
"The Ann Arbor Democratic Party is not very effective," Eaton writes in an email. "In a City with tens of thousands of voters who vote for Democratic candidates, the party has a member list of a couple thousand."
"Our primary function is to educate the entire community about Democratic values," Mike Henry says. "We also do some vetting [of candidates] at our meetings, but it's a very organic process, and everybody is included."
Local Republicans are understandably unhappy with the present alignments. "National political parties are distractions from local issues," says John Floyd, who's running for the county commission against Conan Smith in November. "In my experience, sometimes people vote in municipal elections based not so much on research on a local candidate's ideas or positions on public art, public land, or potholes, as on the position that national parties take on national or international issues."
It's certainly true that a lot of folks vote straight Democratic, especially in even-numbered years, when local races share the ballot with state and national ones. "The race for mayor is decided in the primary, so people who vote in the general elections are effectively disenfranchised," says Floyd, who's never gotten more than 22 percent of the vote in three campaigns as a Republican. "Our elections here have more in common with the Chinese Communist Party."
Washtenaw County Republican Party secretary Dave Parker ran for city council in 2011 and county commission in 2012. But he didn't think he'd win. "I knew I'd get twenty-one percent of the vote," he says. "I'm a Republican, and some people hate me just for that. They could run Donald Duck against me, and he'd win."
As the Republican-Democratic divide broke down, Kestenbaum says, "factions started to form. And now we have factions and contested primaries, and the Democratic Party is just a bystander."
When Christopher Taylor decided to get into politics in 2008, he was surprised to learn that he didn't need anyone's blessing. "It never occurred to me that I'd have the option to run for city council," the attorney admits. "I thought there was a door you had to get through. But once I realized there was no door, that running for city council was plainly available, I went for it."
Taylor beat incumbent Steve Kunselman and quickly aligned himself with Mayor Hieftje's activist coalition. Kunselman came back the next year, defeating pro-Hieftje incumbent Leigh Greden to take the ward's other seat. He's since been Hieftje's harshest council critic.
Hieftje believes that self-declared candidates and intraparty contests are "the inevitable evolution of the system. There's no competition between Democrats and Republicans, so the competition is between Democrats and Democrats."
"Nothing has taken the place of the party," Taylor says, "but there are loose coalitions, affiliations of people with like views on how Ann Arbor should move forward."
Most August primary candidates described the current council as split, with Hieftje, Taylor, Margie Teall, and Chuck Warpehoski on one side and Eaton, Mike Anglin, Sumi Kailasapathy, Kunselman, and Lumm on the other. Eaton agrees there's a split--but says its effect on most issues is minimal.
"There is one local Democratic Party and, as is the usual case with Democrats, the factions of the party struggle to have their point of view prevail in our primaries," he emails. "[But] the vast majority of issues that come before the Council are decided by unanimous or near unanimous votes. Even when there is a split vote, there are not always automatic coalitions. When Council voted on whether to buy the Edwards Brothers property, a very divided vote had Jane Lumm and John Hieftje on the same side."
Mike Henry agrees with Eaton about that: "Most of city council agrees on most things. There are only one or two decisions each month where they disagree, and those become magnified."
The disagreements that get magnified often involve the city's most divisive issues: public safety and development.
As part of a 30 percent reduction in city staff during his tenure, Hieftje oversaw deep cuts in the number of police officers and firefighters. The back-to-�basics politicians believe that the cuts went too deep--and need to be reversed in the name of public safety.
With crime at historic lows, �Hieftje instists that the city is safer than ever �before--and charges that his opponents "use public safety as a campaign tool to motivate people with fear."
"The Hieftje coalition looks at public safety from a results-based perspective," Taylor says. "Others tend to look at head count. They say we don't have as many cops and firefighters as we used to have, and therefore we need more."
Hieftje likewise stakes out a strong position on development. "The only way a city can keep its head above water without raising taxes is to have some growth. Growth got us through the recession without raising taxes when other cities in Michigan did, including Grand Rapids."
Taylor agrees. "To continue to provide service, the tax base needs to expand, and I believe it can be done in a manner consistent with Ann Arbor's character. The other coalition is less comfortable with change."
"I want development," Eaton responds. "It provides jobs, a source of renewal, [but I] want it to fit the character of the site and overall city ... Some councilmembers support any and all development. The other faction, with whom I would identify most closely, places the highest priority on providing neighborhood residents with the public services and essential infrastructure that they need, want, and deserve."
Kestenbaum compares Hieftje with California governor Jerry Brown--"environmentally conscious, fiscally prudent, and relatively comfortable with business. The other coalition is more typical of southeast Michigan: cautious, �neighborhood-oriented, pro-union, and pro-law enforcement.
"There's some validity to the progressive versus conservative labels," Kestenbaum continues. "Eaton et al are more conservative on many issues, but they're only conservative in the context of Ann Arbor."
"Progressive Democrats say we can do everything for everybody, but conservative Democrats are what we call sane," says Republican Dave Parker. "I ran against Kunselman, and you can see there was common sense conservatism there."
The only contested city race in November will be visceral independent Bryan Kelly's long-shot run for mayor against Christopher Taylor. So will the August Democratic primaries always determine who holds office in Ann Arbor?
"I don't see near-term likelihood of change," says Taylor. "The vast majority of voters are Democrats, and there will therefore not be an opportunity for a party system to have a real influence and role in local government."
The only way that might change is if someone actually tries to implement a long-discussed move to nonpartisan November elections.
"Elections should be held in November because only a third of the voters show up in August," John Floyd argues. "The old forms are hollowed out, and partisan primaries have become archaic. Ann Arbor is behind the times."
"Discussion has begun about possible changes and alternatives to Ann Arbor's current election process," Jane Lumm emails. "Some alternatives floated are pretty complicated with runoffs, optional partisan declarations, or even having voters rank the candidates. Seems to me a much simpler fix that accomplishes the primary objective--having more voters participate--would be to conduct non-partisan local elections in November. I'll be advocating for that going forward."
No one has worked the city's political system more effectively than John Hieftje--but moving the decisive vote to November is one initiative that he and Lumm agree on.
"Chuck Warpehoski has been looking into this and California has [a] new system," Hieftje emails. "Voters can vote either side in primary, don't have to be registered but they have to vote on one side or the other, and the two top vote getters run in November and everybody would have a chance to vote for them. So [this year], Briere and Taylor would run in November."
He wouldn't stop there. "Because of [a] change in state law we could get rid of odd year election[s]," he adds. To avoid pitting incumbents against each other, voters could still choose two ward reps--but would vote for both in conjunction with the high-turnout state and national election. As a bonus, he figures that each odd-year vote cancelled would save the city $40,000-$50,000 in election costs.
[Originally published in September, 2014.]
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