When the votes were tallied in last month’s Democratic primaries, the defeat of influential Third Ward council member Leigh Greden was generally viewed as an upset.
But mayor John Hieftje, who endorsed Greden in the three-way primary, says he wasn’t surprised. The three-term veteran was hurt by news about the emails he exchanged with other council members during public meetings, says Hieftje.
Emails that came to light as part of a Freedom of Information Act request by an environmental law group this spring were “juvenile” and “goofy,” Hieftje says, but others subsequently obtained by news organizations were “sobering.” Among other things, they showed Greden conducting campaign business, counting votes, and jockeying over council pay raises. His snarky putdown of former Third Ward rep Steve Kunselman also outraged his former colleague–who beat Greden by six votes.
Kunselman credits a largely door-to-door effort and a healthy student vote for his win. The initial count showed Kunselman with 511 votes, Greden with 505 and LuAnne Bullington, another Greden critic, with 381.
The incumbent’s slate of supporters gave him a boost, Bullington says. In addition to Hieftje, longtime Third Ward rep Jean Carlberg, state senator Liz Brater, and U.S. Rep. John Dingell endorsed Greden. A dozen elected officials contributed money to his campaign.
“I knew I was a dark horse,” Bullington says. “But it was a nail-biter, and I’m proud of Stephen.”
In his previous term, Kunselman was known for supporting a skateboard park and the backyard-chicken ordinance. He says his goal now is to reform how the City Council conducts business. “Transparency is a term that’s overused, but we need real discussion and deliberation that’s out in the open,” he says, “not among a small number of people outside the public’s view.”
Unsuccessful Fifth Ward candidate Scott Rosencrans agrees.
“I think the bar has been raised for performance at city council,” says Rosencrans, who lost two to one to incumbent Mike Anglin. Anglin, an outsider on council, was not involved in the emailing, but Rosencrans says he heard a lot about the issue as he campaigned. “Across the board, people want more accountability,” he says.
“I think Leigh needed to make a more profound apology” for the emails, says Hieftje, who had called Greden the hardest-working member of the City Council. “I think he’ll take this and learn from it. He’s a young man.”
Greden agrees the emails hurt him but also blames his opponents’ “negative campaigning.” He also thinks Kunselman benefited from making a strong call to preserve Argo Dam–a hot issue for rowers who use the pond–and blames his own failure to muster “a sufficient get-out-the-vote campaign. I have received countless emails from people who said, ‘I feel so bad–I just assumed it was a shoo-in.'”
Asked about Hieftje’s hint that he’ll be back, Greden responds with an incredulous snort. “This job has been extremely rewarding but also extremely stressful,” he says. “I have no future political plans. I am looking forward to time off. I am looking forward to practicing law.”