I have often lamented the fact that so much in Ann Arbor politics is decided in low-turnout, August primary elections. What that means is that very small but loud interest groups can dominate the conversation and influence politicians who have to pander to them in order to get elected. The upcoming August 5 election may see a higher turnout because there is a competitive race for mayor.
All of the candidates are either implicitly or explicitly distancing themselves from the current mayor, John Hieftje and that’s not a good thing. John Hieftje was elected because he presented a vision and he won re-election six times because he was consistent in promoting that vision. The criticism of his policies comes from those small interest groups who have been successful in getting their candidates elected to council precisely because of the August primary voter anemia.
It’s time to send those I-hate-everything-new naysayers a message about how backward they really are, but to do so requires slogging through some of the mayoral campaign rhetoric. There have been a number of mayoral forums already and it’s not too hard to distinguish who the candidates are and what they’re all about.
Let me make things easy for you and point out that you can eliminate 3rd Ward Councilmember Steve Kunselman right off the bat. Kunselman says his main achievement on council has been to restrict the Downtown Development Authority and it’s a good example of his form-over-substance politics. The DDA is a great punching bag for a bully like Kunselman because it can’t fight back. Kunselman can waste countless hours harping on the power of the DDA and it is a very tidy way to divert attention from the fact that as a council representative he has done nothing for his constituents. I am a member of the DDA board, so I have a bias here, but I also have firsthand knowledge of whether Kunselman has actually done anything that matters.
His insistence on pitting the downtown against the “neighborhoods” has resulted in the following changes to the DDA: The DDA’s total income is now capped – at a figure that it will not reach for many years to come, so it has not put one cent back into the city’s coffers. Moreover, capping the DDA’s money means that eventually money that could be spent in the city of Ann Arbor will go elsewhere. He and his followers on council – Lumm, Eaton, Kaliasapathy, and Anglin – told the DDA to spend more on affordable housing, something the DDA was already doing. They also have now mandated term limits for board members, a change that makes little difference and will have exactly zero impact on anyone who is not using it as a fake campaign claim.
He champions his initiation of the old Y-lot sale, which resulted in a perpetually vacant lot sitting in one of the best locations in the city. He is proud of ending the Percent-for-Art program but what has that done for you? Not one cent of the money that could be spent on artwork that enriches our environment is being spent on anything that will make any difference to the average citizen.
But perhaps his most laughable claim is that he is a champion of the people because of his work on the Taxicab Board. No, that is not an autocorrect error. Lately, the really big problem facing Ann Arbor has been the incursion of non-city-regulated car sharing, with Uber and Lyft. Kunselman touts his fight against Uber and Lyft as protection of public safety because the other taxi drivers are regulated by the city and therefore certified. As what? Have you ever ridden in an Ann Arbor taxi? The one with the obese, alcoholic, cigar-smoking driver in the car with no seatbelts and torn seats? I think I’ll take my chances with the free market. Again, Kunselman is only talk – form over substance.
That leaves three other candidates for mayor, all of whom are intelligent and capable.
Christopher Taylor is the kind of Renaissance man that many of us like to think is typical of Ann Arbor. He is a lawyer but is also a fine tenor and has several UM degrees. It is a pleasure to hear his articulate answers to questions and occasional literary allusions. He doesn’t beat his chest and repeat meaningless phrases like “public health, safety and welfare.” Instead, he points out that the day-to-day business of the city – fixing roads, removing snow – gets done regardless of who the mayor is. Like Hieftje, Taylor says we need to think about issues that take more planning and thought, such as climate action and transportation.
Taylor talks about his experience and judgment and I think he’s right about how important those are. He is someone who is good at analyzing problems and finding solutions, good at the kind of writing and drafting that makes for sensible legislation, and good at listening to all sides before coming to a conclusion. Those are the kinds of qualities we want in a leader and in a person who will be the face of the city to many.
Sabra Briere has been involved in Ann Arbor politics for a long time. As the First Ward councilmember, she has built a reputation on championing historic districts and having close constituent relations. She is another person who listens to what people have to say and is not guided by ego but by commitment to public service. She does not shoot from the hip but would rather convene a task force to study a problem before coming to any conclusions. When Ward 2 Councilmembers Lumm and Petersen sought to repeal Ann Arbor’s progressive crosswalk ordinance because their moneyed constituents were miffed at having to slow their SUV’s for pedestrians, Briere was opposed to it and initiated a pedestrian task force that has been meeting and will be very useful. The mayor had to veto the council’s repeal of the crosswalk ordinance, by the way.
Becoming a champion for a particular cause has its drawbacks. Briere is beholden to the often hysterical historic preservation constituency, which has led her to some unfortunate decisions. She was not helpful in the debacle over the potential housing development just south of the Library on Fifth Avenue and that resulted in demolition of the historic homes that were there and some very ugly and mundane buildings instead of an attractive row of apartments. She also voted against the apartment building at 413 E. Huron, a building that fit squarely within the zoning regulations that Briere, along with others, had worked on and approved.
Briere, like others, talks a lot about neighborhoods but I don’t really know what that means. All Ann Arbor politicians have to talk about neighborhoods because people who live here like to pretend it’s a quaint city with lots of little quaint neighborhoods. Maybe that’s true in some places but those neighbors eventually start to fight with each other about dogs or driveways and nobody spends the weekends hoping to pal around with their neighbors anymore. When was the last time you borrowed sugar from a neighbor? I thought so.
The fourth candidate, Sally Petersen, has the least experience, having served almost one term on council. As she will quickly tell you, she has an MBA from Harvard. Her marketing experience means she knows she has to carve out a niche in the campaign and her niche is spearheading economic development. Petersen is definitely smart and capable and her heart is in the right place on this one, but she makes the mistake many business-minded people make when it comes to government. Running a city is not like running a company. All that business experience makes understanding spreadsheets and fancy marketing terms much easier but city government is a different kind of animal.
I haven’t heard any concrete suggestions for how Ann Arbor can encourage economic development. She also talks about better relations with the University of Michigan, which is an easy thing to talk about because it is impossible. Petersen has been cautious as a councilmember, often wanting to consult constituents before making a decision. Sometimes leadership means taking a stand and educating your constituents and she may be working on that with her emphasis on economic development but it’s hard to get a grip on the elements of her plan.
Luckily, there have been numerous opportunities to hear the candidates’ positions. Check out www.annarborchronicle.com for more information than you could possibly digest. Most important, if you think you may be away on August 5, vote absentee. You can either request a ballot or just go over to City Hall and fill out your absentee ballot right now.