The Back-to-Basics Caucus took control of city council in 2018. With campaigns that focused on curbing development and rebuilding roads, they emerged with seven seats. That left the opposing Activist Coalition with three, plus mayor Christopher Taylor.
Those are the Observer’s labels, not theirs. Basics members in particular sometimes assert that they’re all independents who happen to occasionally agree on issues.
In a post on his eponymous website, Ann Arborite Sam Firke recently argued that cross-endorsements, donations, and voting patterns all suggest something more unified. He calls the factions “Protectors” and “Strivers.”
By whatever name, council has long been divided between a pro-growth coalition that controlled the city almost continuously from 2000 until 2018, and the growing slate of critics who, in Firke’s words, see themselves as “protecting [Ann Arbor] from forces that would change it.”
The Basics Caucus won a second victory in 2018 even before their new members took office: that November, voters amended the city charter to preserve the “Library Lot” as a public park. The Activists had wanted a seventeen-story building there.
On council, though, their biggest initiatives have been blocked. Last year, Taylor vetoed an attempt to schedule a public vote on nonpartisan elections. He’s twice vetoed budget amendments that would have undone the Activists’ pledge to commit a tax rebate to affordable housing, climate action, and pedestrian safety.
The deadlock has resulted in debates running as late as 3 a.m. and heightened tension between the two sides. Taylor, who was first elected to council in 2008, says he’s never seen more contention and anger or so little getting done. Basics members, for their part, look at the same history and see spirited council debates leading to better outcomes.
The Basics Caucus has never been able to muster the eighth vote they’d need to override the mayor’s vetoes. But in January, in a resolution that wasn’t subject to veto, they fired city administrator Howard Lazarus. They won’t say why, citing a non-disparagement clause in the quarter-million-dollar settlement Lazarus received for being terminated without cause.
An Ann Arbor News analysis found that councilmembers received 150 emails reacting to the firing, all but five of them critical. The Basics candidates say they don’t expect it to be an issue in the August 4 Democratic primary; the Activists hope it will be.
Because Ann Arbor votes overwhelmingly for Democrats in November, the August 4 Democratic primary will decide the balance of power. Even council’s senior member, Republican-turned-independent Jane Lumm, is running as a Democrat this year. Under any label, interlocking endorsements and contributions identify the Ward Two rep as a charter member of the Basics Caucus. Incumbents Anne Bannister and Jack Eaton and returning Ward Five candidate David Silkworth are also firmly aligned with its positions.
Newcomers Tony Brown and Travis Radina don’t want to be identified with either side. But Brown is endorsed by three Basics candidates, while five past and present Activists back Radina.
Two Democratic Socialists are running their own small but enthusiastic campaigns. They’re long shots but not out of contention: Bernie Sanders beat both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden locally. And finally, a controversial anti-Israel activist is making it a three-way race in Ward Four.
Anne Bannister, fifty-six, a financial planner, defeated an activist incumbent in 2018 and is seeking a second term. Asked what she considers her two most important accomplishments, she points to “the work the community and I have done, and continue to do, for climate action and passing the A2Zero Carbon Neutrality Plan, and the vote to proceed with affordable housing at the former Y lot.”
Like other Basics candidates, Bannister emphasizes constituent services–she says she’s running again because she wants “to listen to people’s voices.” She says the firing of the city administrator “was a big issue [at the time], but I don’t think more voters are telling me that now.”
Lisa Disch, fifty-eight, is a U-M political science professor with about a dozen volunteers. She hopes to raise $20,000, and though she says “we’re not a slate,” she’s donated to the other Activist candidates. She’s endorsed by Mayor Taylor, former mayor John Hieftje, and five past and present council Activists.
“What we’re seeing on council [is] an inability to reach agreement on where we should be going,” Disch says. “Instead of legislating, “people are taking their frustrations out on each other.” And she says that “many voters I’ve talked to [were] outright angry” about the Lazarus firing: “It was a failure of transparency.”
Like the other Activists, Disch sketches a vision of positive change in the city, writing that “I would like to see us develop into a town that once again has neighborhoods with distinctive pockets of commercial, cultural, and entertainment opportunities.”
Jane Lumm, sixty-six, a civic volunteer, is running an intimate campaign with her husband as her manager and ten friends as volunteers. She says she raised about $28,000 last time, but in a pandemic “I don’t know how much I can expect to raise.”
Lumm served on council as a Republican from 1993 to 1998 and returned as an independent in 2011. She says she’s now running as a Democrat because “two-thirds of the other ward representatives strongly urged me to run again.” Though she’s by now run under three party labels, she says her politics haven’t changed: “I like to think of myself [as] an independent thinker.”
She emails that she’s running again because “I want to continue to build on the progress we’ve made in better aligning city spending with community priorities. Second, I want to ensure that single-family neighborhood zoning is not eliminated or drastically changed. Finally, I want to ensure the 2nd Ward continues to have hands-on, service-oriented representation.”
Lumm cosponsored the motion to fire Lazarus, but doesn’t think she’ll lose many votes over it: “The large majority of 2nd ward voters are much more concerned about the issues directly impacting them,” she writes.
Linh Song, forty-three, the Ann Arbor District Library board president, has about thirty volunteers and aims to raise $35,000.
Her vision for the city–“to be a more inclusive and welcoming community [in] this generation”–seem aligned with the Activists’, and she’s endorsed by Taylor and two former Activist councilmembers. She criticizes the firing of Lazarus, because it “tells future city administrators how vulnerable they are to council politicking.”
But, she writes, she “intentionally” has not sought endorsements from current councilmembers: “I thanked Mayor Taylor for publicly stating his faith in my abilities. But it is not an endorsement that will dictate or inform my future work … My goal is to remain independent and represent the values of the ward 2 community while working on behalf of all Ann Arbor residents.”
Tony Brown, fifty-three, is WDET’s digital distribution manager. He declines to say how many volunteers he has or how much money he’s raised because he doesn’t want “to share with my opponents via your article.” Though Basics candidates Bannister, Lumm, and Silkworth endorse him, Brown writes that he has “not accepted their endorsements” because “I need to be able to work with everyone on Council.”
Brown writes that he’s running as a way of “paying back to my community” and describes the factions as an obstacle to effective governance: “They could get so much done if they just had an inch of respect for each other’s ideas.”
As for firing the administrator, he says, “Not a single person at any of the thousands of doors that I’ve visited has brought up Mr. Lazarus.”
Travis Radina, thirty-four, is the U-M’s global alumni communities director. He hopes to raise $20,000 and has a couple dozen volunteers.
Radina is Taylor’s LGBTQ liaison and is endorsed by the mayor and five past and present Activist councilmembers. But, like Brown, he’s officially unaligned. “Council is intensely combative right now and divided,” Radina explains, and he doesn’t want to ruin his “relatively positive working relationship” with both sides.
“Both rent and homeownership in Ann Arbor are unreasonably expensive,” Radina writes. He says he’d work to expand opportunities to live in the city through “inclusionary zoning practices, accessory housing, tiny homes, and co-op communities–and transit-oriented development.”
Evan Redmond, twenty-nine, works at a marketing analytics firm and says he’s running because “council likes to make big declarations like there’s a housing emergency and then proceed to not really address it.” A Bernie Sanders fan who’s endorsed by the Huron Valley Democratic Socialists, he’s working with a couple of volunteers and hopes to raise $5,000. He says he’d work to defund and demilitarize the police department and to change zoning to allow denser housing.
Jack Eaton, sixty-seven, is a retired labor lawyer. The three-term incumbent writes that he’s running again because “I’m not done with the things that I wanted to do.” Those include “continu[ing] to seek a more effective clean-up of the Gelman plume,” and “addressing housing affordability in a meaningful way that includes affordability not just for those eligible for housing subsidies but also for working people who struggle to afford our housing prices, taxes and fees, and for those on a fixed income who are challenged by our fees and taxes … The City needs to avoid raising taxes during a recession when residents are suffering wage reductions and job losses.”
Eaton has “more than a dozen volunteers” and says he’ll probably self-finance a “fair portion” of his campaign.
Jen Eyer, forty-six, a partner in Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs, is a former MLive.com journalist who briefly served on the county board of commissioners. She has “dozens” of volunteers, had raised $25,000 by early May, and says she’ll “raise enough to win.”
“The thing that I would like to change most [on council] is the amount of postponing and delaying issues,” Eyer writes. “We need leaders who will collaborate [and] take action.”
She says that the firing of Lazarus “damaged Ann Arbor’s reputation” and calls the $277,000 separation agreement “fiscally irresponsible.” A committed Activist, she sums up the split as “the difference between taking us backward or leading Ann Arbor forward.”
Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, sixty, is an environmental toxicologist previously best known locally for staging anti-Israel protests in front of a local synagogue with her husband, Blaine Coleman–at least once carrying a sign with a swastika replacing the “S” in Israel. She supports more effective action on the Gelman plume, but other goals range far beyond the city–including repealing the state “right-to-work” law and the federal Taft-Hartley labor relations act.
She recently posted two caricatures of her Ward 4 rivals on the Ann Arbor Politics website. One shows Jack Eaton and two pigs wearing police uniforms pointing guns at the viewer while the other has Jen Eyer taking cash from a cigar-smoking pig.
She calls the pigs “a longstanding labor art tradition.” Eyer calls the image “clearly anti-Semitic.” Eaton writes that he didn’t see it that way at first, but “Given Dr. Savabieasfahani’s prior conduct, I can understand how someone might draw that conclusion.”
Erica Briggs, forty-three, has a master’s in public administration from EMU and is on the city’s planning commission. She has “thirty-plus” volunteers and wants to raise $35,000.
Briggs got into politics via the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition, and is frustrated at how progress in nonmotorized transit has slowed under the Basics majority. “The majority of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements over the last two years have been voted down (even free projects),” she emails, including “[t]he Green Road and Earhart Road reconfigurations.”
She’s also disappointed at the rejection of “modest revisions to make it a bit easier to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) in neighborhoods, and, most recently, a proposal to ask Planning Commission to make a recommendation about necessary code changes to enable more housing along transit corridors.”
David Silkworth, fifty-two and an insurance adjuster, is running his campaign with his spouse, has ten volunteers, and hopes to raise about $13,000.
He emails that his priorities would include helping residents and business owners “who continue to experience financial losses due to COVID-19.” Even before the pandemic, he writes, they were suffering “the negative effects caused by the sustained concentration of success in our community at a time when local government didn’t have an adequate redistributive mechanism in place to ensure that those successes could be shared by folks who didn’t share in them directly.”
Silkworth says he’d work “to increase our supply of affordable housing while maintaining essential city and human services and affordability for current residents.” But allowing major changes in existing neighborhoods, he writes, would lead only to “increased gentrification and a continued lack of affordability.”
Dan Michniewicz, thirty-three, is the other Democratic Socialist in the race. A Zingerman’s baker laid off by the pandemic, he had raised $5,000 by early May and is his own manager, with a couple friends as advisers.
He’s calling for creation of a city energy utility, defunding the police, and increasing “the stock of decommodified housing, including cooperatives and Ann Arbor Housing Commission Units.” And he has a unique take on the present political deadlock: it may be a feature of the system, not a bug. A “very dysfunctional city council can be very good for some people in our community,” he writes, “especially if you don’t want anything to change very much.”