Voters give city council's activist coalition a supermajority.
From the September, 2015 issue
In fourteen years as mayor, John Hieftje never publicly opposed the reelection of a fellow councilmember. His successor, Christopher Taylor, took that risk in his first term. In August's Democratic primary, Taylor backed challengers to incumbents Mike Anglin, Jack Eaton, and Steve Kunselman.
Taylor's council allies--Chuck Warpehoski, Kirk Westphal, Julie Grand, and Graydon Krapohl--also endorsed the challengers. Hieftje, breaking his own precedent, did the same. What prompted the change? "I'm a free man now," Hieftje replies.
Taylor insists he was "never concerned about harming our working relationship" if the challenges failed. He points out that when he and Kunselman were both candidates in last year's mayoral primary, four councilmembers, including Eaton and Anglin, endorsed Kunselman. "I didn't take it personally," the mayor insists. "Our collegial relationship was not harmed by their action."
They remained, however, in opposite camps. Though Democrats took near-total control of council in the 2000s (the lone exception is independent Jane Lumm), they soon split. Led by Hieftje and now Taylor, a group the Observer calls the "activist coalition" pushed initiatives ranging from the underground Library Lane parking structure and the city Justice Center to a hoped-for new train station. The rival "back-to-basics caucus" has no public leader, but Eaton has been one of its strongest voices, arguing that downtown initiatives have come at the expense of neighborhoods, and calling for more police officers and firefighters.
The activists won more often than they lost, but the back-to-basics side also won major victories: hiring more cops, capping the DDA's tax capture, and most recently, a last-minute budget amendment to fund a $450,000 pedestrian bridge in Eaton's ward.
It proved a bridge too far. Taylor already knew Kunselman's challenger, Zach Ackerman, and Chip Smith, who was taking on Anglin--both had worked on his mayoral campaign. He says he decided to endorse them because they "presented a vision to the voters that is consistent with my vision for the city."
Hieftje knew them, too: "I got to know Chip after his write-in
campaign [in 2013], and I knew Zach because he took my [U-M local government] class," the former mayor says. "They both are looking out at what we need to do to be prepared for the next ten years or twenty years. They're looking forward rather than backwards."
Taylor and Hieftje also endorsed Jaime Magiera, who challenged Jack Eaton in Ward 4. Eaton held his seat by a solid 60-40 percent margin. But while Eaton survived, his footbridge may not: Taylor voted against it--and come November, he will have a pair of new allies.
"I will not be supporting the bridge," Ackerman emails. "City staff ranked [it] dead last in a list of 31 other projects. This list was made with extensive public input. When we ignore our plans, we throw out the democratic process and the money spent to develop them."
Smith, too, is unsympathetic: "I will not support the bridge unless a minimum 80 percent of the funding comes from somewhere else," he says.
By year's end, only Eaton, Lumm, and First Ward rep Sumi Kailasapathy will remain of the back-to-basics caucus. That means they'll no longer be able to block decisions, like budget changes and land sales, that need eight votes on the eleven-member council. What will Taylor do with his supermajority?
"What I've done from the beginning of my term," replies the mayor with a smile, "focus on providing basic services and take real and positive steps toward improving quality of life. We have the opportunity to expand the urban forest management plan. We have opportunities with respect to a new train station."
No increase in safety services? "My approach to city government, and I believe Smith and Ackerman's approach, is that we make decisions based on the facts before us," Taylor says. "Ann Arbor is a safe city." Both Ackerman and Smith agree. "Crime rates are at historic lows," says Ackerman. "We spend over 50 percent of our general fund budget on public safety. That is sufficient."
Jack Eaton emails that he believes "[t]he endorsement of the Huron Valley Central Labor Council (HVCLC) appears to be the most significant factor in who won and who lost. The HVCLC used its resources and organizational skills to exert significant impact on the outcomes of the contested races." The union group supported challengers Ackerman and Smith--but also incumbents Eaton and Sabra Briere.
"To win on all four endorsements is very satisfying," says HVCLC president Ian Robinson. "But I wouldn't overstate [our impact] ... In tight races with small turnout, like when Ackerman wins by forty votes, we could have affected forty votes in his ward. But really our efforts were supplemental."
Jaime Magiera, who lost to Eaton, sees other factors at work in the Fourth Ward. "First, my opponent is better known in his area of the ward and has attached himself strongly to issues that resonated with those particular voters," he emails. "Second, my opponent chose to publish negative ads with incorrect and misleading information." He points to an Eaton ad in August's Observer that claimed Magiera "described sexual assault as a sociological problem, not a criminal issue." The challenger says that misrepresents his response to Eaton's claim, in a debate, that the city needs to expand its police force because more sexual assaults are being reported on the U-M campus. "I pointed out that the majority of sexual assaults on campus are not from random strangers, but from social interactions," Magiera emails. While it can't be prevented by hiring more police, he adds, "Campus sexual assault is of course a criminal act which should be investigated and prosecuted."
The last factor working against him, Magiera believes, was money: "my opponent spent over $13,000 on his campaign--an exceedingly high amount for a primary election." The challenger says he spent just over $3,000.
He will return. "I will be running again," Magiera writes. "In the coming months, I will continue reaching out to residents to hear their thoughts and keep abreast of what's happening." He's unlikely to challenge Graydon Krapohl, the ward's other rep, since Krapohl endorsed him. So look for a 2017 Eaton-Magiera rematch.
Will Leaf, who lost to Sabra Briere in the First, says he too "will probably" run again. If he does, it'll be an uphill battle since the ward's other rep, Sumi Kailasapathy, won the most recent of her three terms with 1,115 votes, nearly four times more than the 287 Leaf got in August.
It's not known whether Mike Anglin will run again next year--he didn't reply to repeated interview requests after the election. But he won't be on the November ballot as an independent, despite strenuous efforts by his supporters to place him there. State law prohibits it.
Kunselman says he's happily done with council. "I won't be running for Mayor," he emails. "I'm content to have served, am pleased to be free of the politics and wish everyone the best."
There's still one race to run this year: the November financial slugfest in Ward Two between independent Lumm and Democrat Sally Petersen. Petersen beat a Hieftje ally in the 2012 primary but on council played the role of a swing vote between the factions.
Though Petersen is not soliciting endorsements from sitting councilmembers, Taylor says he supports her--making Lumm the fourth colleague he's opposed for reelection. Eaton likes Lumm. "Without any reservation I'm gonna support Jane. She's the hardest working [councilmember]. She's imbued with common sense. She approaches issues with an open mind. And she listens to her constituents."
Petersen came in fourth in 2014's mayoral primary without taking a single precinct in the Second Ward. Taylor took them all. November's outcome may depend on whether his popularity rubs off on her.
[Originally published in September, 2015.]
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