New residents recolor Western Washtenaw’s political map

“He looked unbeatable,” recalls Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly. Going into last fall’s campaign against Saline mayor Gretchen Driskell, Kelly says, Republican state rep Mark Ouimet “was well known and well liked in most of the political community.” The GOP-controlled legislature had even sacrificed another Republican incumbent, Rick Olson, to boost Ouimet’s chances, moving conservative Northfield and Salem townships from Olson’s district to Ouimet’s. Yet Driskell still knocked Ouimet out of office, winning 53 percent of the vote.

Republican county commissioner Rob Turner likewise looked unbeatable–until he lost to Democrat Kent Martinez-Kratz 48 to 52 percent in District One. “That one was an even bigger surprise,” continues Kelly. “Gretchen was out there working really hard, and I don’t know what else Kent did, but he never came to a township board meeting and introduced himself.”

Kelly, herself a Democrat, narrowly beat back Republican challenger Jim Drolett 51 to 49 percent in her own township. “Jim had been supervisor for twelve years,” she says. “He was well liked, too, and his wife was running for treasurer.” Jim Drolett lost but Pat Drolett won, along with longtime Republican clerk Harley Rider plus pairs of Republican and Democratic trustees, leaving the township once again with a divided government.

Though their margin of victory was relatively narrow, the fact that Democrats won all three races against strong Republicans is a sign of a sea change in western Washtenaw County. Conservative Republican farmers and exurbanites have dominated the area for generations, but population growth in suburban subdivisions is slowly but surely transforming the political landscape.

The county’s population grew a robust 22 percent, to 345,000, over the last twenty years. Ann Arbor, its biggest city, rose a slim 3 percent, to 114,000. But together, Chelsea, Saline, Scio Township, and Dexter Village and Township grew an amazing 60 percent, to 44,000 residents. And the newcomers aren’t conservative farmers.

“Chelsea and Dexter have become bedroom communities for Ann Arbor, fairly progressive bedroom communities,” says Rob Turner. “The whole northwest is becoming more Democratic and more progressive, and that’s making it harder for Republicans to be elected.”

Though they differ on when it will happen, almost all the politicians interviewed agree that sooner or later the west side of the county will go blue.

“I’ve been an elected official for twenty years, the first six as a councilmember and the last fourteen as mayor,” says Gretchen Driskell about her political career in Saline, a city that grew 32 percent, to 8,810, between 1990 and 2010. Though she ran as a Democrat, Driskell says, she “wasn’t very involved with partisan politics, because most of the issues we dealt with weren’t really partisan issues.”

That changed when she ran for state rep in the Fifty-Second District, which after the last redistricting encompasses Saline, western Washtenaw, and just a sliver of Ann Arbor. Driskell says the redrawn Fifty-Second is “evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. But a lot of people vote independent.”

Driskell believes the county’s changing demographics helped her win. “We’re getting more population, and that affects us in an election. Our school systems bring in young families, and the Republicans made cuts in money to schools; Mark voted with them, and [the parents] didn’t like that.”

Mark Ouimet agrees that population change swung the election. “Without question. Ann Arbor has not grown, and the western part of the county has grown quite a bit, from people who wanted to be close to Ann Arbor for work but wanted more land or a more rural setting and moved west. The Democrats received the benefit of that move.”

Ouimet raised more than $325,000, while Driskell raised just $195,000. In a race where the two candidates got a total of 50,257 votes, that’s about $10 per voter. But as in the presidential contest, the Democratic candidate’s campaign force dwarfed the Republican candidate’s. “We had four or five paid staffers, and maybe ten interns,” says Keenan Pontoni, Driskell’s campaign manager. “Our core volunteer list included over 500 names, and we were probably getting 100 people consistently.”

On the Republican side, Ouimet says he had “one paid staffer, a campaign manager, and about 100 volunteers locally and statewide.” Pontoni thinks Ouimet’s financial advantage helped him, but Driskell’s advantage in labor helped more.

“We observed them early on spending a lot of money on visibility and media,” he says. “They had huge signs and billboards and television commercials and newspaper ads, things we didn’t have at all at the time. But we observed that they were hitting a smaller number of doors. With state house races, the game is on the ground, in knocking on doors and making phone calls. We had 20,000 targeted voters, and we talked at least three times to every one.”

Of course, many other factors affected the outcome. “The Democratic pull was very strong in this election,” says Ouimet. “President Obama ran a successful ground game of getting voters to the polls, and the local Democratic candidates were the beneficiary. This doesn’t diminish Gretchen’s efforts. Gretchen ran a good campaign. I don’t have anything negative to say about Gretchen. I’ve always thought she was a nice, capable person.”

Voters might be surprised to hear that, given the tenor of the campaign. Outside groups targeted both Ouimet and Driskell with a barrage of negative ads.

The ads were amazingly ugly by local standards. “State Rep. Mark Ouimet raised our taxes,” said one, “then voted for a $1.8 billion giveaway to rich CEOs and wealthy corporations.” An anti-Driskell ad claimed that “Gretchen Driskell Does What’s Best for Gretchen,” citing her pay raises while serving in Saline.

During the campaign’s “last couple months both state parties got involved,” says Pontoni. “Our side and their side spent a lot on radio and on TV. It was not paid for by the campaign but by the statewide Democratic Party or the unions. We have no effect over them. We can’t coordinate. Some people say they played a big role in the campaigns, but when all is said and done, it was probably a wash.”

Pontoni says he believed Driskell would win, “but I expected it to be a lot closer. I thought there might be a recount. Remember the district is only 47 percent Democrat. It’s still a Republican district.”

But not so much as it once was. “Thirty years ago, this was very conservative area,” says Ouimet. “The population expansion changed that. But this doesn’t mean a Republican can’t win. A Republican in the Fifty-Second District or the First District on the county board could still win that seat.”

Perhaps Republicans could still win in the west. After all, Rob Turner lost his seat on the county board to challenger Kent Martinez-Kratz by a smaller margin than Ouimet did to Driskell: 48 to 52 percent, a mere 646 votes.

Turner himself doesn’t think so. “I beat Adam Zemke two years ago by just 2 percent. Now, I’m popular guy. I was on the school board for years and I’ve lived in town for decades. And in a strong Republican year, I won by just 2 percent.”

Zemke went on to take Republican Rick Olson’s seat in the state house in November, completing a Democratic sweep of the county’s state house delegation. And Turner was not in the least surprised to lose his own reelection bid.

“After the redistricting, I knew I was a one-term commissioner,” Turner explains. “The four precincts added in Scio lay right against Ann Arbor, and they’re very weak for Republicans and very strong for Democrats and have been for a long time. And it took away two precincts from Webster, which is still very strong for Republicans. Now the first district is more progressive and less conservative.”

Because he’d been on the Chelsea city council for seven years, Martinez-Kratz was also well known in the west. And though he didn’t introduce himself to the Dexter Township board, the Democrat says he did campaign. “We raised a little bit of funds for yard signs, and me and a couple of volunteers knocked on 5,000 doors. We also did two parades and a couple summer festivals and smaller events.”

“I was two-to-one in the number of signs,” says Turner, who self-financed his campaign. “In the old District One, without Scio, I would have won.”

Like Dexter Township supervisor Pat Kelly, Scio Township supervisor Spaulding Clark was surprised by Turner’s defeat. And like Kelly, he believes part of the reason might be that “a lot of people were unhappy with [Turner], particularly the people in Sylvan [where water and sewer systems for developments that never materialized left the township $13 million in debt]. Rob may have helped solve the problem, but people were still pissed off, and he might have taken the blame.”

Again, Turner thinks otherwise. “Yes, I pushed the millage [to pay off the debt], but I had a lot of Democrats and Republicans who appreciated it, and I won Sylvan, 60 to 40 percent. And Sylvan used to be very conservative, but now it’s only moderately so.”

That’s the story of the west, says Turner. “Over twenty years, it’s gone from rural and conservative to suburban and progressive. Chelsea is getting to be a little Ann Arbor, and a hard city for a Republican to win. Even in 2010, which was a good year for Republicans, I lost the city of Chelsea. And this time, I got only five votes more.”

Newly elected county commissioner Martinez-Kratz sees the same trend. “When the economy was more viable, people were moving out to Chelsea, and Chelsea was becoming more Democratic. This slowed down with the recession, but it’ll probably pick back up. If people move to the townships, they’re used to Democratic values and working in public institutions like the university and the hospital, and they see them in a more favorable light than traditional Republicans.”

Pat Kelly remembers an earlier time in Dexter Township. “Some of the farmers used to be Democrats, but farmers in general, and especially the Germans, turned Republican about Roosevelt’s time. And it stayed that way.” Though she’d been “actively involved in politics since 1997 and held elected office since 2002,” Kelly herself never ran as a Democrat until 2008. “That’s the year I had to declare a party because I had an opponent, and 2008 was a good year to be a Democrat.”

So was 2012. Kelly says she won another term as township supervisor–by a slender eighty-one votes out of 3,555 cast–because “I worked at it, I was an incumbent, and it made a big difference to a lot of voters that [Jim Drolett] was running for supervisor and his wife was running for treasurer. Plus the Democrats really came out for the presidential election.

The township’s population grew 37 percent between the 1990 and 2010 censuses, to 6,000. “Like everyone else, we stopped growing in the recession,” Kelly says. “But that’s turned around. Our assessed value was up last year, and this year we’re building houses again. We already have a lot of Ann Arbor people here, but the people who’re moving into the new subdivisions are from Livonia and that area. A lot of them are young people with families, and that youngness and energy are different from what we’ve had.”

While Dexter Township continues to elect both Republicans and Democrats, neighboring Scio Township is now led entirely by Democrats–though they’re Democrats with a GOP pedigree. “Scio made the switch in 2004 from predominantly Republican to predominantly Democratic,” says Kelly. “Look at it: [almost] the entire same board that was in office in 2000 as Republicans are all there now as Democrats. Spaulding [Clark] ran as a Republican in 2000 and was elected. He ran again as a Republican in 2004 and lost. Then he ran as a Democrat in 2008 and won. And when he ran again in 2012, nobody even bothered to run against him. It’s fine with me. Spaulding does a good job, and I don’t give a damn what party he is.”

“Partisan politics have very little to do with small communities,” Clark says, echoing Gretchen Driskell. “As you get more money from more taxpayers, you get involved with social issues, and then there’s a difference. Now we’re nominally Republican or Democrat, but we don’t offer those services that have politics associated with them. We have fire and police but not social services.

“I’ve been engaged in local politics since the late 1980s,” Clark continues, “and back then the theory was that out-county everybody ran as a Republican but nobody asked if you were one. It changed significantly in the 2004 election when the Democrats thought the only way to get rid of Bush was to vote straight party, and a whole lot of Republicans lost, including all but one member of my board. It was the great awakening to the fact that there was a Democratic presence in Scio. Last time, everybody ran as a Democrat, and in theory, they’re all Democrats, but it doesn’t really matter.”

Though he was among the first to feel the political change wrought by Scio’s growth–81 percent in twenty years, to 20,000 residents–Clark doesn’t expect the entire west county to turn blue. “I don’t think so, but where that [Republican-Democrat] line will be drawn, I don’t know.”

Few, though, believe the transformation is complete. “I definitely see it as a trend toward more Democratic,” says Gretchen Driskell. “If this continues, then years from now it’ll be much more Democratic,” agrees Mark Ouimet.

“We saw a sea change in this last election,” says Keenan Pontoni, Driskell’s campaign manager, “but it’s been coming for a while. The Republican numbers were artificially high in 2010 because the Tea Party was particularly effective in districts like ours, where there are rural areas. But many Tea Party supporters became disillusioned in the last two years, and the movement lost a lot of momentum. There has been a political sentiment change, and we are going to see this district become more Democratic.”

The same can’t be said for Michigan as a whole. Though Republicans lost some ground in November, they still hold majorities in both the state house and senate. “Gretchen’s got an uphill climb ahead of her,” says Clark. “She’s a bright lady who can work well with others, but as long as I’ve been here, the Republicans in Lansing haven’t paid any attention to Washtenaw County Democrats.”

Driskell readily acknowledges the difficulty of her task. “I’m in the minority. I’m not thinking I can change the world here.”

Nor does Pat Kelly think having state and county representatives from different parties will make a difference in Dexter Township. “Other than a different person, I don’t think at all, though it’ll be interesting to see how some constituencies interact with them, particularly the farmers.”

At the county level, “I don’t think anybody will notice the difference,” says Kent Martinez-Kratz of replacing his Republican predecessor, Rob Turner. “He was a good commissioner. There may be some small differences on the margins, but there won’t be any significant differences.”

That’s the irony of the west going blue: parties and party allegiances can change, but those distinctions may not make much difference once the election is over and it’s time to govern.