Ann Arbor elects a mayor every two years. But because local voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, the only election that usually matters is the August primary. Mayor John Hieftje won the last four general elections with at least 79 percent of the vote.
His huge margins were due in part to improbable challengers like Albert Howard, former self-declared presidential candidate and founder of the Ann Arbor Different Church, and Tom Wall, who’s serenaded city council dressed as Captain Driver Ed. But remember: Hieftje also beat well-liked Republican Jane Lumm with 69 percent of the vote ten years ago, signaling the town’s seismic shift leftwards during the Bush administration.
Hieftje’s decision to retire spurred four Democrats to run in August’s primary–but only one non-Democrat in November’s general election. And since councilmember Christopher Taylor won in August with 48 percent of the vote running as Hieftje’s heir apparent, he seems a shoo-in against independent challenger Bryan Kelly.
Even Kelly admits that “Christopher Taylor is probably going to win.” But that’s not stopping him from running. “This is something I have to do,” he says. “After fourteen years of John Hieftje, it’s time for a radically new approach to politics.”
Born in Royal Oak in 1985, Kelly moved to Ann Arbor in 2004 to attend the U-M, graduating in 2008 with a degree in writing and winning Hopwood awards for playwriting, novel, and short stories. The candidate says he comes from a “contrarian household. I got it mostly from my dad. He took on difficult things to argue, like his favorite president was Nixon.”
He considers his approach to politics radically new. On his blog, bkformayorofa2.com, he ruminates gracefully about everything from the proposed Whitmore Lake annexation to the risk of a serious Ebola outbreak in the U.S., with the occasional quote from Emily Dickinson as garnish. But on most city issues, Kelly’s positions echo other local political contrarians. His critique of current development policy–“It’s no accident that when you create a Downtown Development Authority you wind up focusing on a small parcel of land”–carries echoes of longtime Hieftje critic Steve Kunselman, while his proposed alternative is reminiscent of the short-lived Mixed Used Party’s: “We could have a Neighborhood Development Authority. We can do proximate development where people live, like the cake shop on Jefferson.”
“Ann Arbor’s neighborhoods are not crying out for increased development,” responds Taylor, forty-seven, a three-term councilmember and chair of the city planning commission. “The focus is on downtown because downtown density is good for the environment and for the vitality of the downtown and the economy of the town.”
Similarly, Kelly’s indictment of the city’s aging storm water system–“We’re seeing flooding in the streets”–is reminiscent of contrarian councilmember Jack Eaton’s.
“Our storm water system is designed to hold water in the streets,” Taylor responds, “but it was not designed for this environment. It was designed for conditions forty or fifty or sixty years ago. The city is not in a position to start the system fresh because it would mean digging up every pipe and spending hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Kelly says the city would have more money for infrastructure if it rearranged its priorities. “Steve Kunselman calls the basics the most important issue, not progressive issues like homelessness and transit. That’s one of the reasons I voted for him.”
Taylor defends city council’s choices. “The city has never ignored infrastructure because of human services. Ann Arbor is also a community that cares, and so it is appropriate and right that we do what we can to care for the neediest among us.”
Kelly also questions council’s wisdom on public safety issues. “The fire department may be understaffed … The local firefighters’ union has a study on their website that concludes that roughly 86 percent of the city can’t be reached within four minutes, which is the standard amount of time for a fire to turn from ‘centralized’ to ‘full flash.'”
Taylor disputes that study’s validity. “The four [firefighters to a fire] in four [minutes] theory was created by a trade organization–it’s not a national standard. The facts show we are safe now. The fire department does excellent work, and we have expanded resources because other departments provide mutual emergency assistance.”
With Hiefje’s retirement, Taylor is the leader of what the Observer recently dubbed council’s Activist Coalition. If Kelly were elected, he’d promptly join the Back to Basics Caucus.
“I am not a progressive by any stretch,” he writes in an email. “In my experience, government does not deal with complex problems like homelessness better than voluntary institutions like charities and churches can.”
Kelly says he wouldn’t try to close the Delonis Center homeless shelter–“It would be cruel and out of keeping with the holistic mission of our city. [But] if he is truly a progressive, Mr. Taylor should look to make Delonis less of a shell and more of a treatment facility, because some people come to abuse its amenities without ever being offered, or taking, a chance to improve their lives.”
Taylor suggests that Kelly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “The Delonis Center is not ‘a shell,'” he emails. “It provides outstanding and extensive services to residents to help move them into permanent housing. The staff and residents there deserve our respect and support.”
For Kelly, the most important issue facing the city–and the country–is “faith in our institutions, in civil and tolerable government, in citizen participation, and in democracy and representation. I have been disappointed at how many of our citizens have no faith in government or the political process, and no interest in seeing any of those things improve. They’d rather watch the thing fall apart and hide behind a kind of superior disinterest.”
Taylor sees a more positive populace: “In the primary, I knocked on over 6,000 doors with a message of optimism, and the vast majority of people I talked to love our city. People realize we have a good thing here, and we have to work to make it better.”
Kelly isn’t impressed by Taylor’s showing in the primary. “Roughly 17 percent of eligible voters turned out, and he captured roughly 48 percent of that vote. It is not an insignificant win, but it is hardly an indication that individuals are participating in the election of representative government at a healthy rate.”
County clerk and local political expert Larry Kestenbaum thinks it’s healthier than that 17 percent figure suggests. Adjusting for the number of people who’ve moved away but are still registered to vote, and the fact that most students are gone in August, he emails, “I’d guess the turnout was more like 40%” among voters in town when the vote was held.
“Moreover, I see no evidence, no credible possibility, that a larger turnout would have changed the result,” Kestenbaum adds. “It wasn’t a close election, and none of the losing candidates commanded a constituency that was grossly under-represented among the August voters.”
Taylor is a partner at the Hooper Hathaway law firm. Kelly is working as a substitute teacher and doing odd jobs to make ends meet while he focuses on his candidacy.
Kelly’s primary candidate, Steve Kunselman, got less than 17 percent of the vote in August. As the sole alternative in November, even a contrarian newcomer should at least do that well. But to reach 50 percent, Kelly would have to corral not only the town’s remaining Republicans, but its independents and many of its Democrats as well. The chances of that are slim to none.
But Kelly’s campaigning as much as he can. “I’ve knocked on at least 2,000 doors so far. Needing to pay the bills has restricted my ability to spend more time on the door-knocking circuit, but that’s life in independent politics.”
Kelly knows the odds. “The nightmare that I will become mayor will not come true,” he laughs.
Nevertheless, he believes his challenge will help “Chris Taylor to be the best mayor he can be–and so that in two more years when someone more qualified than me runs [they] can go after Taylor for the things he didn’t do.”
A Republican State Rep?
One of Ann Arbor’s three Democratic state representatives could conceivably be unseated in the November election.
“I could lose,” says District Fifty-Two’s Gretchen Driskell. “This has been a Republican district in the past, and it’s a very competitive district. I don’t take it for granted at all.”
“I expect to win,” says Republican challenger John Hochstetler. “I have been a school board member and a state school board member. and I know what the issues are. I do not have all the answers, but I know how to go to Lansing to ask the questions that need to be asked.
“Lansing used to be ‘We the People’ but now it’s ‘Screw the People.’ The key is to connect with the voters.”
Driskell, too, is banking on those connections. “I hope my constituents think I’m doing a good job. I work pretty hard in the district. I go door to door regularly, almost daily, and I take my job seriously because I believe in services and responsive government. But I could lose, so people have to turn out and vote.”
“Gretchen is being appropriately cautious,” emails Larry Kestenbaum, Washtenaw County Clerk and a keen political observer, “but I’m not worried she will lose.”
Probably not: as a challenger, Driskell beat incumbent Mark Ouimet with 53 percent of the vote in 2012, and her district covering Ann Arbor’s far west plus the county’s western and northern municipalities has been voting Democratic in recent elections.
Jeff Irwin’s reelection in District Fifty-Three, covering most of the city, is all but certain. He faced the same challenger, John Spisak, in 2012, and won with 80 percent of the vote.
Adam Zemke won with 64 percent of the vote when he first ran in District Fifty-Five in 2012, and he’ll likely continue to represent the edges of Ann Arbor. His opponent, Leonard Burk, is all but invisible; Burk hasn’t responded to interview requests from the Observer, or, as far as we can tell, from anyone else.
The positions of the three Democrats representing Ann Arbor on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners are also secure. In 2012, first-time candidate Andy LaBarre, one-term incumbent Yousef Rabhi, and five-term incumbent Conan Smith crushed their respective opponents with 77, 78, and 80 percent of the vote.
None of this year’s Republican challengers–Joe Miriani, Jeff Gallatin, and John Floyd–has ever won an election. Miriani says he’s running only so there will be a Republican on the ballot. Gallatin emails that he’s running because “It’s time we learn to live within our financial budget, and not go on the assumption that we don’t really have to worry about expenses because we can just generate more tax dollars if we need it.” Floyd writes that he’s “running to ensure that ALL voices are at the table, and to help keep the Commission’s thinking fresh.”
The Democratic incumbents all claim they’re happy to have opponents.
“Voters should always have a choice,” says LaBarre. “I’m glad Jeff is running, and I’m looking forward to debating him,” says Rabhi. “Our democracy only works if there is a contest of ideas and values,” writes Smith. “Even should we not agree, we can often learn from the exchange.”
Rabhi was disappointed–Gallatin and Miriani both skipped the scheduled debate. That leaves Floyd as the only challenger mounting a serious campaign.
“In a contested election, people can argue about taxes and spending, laws and regulations,” says Floyd, controller at a local high-end lighting company. “Incumbents explain themselves, challengers say what ought to be instead, voters learn about issues.”
All that may well happen–but for the foreseeable future, Democrats will continue to win local elections and governance will remain in their hands. Right now, Republicans run because they can, not because they can win.