With a month to go, the Ann Arbor Democratic primary is already the nastiest local election in a generation. What other election has had a mayoral challenger who says she’d vote for Satan before the incumbent–and the incumbent saying it’s hard not to arrive at the conclusion that his opponent is a liar?
Fueling the heated rhetoric are two wildly conflicting visions of Ann Arbor. Challenger Pat Lesko sees the city administration as incompetent, the council as dysfunctional, and the budget as opaque and bulging with hidden funds. Incumbent John Hieftje sees the administration as effective, council as working well together in hard times, and the budget as clean and lean. The election may hinge on whose version of reality voters believe.
Patricia Lesko was born in Dearborn in 1961 and moved to Ann Arbor at twenty. She got a bachelor’s in psychology and an MFA from the U-M in the 1980s and now owns a book publishing company, the Part-Time Press, and an online magazine, Adjunct Nation. (She’s also written occasional freelance articles for the Observer.) She lives on the city’s northeast side with her partner, Marjorie Winkelman Lesko, and their two sons.
Lesko twice has managed council campaigns and last year led a petition drive that would have amended the city charter to require public votes on all bond issues. But this will be the first time her name appears on the ballot: her only previous run for office, in 2008, was as a write-in candidate in the First Ward Democratic primary.
Both of the council candidates she managed lost, the petitions for her proposed charter revision were never submitted, and Lesko ended up with 297 votes to Sandi Smith’s 900 in the 2009 primary. In an interview on her deck in her leafy backyard, I ask why she thinks she can win now.
“That’s assuming I’ve been unsuccessful in past times,” she replies cheerfully. “I’m a really hard worker, and if you work hard, if you go door to door, if you talk to people, if you have a message that they can relate to, you have a very good chance. The second [reason] is that I think the anti-incumbent feeling in the United States is strong.”
The incumbent, John Hieftje, was born in Battle Creek in 1951, nine months before his family moved to Ann Arbor. Elected to council from the First Ward in 1999 and as mayor in 2000, Hieftje is the city’s longest-serving leader in more than fifty years. Once a real estate agent, he now works full time as mayor, earning $45,000 a year. (Under previous mayors, it was a part-time job paying less than $20,000.) Hieftje also teaches one class a year at the U-M’s Ford School of Public Policy–for which, he volunteers, he earns $16,300 a year. He graduated from EMU in 1997 and lives in Burns Park with his wife, Kathryn Goodson, a pianist.
Every two years since 2000, Hieftje has faced a challenger, and every time he’s won handily. He’s adept at taking credit for popular initiatives–including one he championed but didn’t really initiate, the Greenbelt–while distancing himself from unpopular ones. But over time he’s accumulated enemies, and lately the number of controversies has multiplied.
Fanning the flames has been Lesko’s blog, a2politico.com. Witty, scathing, and for many months anonymous, it projects a breezy contempt for Hieftje, his council allies, and the city administration. But what makes it compelling is its alternative account of what ails Ann Arbor.
According to almost everyone in city government, Ann Arbor’s biggest problems are external: Michigan’s deep recession, the real estate bust, and falling revenue from the state. The result, they say, is a structural deficit so severe that only painful staff cuts have kept the budget in balance.
In Lesko’s view, the city’s biggest problems are self-inflicted–the result, she writes, of “a long-time unchecked scheme to create phantom deficits, over-charge residents for services, build up surpluses, then spend the surpluses to feed the bureaucracy.” Lesko calls Hieftje’s repeated statements that reducing the workforce was necessary to balance the budget a “cruel deception”–she blames “sheer managerial incompetence.”
Judging from comments on her blog and elsewhere, Lesko’s narrative has struck a chord. And as a newcomer, she has no political history of her own to defend, while Hieftje has a ten-year record to criticize. Though she often jabs at other politicians and administrators, those are love taps compared to her attacks on Hieftje–most memorably, when she wrote that she “would have voted for Satan if he’d have run against our Mayor” in 2008.
Unlike some cities, where the mayor plays both political and executive roles, Ann Arbor has a “weak mayor” government. The staff reports to Roger Fraser, who in turn reports to the entire city council. Aside from a never-used veto, Hieftje is just one of eleven votes on council. Yet he’s used his visibility effectively to push through major changes, from cutting the city workforce to the recent downtown rezoning.
The staff cuts were back in the news in June, when AnnArbor.com ‘s Ryan Stanton followed Lesko as she campaigned door to door and caught her in a series of misstatements. Among other things, she exaggerated recent city spending by more than $300 million and told voters that the city had just laid off police officers and firefighters. (Though both departments are losing staff, only vacant positions are being cut.) Update: on July 1, AnnArbor.com reported the layoffs of three firefighters and one civilian employee.
In a fiery response on her blog, Lesko demanded a front-page apology, claiming that the article was “filled with libelous statements and blatant errors.” But her list of alleged errors was thinly documented and ignored her biggest gaffes, including her accusations of “layoffs.” Instead, Lesko devoted most of her space to savaging Stanton–a reporter whose work she’d previously praised. She called the article a “hatchet job” and suggested Stanton wrote it because she caught him in what she called a “breach of journalistic ethics.”
Stanton, she alleged, asked a “political insider” to submit questions for him to ask her–a routine journalistic practice. Lesko wrote that the same insider then invited her to submit questions, too–in effect, giving her the chance to be her own interrogator. That’s more amusing than unethical–but on her blog, Lesko described it as “An Offer to Rig AA.com’s Coverage of the Mayor’s Race.”
Stanton’s experience, it turns out, is hardly unique. People who’ve worked with her in other contexts say that Lesko’s charm and enthusiasm all too often give way to anger and insults. Long before Lesko entered politics, people who disagreed with her found their competence and ethics under attack.
In her campaign literature and in person, Lesko mentions the Hebrew Day School, the People’s Food Co-op, and Temple Beth Emeth as examples of her community involvement. Though she doesn’t cite them, she also served on the board of Beth Israel Congregation and as a parent volunteer for the Northside School PTO.
Though I contacted more than a dozen people who served with Lesko in those organizations, only four were willing to speak about her on the record. One person had good things to say. The other three all described her as a source of conflict.
Lesko recalls her time on the co-op board in 1993 as “a good experience.” But board minutes show that she was highly critical of the store’s management and quit just six months into her three-year term. In a message relayed by another member, she explained, according to the minutes, that she left because “the Board is acting irresponsibly and the Management Team does not want to change.”
In a comment on AnnArbor.com, Northside parent Chris Fraleigh wrote that Lesko’s style was so “disruptive and abrasive” that he stopped attending PTO meetings. But Amy Booker, who had children at Northside from 2001 to 2008, says she saw no problems. Booker–whom Marjorie Lesko suggested I contact–says Lesko had “a nice way to connect with people and she was always very active.”
I found no one at Hebrew Day School who remembers Lesko so positively. Lesko told me she quit the school’s board after learning that a staffer “basically took money.” She claims the head of the school, Dina Shtull, “signed off on the improprieties…I felt like, as a board member, she was ultimately responsible for them.”
Asked to comment, Shtull replies by email: “Hebrew Day School denies that there were any financial improprieties at the school and says that there is no basis for such an allegation.”
Former HDS board member Jenny Lewis remembers Lesko vividly. “She wanted to help, but the way she went about it was destructive and hurtful,” says Lewis. “She’d send out these flaming emails, hundreds of them, and some were legitimate concerns and some just scandal mongering–and I’m understating it.”
Nor did Lesko limit herself to emails. “I’ve been at a board meeting where she came completely unglued,” says Lewis. “I sit on a lot of community boards, and I’d never seen anything like it….With her, everything became contentious, everything became a fight.”
“Pat has never been able to function in any kind of group setting for more than a few months without huge conflicts arising,” says Adrianne Neff, whose kids were in religious school with Lesko’s at Temple Beth Emeth. “I’ve seen and heard it happen again and again: Pat Lesko gets involved in a group, massive conflict ensues, and people leave. Pat has a certain charisma, and initially she’s welcomed. Then the ugly fights and accusations start…the common denominator is Pat causing the conflict, not everyone else somehow doing something wrong.”
“I used to be friendly with Pat Lesko,” says David Hamermesh, “but I no longer speak with her. I interacted with her on a softball team, which she managed. The team fell apart, largely because her managerial style consisted of yelling and swearing at her team. I interacted with her as a parent and board member of the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor. Her behavior was despicable in repeated instances, and it led to her leaving the school board.”
Lesko left the board of Beth Israel Congregation at the same time. She says she did so because rabbi Robert Dobrusin sided with Shtull–and also because he failed to act when she complained about what she considered to be an “unethical” plan to reallocate restricted funds. Dobrusin won’t comment, but a congregant stresses that Lesko is a former member of Beth Israel. She’s now a member of Beth Emeth, whose rabbi, Bob Levy, says he would never discuss a member without her permission.
Lesko describes herself as “passionate.” Others describe her as “angry.” But First Ward council member Sabra Briere, a former Lesko supporter, says in an email that her concern is “not so much about anger as it is about leadership skills. During my brief experience with Pat’s council campaign, and then later when she thought about being active in the Democratic Party organization, I learned that she was quick to jump to a conclusion, fast to reach a judgment about others’ motives, easily offended, and happy to offend. These are not good traits in someone who has to represent the City in any way to other municipalities, the state government, Washington, business leaders, and other governmental and non-governmental organizations.”
In an email response, Lesko says she has “no recollection” of having a meltdown at a board meeting. While “the last time I played on an organized sports team was 1996,” she adds, she “expected good sportsmanship from those whom I coached and played with.”
Asked about what others see as a pattern of conflict, she responds: “If there is a pattern in my behavior, it is of being aware and taking extremely seriously the fiduciary and legal responsibilities that come with a spot on any board.” Far from being easily offended, she says, she has “a very thick skin”–and suggests that she gives offense only for good cause: “I will say that if I continue to speak the truth, ask hard questions, propose creative solutions, work to end cronyism, conflicts of interest, and make sure that city government is transparent, to push to see that the City Administrator is held accountable, and that Ann Arbor is a city that serves the citizens first, I will offend people.”
Her political allies also speak on Lesko’s behalf. “I respect and admire her,” says Fourth Ward candidate Jack Eaton. “She’s a strong-willed person, but I don’t think she’s personal in her attacks.”
“Her opponents have a desire to characterize her as angry, irrational, and dangerous,” says Fifth Ward candidate Lou Glorie. “I’ve never seen anything to suggest that. She’s the strong leader we need.”
Lesko’s personality may or may not be a political asset, but her fiscal analysis certainly is–if voters accept her contention that the city has vast cash reserves that could be returned to the general fund to sustain core services. “No city with $102,000,000…in fund surpluses,” she wrote in April, “needs to cut police, fire, privatize its golf courses, stop tending its parks, or start charging residents $3 to drop off recycling.”
A table Lesko included shows that by far the biggest reserve–$59 million–is held by the sewer and water department. She calls recent water and sewer rate increases a “backdoor tax,” and asks why, with so much money on hand, city council continues to raise them each year. “Sue McCormick [the city’s public services administrator] came to council and said we need this money to do infrastructure projects,” Lesko says. “There was no justification.”
When I interviewed McCormick for an Observer feature last year, though, she was very clear about why her department is raising rates: it needs to pay for a new, $140 million sewage treatment plant. McCormick calls Lesko’s complaint that no justification was given for the hikes “hilarious at best.” The project, she points out, has been discussed in “utility planning and public engagement efforts over the better part of the last decade.” Asked about her department’s surplus, McCormick says that all but $6 million is already committed to the sewer plant and other projects.
The new sewage plant will be the most expensive civic building project in Ann Arbor’s history. The utilities department posts regular progress reports on the city’s website. Yet though Lesko talked to me repeatedly about the water and sewer department’s fund balance, she never mentioned it.
Lesko does have a lot to say about two other city building projects: the underground parking structure next to the Ann Arbor District Library, and the new police-courts building going up next to City Hall. Like the other candidates in her unofficial slate, she opposes both. But as with the budget, Lesko doesn’t just disagree with the decision to construct the police-courts building–she weaves it into a compelling narrative. Other council members, she alleges, strong-armed Hieftje into supporting the project.
“Emails [between council members] came out that show he was possibly intimidated into withholding his veto by the majority on city council who composed an email saying if you veto this, we will make it so that you can’t get anything passed,” Lesko says. “It’s like blackmail, right? Extortion?”
“Absolutely not,” says Leigh Greden, the former councilmember who wrote the email in question. “I drafted that email, but the email was never sent to the mayor. The mayor didn’t even know the email existed–and tellingly, it took about a year before the mayor decided to support the project.”
Hieftje doesn’t repudiate the police-courts building, but he doesn’t boast about it, either–it’s notably missing from the list of accomplishments on his campaign website, hieftje.org. Instead, the site stresses the money saved by the staff reorganization, the city’s solid economic condition, and quality of life initiatives like the Greenbelt and renewable energy.
While Lesko’s a2politico.com has been launching verbal bombs at Hieftje since last year, much of the incumbent’s website was still under construction in June. The challenger’s lawn signs also hit the streets sooner, often paired with ones that announced “Firefighters for Lesko”–both the firefighters and police unions have endorsed her.
While Lesko is voluble and dramatic, Hieftje is short-spoken and understated. But he chooses his words carefully, and they’re often more pointed than his tone might suggest. When Lesko posted her objections to Stanton’s campaign-trail story, a statement that she described as “libelous” topped the list. It was a quote from Hiefje saying that in his experience, her blog “wasn’t very truthful.”
Early in his career the mayor was deferential, projecting an almost boyish desire to please. It’s a sign of his growing confidence that he not only made that criticism to Stanton, but repeated it to me even more directly. When I asked if he thought it was fair for online commentators to call Lesko a liar, he answered: “From reading the press coverage, it would be difficult not to arrive at that conclusion.”
It’s impossible for one person know another’s motives, of course, and Lesko maintains she hasn’t deliberately deceived anyone. But she certainly has been wrong on important facts.
For instance, Lesko told me a story about the fire department that seemed to justify her narrative of duplicity at the city’s highest levels: “The University of Michigan gave money to the city for a fire truck, and the city took that money, I was told by the president of the firefighter’s union, and they divided it into multiple funds, so that when it came time to buy the fire truck, the city’s answer was we never got the money. The University of Michigan said we gave the money, here’s the canceled check. Canceled check was shown to the city, and the city said it’s a mistake. We were never given this money. The University of Michigan, so I was told by the firefighter, sent a forensic accountant to the city of Ann Arbor. They found the money. They found a $500,000 chunk of money divided into multiple accounts.”
That sounded like Lesko was saying the city never purchased the fire truck, so I asked Hieftje if he could document the use of the university’s money. He produced a copy of the 2004 council action approving an expenditure of $439,495.34 to buy not one but two fire trucks–and even dug up a photo of the trucks posed outside Michigan Stadium.
When I relayed that to Lesko, she told me, “I never said the city didn’t buy the equipment.” She still maintains the money was improperly handled and asks, “Was it duplicity or ineptitude?”
So did the university really have to send in “forensic accountants” to keep the city honest? Not according to U-M community relations vice president Jim Kosteva. “To the best of my knowledge,” he says, “the university did not do any such hiring or any such investigation of the city’s utilization of the contribution that was made.”
I asked the person Lesko described as her source, firefighters union president Matthew Schroeder, if he had any evidence the university’s funds were misused. Schroeder told me he believes “there’s something to that story” but admitted that he personally has no “firsthand knowledge of that issue.”
Schroeder referred me to union member Craig Ferris. Ferris said he’d have to check with Schroeder–and never called me back.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the July 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. Corrections: Lesko’s role in the Northside School PTO, the name of Beth Israel Congregation, the identification of the person who described Lesko as a former member of Beth Israel, and the school where Adrianne Neff and Lesko overlapped. An update acknowledges that four fire department staffers were laid off at the end of June.