“It’s a bad year for Democrats,” says Bill Ballenger of Lansing, publisher of Inside Michigan Politics and onetime Republican state senator. Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum, a Democrat, agrees: “There’s a lot of anti-incumbent feeling–what amounts to pro-Republican feeling.” With Ann Arbor Republican Rick Snyder polling far ahead of Lansing Democrat Virg Bernero in the governor’s race, even solidly blue Washtenaw County could take on a purple tinge November 2.
The biggest unknown is how the red surge will affect two legislative races: In the 7th U.S. Congressional District west and north of the city, Democrat Mark Schauer and Republican Tim Walberg are slugging it out in a rematch of the contest Schauer narrowly won two years ago. Voters in the same area, plus Ann Arbor’s east side, will decide whether Republican Mark Ouimet or Democrat Christine Green (see photo) goes to Lansing. And, in the who’d-have-thunk-it category, “Big John” Dingell, with more than half a century in the U.S. House, is running a serious campaign against Republican cardiologist Rob Steele.
The GOP revival hasn’t reached solidly Democratic Ann Arbor–the only Republican on the ballot is Fifth Ward council candidate John Floyd. But even in the city, the anti-tax Tea Party movement is running a full slate of county commission candidates under the GOP banner. The Tea Partiers won’t win control of the commission–but they are poised to become kingmakers in the county Republican Party.
Who’ll go to Lansing?
Two Democratic state representatives, Ann Arbor’s Rebekah Warren and Lyndon Township’s Pam Byrnes, fought for the right to succeed the term-limited Liz Brater in the state senate. Warren won the August primary, and should win easily on November 2. Jeff Irwin’s primary victory also gives him a virtual lock on Warren’s state house seat.
But the contest in Byrnes’ 52nd District is wide open. Though Byrnes held this seat for six years, Republican Joe Yekulis held it previously, and Mark Ouimet and Christine Green are campaigning furiously; by mid-October, Green and her people had knocked on at least 16,000 doors; Ouimet, a sole-numbing 27,000.
The race started pleasantly enough but soon turned nasty; at a photo shoot in mid October, Green joked that the photographer should avoid capturing their “black eyes.”
From an old Ann Arbor family, Ouimet, sixty-one, served two terms on the Ann Arbor city council before moving to Scio Township, where he’s now finishing his third term on the county commission. He’s also been a banker and education executive.
Ouimet doesn’t mention his party affiliation in his promotional materials, and his website emphasizes bringing together “people of all walks of life and all political persuasions.” But his campaign echoes familiar GOP themes, criticizing increased taxes and regulations, and his backers include the local Chamber of Commerce and many other business groups. Still, he’s not opposed to all government intervention in the economy–he suggests redirecting a portion of county employees’ pension funds into loans for local start-up businesses. To reduce the shock of unpredictable budget cuts, he also wants the state to start budgeting on a two-year cycle.
Green, fifty-nine, is an attorney and one-term Scio Township trustee. She suggests the state could cut its huge prison costs by letting nonviolent offenders do time in the community. She wants the state to act to free up credit, possibly through a recently passed, federally funded small business act or by establishing a state-controlled bank. This, she believes, would encourage start-ups, especially high-tech and environmentally friendly ventures like wind turbine manufacturers. “The ‘green’ economy is a huge source of potential new jobs,” she says.
She questions Ouimet’s moderate credentials, predicting that “when he gets there, he’s voting with the Republicans.” Ouimet reiterates that he’s his own man, pointing out that he’s not a Tea Partier, and did not accept money from either Right to Life or Planned Parenthood.
In October, the Washtenaw County Democratic party attacked Ouimet for collecting unauthorized per-diems and mileage reimbursements. Ouimet responded that he’d never been told some events weren’t eligible for reimbursement, and that in any case he donates all his income from the county to charity. Around the same time, anonymous robocalls accused Green of failing to pay property taxes. Green says the defaults occurred nearly thirty years ago, when her husband was just starting the practice she later joined, and that they have long since been repaid. (Ouimet says he doesn’t know who paid for the calls.)
Ouimet ran for this seat once before, in 1992, when he lost to Democrat Mary Schroer. But he’s got a big advantage this time: as of late August, he’d raised four times as much money as his opponent–$189,000 to Green’s $46,000.
election update: Ouimet won by a margin of 52-48 percent
Who’ll go to Washington?
Republican state legislators designed the 15th Congressional District to force a cage match between two incumbent Democrats, Ann Arbor’s Lynn Rivers and Dearborn’s John Dingell. Dingell won that bitter 2002 primary, continuing a career that began when he was appointed to succeed his late father in 1955. He’s now the longest-serving member in the history of the House of Representatives, winning reelection in 2008 with 71 percent of the vote.
Yet some Republicans believe that this year even the eighty-four-year-old “Dean of the House” is vulnerable. “Dr. Steele has an actual shot of knocking off Mr. Dingell,” says Dave Adamson, who’s on the executive committee of the county Republican party. “For the first time in decades they are actually scared and actually spending money to protect him!”
Adamson is right that Dingell is taking Steele seriously–but the incumbent insists, in a phone interview, that “I always view every race as the most serious one I’ve ever had.” And pundit Bill Ballenger isn’t persuaded that Dingell’s in real danger: “While it’s a bad year for Democrats, the odds are still against Rob Steele,” he says.
“I am running on my record and what I’ve done,” says Dingell. A master of both Washington and district politics, he’s been wooing Ann Arbor voters ardently ever since the redistricting–most recently with October’s announcement that he’d helped secure $14 million in federal funds to replace the decrepit Stadium Boulevard bridges.
A lifelong champion of national health care, Dingell hails what Republicans sneeringly call “Obamamare” for greatly expanding the number of people with health insurance without breaking the bank. “People of limited means are going to be subsidized … Medicare is going to be assured of increased solvency. The insurance companies saying we’re cutting Medicare–they’re lying.”
He’s also running against Steele. “This year we can stop Rob Steele’s extremist agenda,” declares a Dingell mailing. It calls Steele a “leader in the local Tea Party movement” and asserts he would “slash funding for Medicare,” “privatize Social Security,” and “protect tax breaks for the wealthy and big corporations.”
Steele, fifty-two, a cardiologist and co-founder of the Michigan Heart medical group, is much better known as a physician than a candidate–his website says he’s performed “more than 15,000 cardiac catheterization procedures.” But he’s outspoken about politics. One patient, who praises Steele’s friendliness and technical competence, got an earful of those during an office visit last year. “He spent probably ten or fifteen minutes talking to me about the problems with the Michigan economy, which he laid to some considerable extent on unions.”
In a phone interview, Steele says he’s “absolutely not” a leader of the Tea Party movement, but acknowledges he often addresses Tea Party groups. “I think they identify with me because I’ve not been involved with politics before,” he says–and because they share his “frustration with government spending.”
Steele says he decided to run when he realized the growing federal debt “would impact my children’s and grandchildren’s opportunity.” But he calls Dingell’s claim that he would slash Medicare and privatize Social Security “a flat-out fabrication. Every day in the office I take care of patients on Medicare and Social Security.” (He says he also sees poorly reimbursed Medicaid patients, and patients with no insurance at all.) Turning the issue around, he criticizes Dingell for his vote on the 1965 Medicare bill, which, he says, allowed the government to tap the Social Security trust fund for other purposes.
Steele is strongly anti-tax increase, even for the rich. “I think absolutely that people who make $2 million should have money go back to the country,” he says–but as investors, not through the government: “By being invested in the banks, people get ahead and start businesses and create jobs. Two key points!”
The physician calls the health care bill “a disaster,” predicting, “It’s going to explode [health care] costs.” He says his firm has held costs for its 300 employees flat for the last five years by using “flex spending accounts, wellness programs,” and by learning the “actual” expenses of Blue Cross to “negotiate a better deal.” He complains that the new health care legislation will impose “strict new limits” on some of these measures. Besides, he says, “Dingell-Pelosi Care” does nothing to limit what he considers “the single largest cause of waste of health care”–medical malpractice suits.
election update: Dingell won by a margin of 57-40 percent
Voters in the 7th Congressional District, which starts just west and north of the city, also will “have a clear choice in November,” asserts Republican Tim Walberg. His opponent, Democrat Mark Schauer, does not dispute this. There is little else on which the two agree.
A pastor and conservative Republican from Tipton, near Adrian, Walberg held the 7th District seat for one term before losing to Schauer, a moderate-to-liberal Democrat from Battle Creek. It was a close race two years ago, and it appears to be a toss-up this fall. Schauer spokesman Zach Pohl says that as of early October the national Republican Congressional Committee had spent more on TV ads promoting Walberg (almost $350,000) than on any other race. The candidates each raised more than $500,000 in the most recent reporting period.
Schauer has attempted to win independents with attacks on NAFTA, and introduced a bill that, in the words of his website, “would ban Chinese companies from bidding on contracts with the U.S. government.” Schauer praises the Obama stimulus bills that created teaching and other jobs in Michigan, but also has stated that he would maintain all of the Bush tax cuts.
Walberg declined to be interviewed by the Observer. In a written statement he charges that “Schauer has increased government spending by trillions and the result is fewer jobs, higher taxes, and more debt to burden our children. Instead of creating Michigan jobs, Mark Schauer’s trillion-dollar stimulus created thousands of jobs in China, spent our money to search for fossils in Argentina, and sent stimulus checks to prisoners.” Walberg writes that his own plan to create jobs “involves cutting taxes on small businesses and families, reducing the size of government, and repealing Obamacare.”
It’s not a friendly race. Schauer pounced on an embarrassing incident early this fall when Walberg told a caller on a Battle Creek radio station that “I really don’t know” whether President Obama was born in this country (Walberg later declared himself satisfied that the president is native born). Schauer has also run an ad featuring an audio clip of Walberg voicing support for privatizing the “so-called Social Security system.” Walberg retorts that the quote was taken out of context, and that, while he would like younger Americans to have options, he would not seek to dismantle the popular program.
election update: Walberg won by a margin of 50-45 percent
The Tea Party makes its move
In 2008, Republicans ran in five of the eleven Washtenaw county commissioner races. This year, Republicans are running in ten races–and would have been in all eleven had Chase Ingersoll not decided instead to launch a long-shot challenge to Jeff Irwin.
Credit the change to the Tea Party movement. “We’re always looking for good candidates,” says Republican county chair Mark Boonstra. “Unfortunately we did not always have good candidates in the past. But this year the Ann Arbor Tea Party stepped up with Joe Baublis, Melinda Day, and Mark Tipping.” The three are contesting Ann Arbor districts 8, 9, and 11 (Ingersoll’s switch left Conan Smith unopposed in District 10).
Boonstra says he has no qualms running Tea Party nominees because “these folks are part of the Republican Party.” Bill Bigler, who organized April’s Tea Party rally on the Diag, likewise says he has no qualms running his people as Republicans because “the GOP is the logical place for the Tea Party to go.”
District 8 candidate Melinda Day, twenty-five, was born in Tucson, came here three years ago for a PhD in microbiology, and works full-time as a research assistant. She says she’s running because “as a grad student, I find we’re getting hit really hard by the economy. Unemployment for people my age is really high because of the economic environment the government has created with huge budget deficits that scare business away.” As for the county budget, Day says, “the first thing to do would be to cut contributions to nonprofits. Then we should look into restructuring the county government.”
Incumbent Democrat Barbara Bergman points out that the current board has already balanced the current year’s budget despite a $34 million revenue shortfall–though since property tax revenues will continue to fall, balancing “the 2012-13 budget will [also] be tough.” Bergman believes she’s the best person for that job because after eighteen years as a commissioner, “I’ve got the experience, the compassion, and the knowledge to know what the issues are and what makes government work”–all qualities she says the Tea Party Republicans lack.
Joe Baublis, fifty, moved from Pinckney to the northeast side three years ago and is currently doing home repairs. Running in District 11, he calls for “cuts across the board. Social services should be cut, and so should the homeless shelter. There should be cuts for the prosecutor’s office, cuts for the judges, cuts for human resources, cuts for IT, cuts for the union, cuts for the sheriff. And we should cut from the top echelon, cut the pay of the highest-paid administrators and the highest-paid judges and the county administrator”–though, he admits, “I don’t even know who [the county administrator] is.”
Democrat Yousef Rabhi completely disagrees. For Rabhi, the crucial budget issue is: “How can we maintain the level of human services? That’s the core of what the county does. Taxes are an integral part of government, and it’s good to see our money being used to provide health care, mental health services, veterans’ services.” While Baublis “sees it as the people versus the government,” Rabhi says, “I say the people are the government. It shouldn’t have to be a battle. I believe we can work together.”
The third Tea Party candidate, Mark Tipping, has no website and has declined to be interviewed by any member of the local media. His opponent, 9th District Democrat Leah Gunn, agrees with Bergman that the challenge will be “to find more ways to cut the budget. In 2011, we’re looking at having to cut $1 million. But the big years will be 2012 and 2013, when we’re looking at $13-14 million. We’ll have to really dig to preserve services and maintain fiscal stability.”
Even with the backing of the Tea Party, Baublis, Day, and Tipping have no chance of winning. So why are they running? “We hope to become active in and even dominant in the Republican Party, and this was one opportunity to do that,” says Bigler. By running for office, the Tea Partiers will automatically get to vote for the next party county chair.
This intra-party power grab might not make much difference to the average Ann Arborite, except for one thing. When Washtenaw County is redistricted in 2012, the five people who get to decide how it’s done are the county prosecutor, treasurer, and clerk–plus the chairs of the two parties. Next year, a Tea Party Republican is likely to be sitting at that table.
election update: Democrats Bergman, Gunn, and Rabhi all won by margins of more than 70 percent
Critiquing “single-party rule”
“Tony Derezinski came to my door in April and said, ‘Can you sign my [nominating] petition?'” recalls resident Emily Salvette. “I said, ‘No, I have my own party'”–she’s the Libertarian state chair. “And he said, ‘But I’m running unopposed!’ That’s when I knew I had to run.”
The decisive battles in city politics now take place in the August Democratic primary, where mayor John Hieftje and council members Carsten Hohnke, Sandi Smith, and Margie Teall all survived stiff challenges this year. But that hasn’t stopped Libertarian Salvette, independents John Bean and Newcombe Clark, and Republican John Floyd from contesting the November vote as well. Though none is likely to win, they’re seizing the chance to critique the governing Democrats.
While Derezinski floats the idea of an income tax to close the city’s budget gap, Salvette is strongly opposed. “Tony loves government and believes it can do great things–and I don’t,” she explains.
“She believes government should be extremely limited,” says Derezinski. “I find that too doctrinaire.” He also says that he’s better qualified than Salvette because “I’ve worked with local government for most of my legal career.”
In the west-side Fifth Ward, Carsten Hohnke faces both Republican John Floyd and independent Newcombe Clark.
“We haven’t had contested elections in years,” says Floyd. “It’s like North Korea.” An accountant who also ran against Hohnke in 2008, Floyd says he’s running “for the same reasons as last time: important questions are not being asked, or at least not in public. There’s a lack of transparency and accountability, and the root is one-party government.”
Hohnke responds that there’s nothing wrong with one-party government, “as long as there’s diversity in the conversation.” Far from lacking transparency and accountability, he says, the city “receives independent accolades for its openness.”
Unlike the Republican candidates for county commissioner (see above), Floyd is no Tea Party Republican. “I’m part of the more progressive wing of the party. I’m for fiscal responsibility and a balanced budget, but I realize that in an urban setting, the market can’t solve all problems.”
Clark, twenty-nine, a commercial real estate agent and developer, says he’s running against Hohnke because “I approached Carsten about my displeasure on about a dozen things, and I was dissatisfied with his responses.”
Two of those things were the Moravian and Heritage Row developments, which would have rezoned near-downtown sites to permit large apartment buildings. “One or two individuals derailed it,” says Clark, a partner in the Moravian project. “And one of the persons who voted against both was my representative.”
Clark says he’s a Democrat, but he’s running as an independent because “I wasn’t here for the primary. I was in Germany, watching my girlfriend defend her dissertation.”
Hohnke has little to say about Clark. “I don’t really know what his issues and positions are. But I understand the downtown and its issues. My record shows I work to make growth happen, but within reasonable limits.”
Steve Bean says he filed for mayor as an independent because “it doesn’t make sense for me to join a party to run for office.” The chair of the city’s environmental commission, he says he’s running because “I’ve been thinking about global issues like peak oil and climate change, and I want to bring that down to community level.
“John [Hieftje] does a great job of promoting the city, and he’s done a great job on the budget process,” Bean concedes. “We’re doing really well, and I don’t want to interfere. But if people are looking for someone new who can offer something different, I’ve got that perspective.”
Like Hohnke, Hieftje doesn’t see one-party government as a liability. “There’s a whole lot of diversity of opinion in the Democratic Party. Look at the very robust primary campaigns this year.”
The incumbent says his long-term goal is “to make Ann Arbor the very best place to live in the world.” His short-term goal is “to get through this [recession] without increasing the millage … In fact, our millage is slightly lower today than in 2000.”
To do that, Hieftje says, he’s committed to “finding more efficiencies. But at the same time, we’re working on recycling, working towards sustainability, and working on transportation–so we’re better prepared for when fuel prices go back up.”
election update: Hohnke, Derezinski, and Hieftje won reelection by respective margins of 69, 79, and 82 percent
What Next for the Library?
Seven people are running for four seats on the board of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). Incumbents Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, and Edward Surovell are seeking four-year terms, as is newcomer Vivienne Armentrout. Three candidates are competing to serve the two years remaining in former trustee Jean King’s term–Lyn Powrie Davidge, Nancy Kaplan, and Carola Stearns (who currently holds the seat by appointment).
The AADL is healthier than most in Michigan. When the Great Recession hit, the library avoided layoffs and, as a goodwill gesture, even slightly reduced its millage. The big question facing the next board is whether to move ahead on replacing the library’s flagship downtown branch.
The board had just approved plans to ask the voters for a millage to replace the 52-year-old building when the economy crashed two years ago. Incumbents Murphy, Newman, and Surovell all support going forward–when, as Surovell puts it, “it’s fiscally responsible.” Stearns says that while “the building isn’t getting any better,” she thinks the board should “reevaluate everything.”
Vivienne Armentrout, a former county commissioner (and Observer contributor), says that given the region’s economic constraints, she opposes building in the near future. Nancy Kaplan says she wants to explore the issue, particularly in the context of the shift from print to digital media. Powrie Davidge also would keep the question open–she’s particularly interested to know how a new library would relate to a potential development atop the underground parking structure being built next door.
election update: incumbents Murphy, Newman, and Surovell won new 3-year terms. Powrie Davidge won the partial term and will replace Stearns on the board.