The Last Odd-Year Vote
As the city cuts back on council elections, independents make a last stand.
From the November, 2017 issue
Last year, city council asked voters to double its members' terms and cut the number of elections in half. The charter amendment passed, and, starting in 2018, councilmembers will serve four years and run for election only in even-numbered years, when they'll share the ballot with state and national contests. For this transitional year only, the winners will serve three years, until 2020.
Supporters say that combining local elections with state and national votes will increase turnout, making the city more democratic. Critics say they should spell that with a capital D. Independent Jane Lumm points out that Democratic turnout soars in even years--"and 46 percent of voters vote straight party. That eliminates the chance an independent could get elected."
That makes 2017 the independents' last stand. In Ward Two on the city's east side, six-term veteran Lumm faces first-time Democratic challenger Jared Hoffert in what she says will be her last race.
In Ward Four in southwestern Ann Arbor, incumbent Jack Eaton is defending his seat against Diane Giannola. Giannola, who first ran for council in 2016's Democratic primary, is running this year as an independent. She describes the race as "a great experiment: two Democrats running in November."
In Ward Five in the northwest, incumbent Chip Smith faces Ali Ramlawi, who's running as an independent but says he's "never voted Republican." Fresh to politics, Ramlawi is motivated by the same issue as Smith's primary opponent, David Silkworth: Smith's vote to sell the "library lot" to Chicago developer Core Spaces. For Ramlawi, it's professional: he owns Jerusalem Garden restaurant, which will be put permanently in the shade by Core Spaces' planned seventeen-story building.
Ward Two--Last and First Races
Hoffert says he decided to launch his first political campaign because "there was a very real possibility that no one would run for council in Ward Two. A friend of mine on the Ann Arbor Civic Theater Board brought to my attention that there was nobody running. Even
Jane had not pulled petitions" to run when Hoffert took out his.
On his website Hoffert argues that "currently, politics has an 'us vs. them' mentality"--the standard division of council into mayor Christopher Taylor's current eight-member supermajority, which voted for selling the library lot, and the three members, including Lumm, who voted against it. The challenger explains over coffee that "it's one view versus another view, and it seems lately that never shall the two meet. That doesn't serve anybody."
Hoffert works for consulting firm Accenture, but it's his experience as an actor--he has a BFA in theater from U-M--that he thinks will be most valuable on council. "The theater is communication, collaboration, and listening. If I were to win this seat, one of the first things I would do is to reach out to Jack [Eaton] and Sumi [Kailasapathy] and say, 'What can we do, how can we meet on things?'"
Hoffert's campaign is managed by Alex Yerkey, who helped Chip Smith win the primary, and, like Smith, Hoffert favors development. "If Ann Arbor stands still, other communities will meet it and surpass it as better places to live. We have four choices: raise taxes, cut services, [adopt] the city income tax, or redevelop and expand that tax base."
The very well-connected Lumm greets and hugs a friend while walking across the street to her interview and does the same with two guys inside the cafe and then two more guys when they enter later. Asked if council has an "us vs. them" mentality, she replies, "People are pretty collegial, though on development you can definitely see people fall on either side."
But Lumm stresses she is a true independent. "I don't vote with Sumi and Jack on some development projects. I've supported the vast majority of projects council has voted on and opposed a handful."
Lumm sees development as inevitable. "We're thriving economically. We're highly attractive to new businesses and new developers. We're going to be constantly changing. We can't stop it. Why would we stop it? That's life."
Against Lumm's long history in town and on council, Hoffert's initial election bid may fail. He won't say whether he'll try again in 2020 if he loses this year--but Lumm is surely right that whoever runs as a Democrat in 2020 will win.
Ward Four--Incumbent and Experiment
Last year, Giannola, a former planning commissioner, came in third in a three-way primary. She says she chose to run as an independent this year because "I didn't want to do another three-way race."
"I'm not part of either faction," she says. "My viewpoints align a lot more with the mayor's than with Eaton's, but there are some things where I align with Eaton, like [lighting and signalizing] the crosswalks. The big differences are the library lot [sale] and the [planned new] train station," both of which she supports and Eaton opposes.
Most candidates target their campaigns at the small minority of Ann Arborites who vote in local elections. But Giannola says that she "knocked on every door" in last year's primary, not just those of known Democrats. "I wanted to see if I could get more independents and Republicans out," she says. "When you use a targeted list, you're going through too many streets too fast."
Eaton, an attorney, knew he'd face an independent this month even before he defeated primary challenger Jaime Magiera in August. "Diane called me before she pulled petitions," he says. "She agrees with me on small stuff, but there are big things we disagree on."
Unlike Giannola, Eaton will be using a targeted list, though he won't hit every voter. "When you knock on doors, half of the people are not home. So my fall race will focus on people I didn't talk to in July," during his primary campaign.
A two-term incumbent and the mayor's chief opponent on council, Eaton also won't rate his chances. "I was surprised at how well Jaime did. My basic demographic is an eighty-one-year-old lady. Our precinct is changing. There are younger people there now, and they're much wealthier. These new residents bring with them a different set of values."
Ward Five--Fall Rerun
Incumbent Chip Smith's vote for selling development rights above the library lot to Core Spaces brought him Democratic challenger Silkworth in the primary and now independent Ramlawi in the general election.
"The Core Spaces project was the tipping point," confirms Ramlawi. He says he's running as an independent because "I want to have an independent voice. We have a broken political system--in town, in state, in federal government--because of the two-party system."
The proposed project's size, and the loss of 361 public parking spaces to its future tenants, goaded Ramlawi into running. But he's also infuriated by the underground parking structure it would be built on.
"It was a complete waste for fifty million dollars," says Ramlawi. When his restaurant was located around the corner on Fifth Ave., he says, "I suffered all the types of damage, whether mental or physical, for the three years of construction." He estimates the disruption cost him $300,000 in lost sales.
Ramlawi hasn't served on any city committees or commissions and doesn't want to: he calls them "the farm system. By the time you're on council you've already had grooming that gives you a certain perspective, and that's the only perspective you see. We have groupthink."
Though running as an independent, Ramlawi is backed by Democrats Eaton and Kailasapathy, as well as Ward One Democratic nominee Anne Bannister, all of whom opposed the library lot sale. His campaign manager, Dawn Bizzell, previously worked for Kailasapathy. And he says he's talked strategy with Smith's primary challenger, Silkworth.
Smith, a professional urban planner, sees Ramlawi's candidacy as "absolutely" a replay of Silkworth's primary race. "It's a one-issue candidacy. Experience and expertise matter. City council does more than just look at the library lot. If people are angry about the library lot, they're going to vote for Ali. If they're interested in having professional, responsible government, they'll vote for me."
Silkworth came close to beating Smith, drawing 47 percent of the vote. Though Ramlawi is running without the benefit of the Democratic label, he figures he can do better than Silkworth because "I've been around a long time. I've got a more recognizable face and name."
The Crucial Role of New Voters
When council moved to end odd-year elections, supporters cited the fact that voter turnout in city elections doubles in even years, when they share the ballot with state and federal races.
Yet turnout in this year's August Democratic primary rose by a third, from 10 to 14 percent, without any help from larger contests. Credit the power of a hot-button issue: many formerly indifferent voters were mobilized by anger at council's vote on selling the development rights on the "library lot." Ward One incumbent Jason Frenzel who lost to challenger Anne Bannister, blamed his defeat on the anti-development groundswell. Bannister is unopposed this month; when she takes her seat, the 8-3 supermajority that approved the sale will cease to exist.
In Ward Five, Chip Smith won his seat in 2015 and kept it this year by finding new voters; he aims to do the same against independent Ali Ramlawi. "We knocked a lot of doors of people who had never had anybody knock their door before," he says. "You have to make the physical contact and introduce yourself to people. The Obama administration did it really, really well twice."
In Ward Three, Zach Ackerman also held off a primary challenge by increasing turnout. "We used a system based on the Obama model, says Ackerman, who also is unopposed this month. "The inspiration comes from [Ward Five's] Chuck Warpehoski."
"Obama didn't write off demographic groups," Warpehoski explains. "He expanded direct mail and door knocking and reaching out to every corner of the community. I've tried to go where there are unrepresented groups, reaching out to the housing commission, for example, and going when they have meetings to listen, not to make a speech.
"I knocked on every door in the Avalon housing on Pauline," continues Warpehoski. "It probably didn't get me too many votes. But it was important to do. If our political process is listening to one small group of people, a lot of people will rightly think we're not listening to them."
[Originally published in November, 2017.]
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