“I didn’t think I was going to win,” admits Lisa Disch, who, like Song, beat an incumbent city councilmember in the August Democratic primary. Song toppled veteran Jane Lumm in east-side Ward Two 60-40 percent, while Disch beat Anne Bannister in northeast-side Ward One by an even more decisive 68-32.
Both women were backed by mayor Christopher Taylor–but going into the election, it wasn’t clear how much weight his endorsement would carry: Though the mayor easily won reelection in 2018, four of the five council candidates he backed then lost.
That reduced the council faction Taylor leads–we call it the Activist Coalition–to a 4-7 minority. An acrimonious two years followed, as the alliance we call the Back-to-Basics Caucus passed initiatives like nonpartisan voting and budget changes, only to be thwarted by mayoral vetoes.
This year, twice as many people voted–and all five candidates Taylor backed won. Since Republicans don’t even bother to run anymore, all will be unopposed in November.
Jen Eyer also flipped a seat, defeating Jack Eaton in Ward Four. With Travis Radina and Erica Briggs winning the contests to succeed retiring Activists in wards Three and Five, Taylor’s forces will hold a 7-4 advantage.
Brad O’Connor managed the campaigns of Song and Bridges and was Disch’s treasurer. He says he saw it coming, because many early absentee ballots were from first-time voters who he knew were more likely to vote for young, progressive candidates. But didn’t tell the candidates.
“He kept that a big secret,” Disch says. “He was telling me up to the very day before the election, ‘You could lose by fifty votes, so we want you to get out there and do one last trip.'”
Eli Savit, who campaigned hard on criminal justice reform, won the three-way county prosecutor primary. “That race definitely activated voters, and people were really looking for reform-minded candidates,” says Briggs, who faced two competitors but still got two-thirds of the vote.
Progressive donors were activated, too. The prosecutor candidates alone raised more than $416,000–about $268,000 for Savit and $144,000 for runner-up Arianne Slay. (Hugo Mack’s $4,700 left him a very distant third.)
Council candidates collectively raised just over $228,000. The Activists had half again as many donors as their Basics opponents and raised twice as much money: about $137,000 by the end of July vs. $70,000. (Democratic Socialists Evan Redmond and Dan Michniewicz and Palestinian rights activist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani raised about $21,000 between them.)
They spent the money on websites, Facebook and Instagram ads, phone and text banking, and a lot more mailers than their opponents. Song says her website alone ran about $5,000.
Because of the pandemic, “we couldn’t start knocking on doors until mid-June,” says Radina, who took 51 percent of the vote in Ward Three against Redmond and Basics-favored Tony Brown. Once they could, they all hit likely voters’ doors–some once, most three times–and, despite the pandemic, nobody got sick. “We all observed a lot of safety precautions,” says Disch. “None of us were going out to restaurants or bars or playing beer pong!”
Song says a lot of the people she met in her east-side ward “just moved to Ann Arbor in the past couple of years, young families.” The winning candidates say their voters’ biggest concerns were affordable housing and dissatisfaction with the Basics majority–particularly their abrupt firing of city administrator Howard Lazarus last winter.
Eighteen voters who responded to an invitation on a2view, the Observer’s weekly email newsletter, cited the same issues. Activist voters also generally liked the city’s recent growth, while Basics voters deplored what one called “the number, density and height of the newer buildings in the downtown landscape.”
In addition to flipping control of council, this year’s primary voters will also usher in a generational shift: Lumm and Eaton are both sixty-six years old. Song is forty-three and Eyer forty-six.
The Basics caucus still has the majority until the general election. In August, they passed another resolution calling for a public vote on nonpartisan elections. Taylor vetoed it again.