The End of Independents
Odd-year elections gave small, passionate groups an outsize impact. This will be their last chance.
From the August, 2017 issue
"It'll be better for incumbents," Jane Lumm says, "and it'll be more difficult for outsiders."
That's the Ward Two rep on how Ann Arbor politics will change since voters amended the city charter last fall. Previously, councilmembers served two-year terms, with one rep from each ward facing election every year. This year's winners will serve until 2020 as the city transitions to four-year terms and even-year elections.
When council put the amendment on the ballot, supporters argued that making local elections coincide with state and national votes will increase turnout: odd-year primaries attract about 8 percent of the city's registered voters, while even years get about 15 percent.
Boosting turnout was also the rationale when the city switched local elections from May to November in 1993. But as Lumm well knows, that change also made council Republicans an endangered species: the extra voters who showed up for state and national races overwhelmingly voted for Democrats. The last Republican councilmembers switched parties a decade later.
First Ward incumbent Jason Frenzel allows odd-year elections are "a way for a vocal minority to get something through" and cites the passage of the April school millage as an example. But, he adds, "I don't think that's the best scenario for elected officials that represent the whole ward."
Odd-year elections have given small, passionate groups an outsize influence on council. A decade ago, a write-in campaign by neighbors of Huron Hills golf course nearly defeated a Ward Two councilmember they deemed insufficiently supportive of the course. Two elections later, Lumm finished the job.
Though she'd served three terms in the 1990s as a Republican, when Lumm returned to council in 2011, it was as an independent. Her odd-year seat is insulated from even-year Democratic surges, and she's repeatedly defeated challengers supported by her more liberal colleagues.
Lumm says this will be her last election. She said that in 2015, too--but the shifting political landscape means she's unlikely to change her mind this time. The
first independent elected in the modern era believes she will also be the last. The switch to even-year elections, Lumm says, "eliminates the possibility for an independent to get elected."
It's not just independents who'll see electoral options narrowing. County clerk and veteran election watcher Larry Kestenbaum suspects the change will benefit mayor Christopher Taylor's council faction by making it harder for challengers to break through in Democratic primaries.
This year, however, the old rules still apply. With no challenger in the August 8 primary, Lumm has a pass till the November general election. But three candidates are opposing members of the mayor's Democratic coalition--and one says that if they win, they could kill plans for a seventeen-story building over the Library Lane parking structure (see below).
Though most of the candidates describe similar priorities, they offer very different solutions on how to achieve them.
When they talk about affordable housing, for example, Ward Four incumbent Jack Eaton and Ward One challenger Anne Bannister emphasize helping retirees stay in their homes, while Wards Three and One incumbents Zach Ackerman and Jason Frenzel stress more housing for poor folks and workers. Every candidate wants better pedestrian safety, but Ward Five challenger David Silkworth and Ward Three challenger (and former councilmember) Steve Kunselman talk about more cops doing traffic enforcement, while Ward Four challenger Jaime Magiera and Ward Five incumbent Chip Smith focus on improving signage and infrastructure.
The most consequential divide is over development. This spring, Taylor's supermajority approved negotiating the sale of the air rights over the Library Lane parking structure to student housing developer Core Spaces. Eaton voted against the sale, and all four challengers say they'd have nixed it--and all but Magiera say they're running largely because of that vote.
Frenzel voted to sell the "library lot" and offers two reasons why he believes the city needs more development. "First, the university has been continually expanding," he says. "That puts housing pressure on the residential neighborhoods. Second, people want to move here, and if we don't relieve that pressure then we drastically drive up housing costs."
His challenger, Bannister, says she's not against developing the library lot but wouldn't have voted for this proposal. "I am concerned about that building being way too big for that location," she says. "I don't want to be naive and stop development. I am trying to slow down development."
"There are 5,000 more students a year at the university than there were ten years ago," Ackerman points out. "We're also seeing an emerging tech industry, and their employees need to live somewhere." The youngest councilmember adds, "I'm part of one of the largest generations that's ever existed. We need to live somewhere."
Kunselman, who served four terms before losing to Ackerman in 2015, acknowledges that "the city is always going to develop," but asks "what's missing in all this development? Office. To have a one-sided development of all luxury housing is a problem. Businesses can't locate in downtown Ann Arbor because there's no office space." As a solution, Kunselman writes in a follow-up email that "council could use the Zoning Ordinance to specify areas for Office downtown."
"We've designated downtown as where we want development to occur," says Ward Four's Eaton. "I'm not opposed to that. I was opposed to Core Spaces. To have seventeen stories in the middle of that block is out of character."
His challenger, Magiera, says he would have opposed the project, too. "I'm not focused on 'yes development/no development' [but on] how can we do it that's not just the talk of sustainability and environmentalism but the walk of it," he says. "The library lot would be a good example. The city should have pushed harder to incorporate vertical setbacks," with upper-level terraces to capture rainwater.
The city "can say no to development," says Ward Five's Smith, "but the university is going to march on. That is going to force change." The problem Smith sees with recent development is that "we've had too much of the wrong stuff and haven't had enough of the right stuff. All the good-looking buildings in Ann Arbor have been built by the U-M in the last fifty years." His solution: "codified design guidelines" to shape private development.
Smith's challenger, Silkworth, says that instead of selling the library lot, council "should have voted to support Eaton's proposal to put it on last November's ballot so residents could have a voice." But he notes that "the sale will not be finalized unless they get site plan approval. They need six votes. There are contested races all across the city this year. If the five people who are against that proposed development win, it can be stopped."
The library lot is also the source of the race's sharpest personal exchange: Silkworth charges that Smith was "not honest" about his decision to vote for the sale.
"The night they approved the library lot [Smith] gave a speech about how he had struggled with the decision and how he had listened to a lot of people in the community," the Ward Five challenger says. "But he doesn't tell people he was exchanging emails with an individual who was recruiting homeless people to come to protest at city council in favor of the Core Spaces development ... He wanted that proposal" to pass.
That individual is homeless advocate Caleb Poirier, who supported the sale because it would generate $5 million for the city's affordable housing trust fund. Poirier emailed or texted Smith many times before the vote, as he also did with Ackerman and Ward Five's Chuck Warpehoski.
Smith readily admits he advised Poirier but says he also talked to people opposed to the project. Ali Ramlawi, owner of Jerusalem Garden and an opponent of the sale, confirms that he and residents of the neighboring Denali Lofts met with Smith and Frenzel. He says Smith "sat and listened mostly" but "we didn't change his mind."
The Main Street Area Association didn't like the way the city facilitated the sale by promising the developers 361 scarce downtown parking spaces. But director Maura Thompson emails that in two meetings, "Smith thoughtfully listened and understood where we were coming from while also balancing the many other issues tied to the project." She had the impression he was "trying to make the best possible decision for the community under the pressure of varying points of view that all had merit"--and that "he had not made up his mind."
Smith says he made his decision the day before the vote and that "what tipped the scales for me was the $800,000 annually that will go to AAPS [in taxes] from the project and [downtown resident] Ray Detter's letter of support."
While incumbents naturally have the advantage in name recognition, nearly every council candidate we've interviewed in the last decade says the key to winning elections is knocking on doors, targeting people who've voted in past primaries.
In Ward One, Frenzel ran against Sumi Kailasapathy last year and lost, only to be appointed to the other Ward One seat after Sabra Briere resigned. He says he'll "hit 4,500 to 5,000" doors this time. Bannister hopes to knock on "2,000 to 2,500."
If knocking on doors is crucial, money is also indispensable: not everyone is home when candidates knock, and campaign literature and lawn signs aren't free. Frenzel says his goal is "a rough $10,000," while Bannister says "experts have told me I need $8,000."
In Ward Three, Ackerman unseated Kunselman by a slim forty votes in 2015. "We knocked on over 4,000 doors last time," he says. "We're knocking on 6,000 this time." Kunselman says he's "running a campaign different from the past by using a targeted walking list of likely voters." He figures he'll knock on 2,400 doors.
"Last time we raised $9,000," Ackerman says. "If we can raise more [this year] that's fantastic." Kunselman says he's aiming for more than in previous Ward Three races--he raised $5,125 in 2015--but says it'll "be less than $10,000."
Ward Four incumbent Eaton says he likes to knock on doors--"it really is the way you hear from voters"--but says this year he'll hit only "between 2,000 and 2,500--I don't want to annoy my voters." Magiera says he'd already hit 1,000 doors by early June and plans to continue knocking "right through the election," but won't give a numerical target.
Eaton says he spent "about $15,000" on each of his two successful council races, but figures he probably won't need as much this year: "I already have lawn signs." Magiera raised $3,970 in 2015 and says "I don't have a dollar amount" this time.
In Ward Five, Smith's write-in campaign against incumbent Mike Anglin in the 2013 general election fell short, but Smith returned to win their 2015 primary match with a strong ground game that brought new voters to the polls. He won't detail how he did that but does say he plans to use the same tactics this time. He also aims to hit 3,000 doors. Challenger Silkworth notes that "there are 8,000 households in my ward, and you can only get to so many of them" but says he plans to "get to quite a few."
Smith says he figures he has to match his opponent's fundraising: "Given that Mr. Silkworth pumped fifteen grand of his own money into the campaign last fall, I expect I have to raise fifteen grand."
"I loaned my campaign quite a bit of money last time," Silkworth acknowledges. The county election website shows he loaned the campaign $13,000 of the $19,993 it raised; his girlfriend Tanya Ridella-Mehlos, her brother Brian, and her mother Sharon each contributed $1,000. Silkworth says he won't be lending his campaign money this time but won't say how much he hopes to raise.
The primary isn't the city's last odd-year council election. That's this November's general election, when Democrat Jared Hoffert challenges independent incumbent Jane Lumm in Ward Two, and the winner of Ward Five's Smith-Silkworth race will likely face Jerusalem Garden's Ali Ramlawi, one of the folks Smith met with on the library lot development. Ramlawi says he'll run as an independent against whoever wins--though if Silkworth wins, "I'll probably run a different campaign."
The end of odd-year council elections doesn't mean the end of odd-year millages. "You can schedule a millage any day of the year you want," Kestenbaum says. "Even December 25."
Could Core Spaces Be Killed?
Council's eight-to-three vote to sell the "library lot" to Chicago-based Core Spaces inspired three of four challengers in the August 8 Democratic primary. Ward Five candidate David Silkworth believes that the project could still be killed if they win--he points out it takes only six votes to defeat a site plan.
Mayor Christopher Taylor leads the council supermajority that approved the sale--and denies that a simple majority could undo it.
"Assuming CORE presents a site plan that meets contractual and zoning obligations, the project will be 'by right,'" the lawyer-mayor emails. "Councilmembers would, therefore, have a legal obligation to vote 'Yes'. I believe that a refusal to approve a 'by right' site plan at this location would expose the City to a 'can't win' lawsuit with damages in the tens of millions of dollars."
Eaton, council's other attorney, emails that while he's not offering a legal opinion on the issue, based on his council experience, Silkworth "is technically correct. Six votes on Council can reject a site plan.
"The Mayor is also technically correct," he continues. "A site plan that meets all zoning requirements that is rejected by Council may lead to litigation."
Eaton adds, however, that whether a project "complies with the city's requirements may not be open and shut," creating space for councilmembers to justify a No vote.
Silkworth says the same--and points out that the sale itself is "contingent upon site-plan approval."
This article has been edited since it was published in the August 2017 Ann Arbor Observer. The year of the first Ackerman-Kunselman contest in Ward Three has been corrected.
from Calls & Letters, September 2017
"You insinuated that David Silkworth has a wife and a girlfriend," Tanya Ridella-Mehlos said in a phone call. "That is very bad for a political candidate." Our apologies to the couple for not updating a description recycled from a 2016 article; they're now married.
Silkworth, a Democratic candidate in August's Ward 5 primary, emailed to correct our statement that he focused on police enforcement rather than infrastructure to improve pedestrian safety. In fact, he advocated both in his pre-election interview. Silkworth polled 1,749 votes, the second- highest total of any council candidate-but Ward 5 incumbent Chip Smith finished first, with 1,948.
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
On August 4, 2017, Kai Petainen wrote:
I just wanted to say that I thought this was well written. I was wondering if you'd 'go low' when others went low, but you didn't. You maintained professionalism and when others 'went low, you went high'. Nicely done.
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