If Larry Kestenbaum is biting his nails on election night, it won’t be because he’s worried about his bid for a second term as Washtenaw County clerk and register of deeds: Kestenbaum, a Democrat, is unopposed. Four years ago, in contrast, his Republican predecessor, Peggy Haines, had to contend with not only the intense pressures of a presidential vote but also the ignominy of recording her own defeat.
Kestenbaum liked Haines and respected her work in the two-part office, which also tracks real estate ownership. But as a longtime observer of local politics, he could see that county Republican officeholders were headed the way of the incandescent lightbulb. Concluding that sooner or later a Democrat would defeat even the popular Haines, he says, “I thought, ‘It might as well be me.'”
Kestenbaum, a former commissioner in both Washtenaw and Ingham counties, is a walking encyclopedia of political trivia. Now, after years of career changes, it appears he has landed his dream job. Although “most normal people don’t aspire to be county clerk,” he reflects, “I’m enjoying it a lot. It really combines a lot of the things I’m interested in.” Those things include (besides politics) computers, the workings of municipalities, and even genealogy—many tracers of family trees end up in his office looking for relatives’ birth and death certificates.
Vital records, property deeds, minutes of county commission meetings, military discharges—all pass through the clerk’s office at 200 North Main, some on screen and some over the counter. Adult adoptees come to track down their biological parents, and vice versa.
Occasionally people become emotional. Kestenbaum recalls a situation when a baby was born at home and no birth certificate was issued. To receive one, the baby needed to be brought into the clerk’s office.
For reasons Kestenbaum never learned, the state had taken custody of the child. So it was a very tense group that showed up. “The lawyers were there, including Geoffrey Fieger,” recalls Kestenbaum. “The baby was there, the parents . . . Our staff people were terrified. They thought they’d be on the front page of the paper.” Kestenbaum eased the “very sticky situation” by opening up a conference room, to give the parties privacy and time to cool off. He never learned what happened to the baby—but at least the child now has a valid birth certificate.
Kestenbaum, fifty-three, is a big, affable guy with a mustache and sideburns and a broad forehead framed by large glasses. He answers questions at length, and with a professorial manner perhaps inherited from his dad, who taught American history at Michigan State. His omnivorous interests are reflected in his labor-of-love websites: politicalgraveyard.com lists vital stats of, it seems, every American who’s ever held public office, while potifos.com is devoted to his many other passions—such as folk music, elevators, octagonal houses, and names of streets. He also frequently comments on local issues on arborupdate.com.
Kestenbaum’s background is as diverse as his interests: a largely self-taught computer programmer, he also holds a law degree from Wayne State, and he studied historic preservation as a grad student at Cornell. Before becoming clerk, he taught historic-preservation law at EMU and worked at the U-M’s Survey Research Center.
Kestenbaum lives with his wife, Janice Gutfreund, a psychologist, and their daughter, Sarah, ten, in a 1950s ranch house in the Eberwhite neighborhood. Politicalgraveyard.com has gained him a national following—almost every day, he says, he receives an email question, comment, or word of thanks from political junkies who’ve found him through the site. Kestenbaum was dismayed when, after he became clerk, he was too busy to work on it for several months. He’s since caught up.
As clerk, he is responsible for a budget of nearly $5 million and directs a staff of fifty. Currently they’re bracing for the 2008 presidential election. Word is that the turnout will be the “largest in Michigan history,” Kestenbaum says, citing discussions with a state voting official. In 2000, 4.2 million Michiganians voted. The number climbed to 4.8 million in 2004, and “the prediction is that this year will be 5.1 million,” Kestenbaum says.
Before election day, the county will inspect voting equipment and will train more than 500 temporary poll workers. On November 4 itself, Kestenbaum will monitor the vote from his office, watching out for malfunctioning voting machines, shortages of poll workers, or any partisan challenges over voters’ qualifications. Because he is also a candidate in the election, he will not be allowed in the polling places—except to cast his own vote.
Like people who commit baseball stats to memory, Kestenbaum has absorbed details of many political races in American history. And some acquaintances view him as both sage and seer—they assume he can predict tomorrow’s winners from yesterday’s races. Kestenbaum has been asked but declined to give an opinion on who will win the most important race of all in November—in part, he admits, because he doesn’t want to look foolish if he’s wrong.
“I can tell you as an absolute fact that Obama is going to carry Washtenaw County,” he says, smiling. “That doesn’t tell you much!”