Recounting the Impact on Ann Arbor Politics

Leigh Greden at the recount. (Photo, Ann Arbor Chronicle)

Leigh Greden at the recount. (Photo, Ann Arbor Chronicle)

Well, it’s over.  As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Leigh Greden was defeated in his bid for re-election to his Ann Arbor City Council seat, and the six-vote margin held through a recount.  And thus, the end of an era.  Greden was in many ways the most instrumental force on the Council, especially after the departure of Chris Easthope (elected to the 15th District court in 2008).  As the Chronicle story details, he was (and remains, until November) on the major committees that determine how the city runs. And as we speculated earlier, his defeat may have implications for the political landscape of the city beyond issues specific to his personality and the immediate aspects of the Third Ward primary race. Are we about to see another historic shift in Ann Arbor local politics?  It might be useful to review recent history and examine the trends that have brought us to where we are.

The shift to a one-party system

The last time a Republican won a city office in Ann Arbor was 2003, when Marcia Higgins was re-elected to the Fourth Ward council seat and Mike Reid bested Amy Seetoo in the Second Ward by 54%. The last time the Republican Party put up a candidate for Mayor was in 2004, when Jane Lumm garnered only 31% of the citywide vote against a triumphant John Hieftje. There were no Republican council candidates on the ballot.  Marcia Higgins announced that she was joining the Democratic Party and won re-election as a Democrat in 2005, joined by the former Republican mayoral candidate, Stephen Rapundalo, who won as a Democrat in the Second Ward.

Two decades ago Ann Arbor’s council moved back and forth from a Democratic to a Republican majority.  Even with an emerging Democratic majority, Wards 2 & 4 usually elected Republicans, and a Republican mayor, Ingrid Sheldon, was repeatedly re-elected.  Sheldon chose not to run for re-election in 2000, when John Hieftje (who was in his first term as a councilmember from the First Ward) bested Stephen Rapundalo, running as a Republican.  During these years of a competitive political environment, there was a strong local Democratic party composed of activists who recruited and supported candidates.  Running against another Democrat in a primary was mostly discouraged, and often when two people were interested in an open seat, party elders would take them into a room and talk one of them out of running.

An important reason for the emergence of a one-party council is the general shift in Ann Arbor to a Democratic preference, especially at the national level.  As the national Republican Party has leaned farther and farther right, turnout and loyalty for Democratic voters has become so strong that even county-wide Republican candidates can no longer be elected.  This is most important in general elections in even years, when statewide and national candidates are on the ballot and many voters simply vote straight Democratic.

The effect of this party shift has been to drive moderate Republicans either to adopt the Democratic label (as did Rapundalo and Higgins) or to give up running for local office.  It has also pushed any chance of a competitive election into the Democratic primary.

For a little while, incumbents who had initially been elected without opposition, or initially appointed by Mayor Hieftje to fill vacated seats,  enjoyed the protection of incumbency against electoral challenges.  But when Kim Groome vacated her seat (as we described earlier, she was a dissident from the already solidifying council majority, or “Council Party”), a reliable candidate, John Roberts was appointed to fill it; and then Ron Suarez defeated him in a Democratic primary in August 2006.  A year later, Mike Anglin defeated Wendy Woods (who had been unopposed since her appointment to replace Chris Kolb in the Fifth Ward seat) in another primary. With the election (to an open seat) of Sabra Briere and the unexpected independence of Stephen Kunselman, the power of the CP was threatened.  (It requires 8 votes to pass certain measures on council.)

The emergence of dissidents who mount primary challenges to Democratic incumbents has prompted some discussion from party functionaries about  endorsing and/or funding candidates during primaries.  But it has already brought about some strong defensive action from what I have named the Council Party.

The importance of endorsements from the political establishment

In recent campaigns (such as the competitive primary races in 2008), the political establishment has rolled out the heavy guns in favor of candidates who will support the CP’s agenda.  The winning candidates in 2008 (all of whom celebrated their victories together at Vie Fit, Carsten Hohnke’s wife’s place of business) (see correction below) were all endorsed by Mayor Hieftje and County Commissioner and kingmaker Leah Gunn.  (The exception to Hieftje’s endorsement was Christopher Taylor, running a challenge against Stephen Kunselman in the Third Ward. Kunselman, first elected in 2006, had proven to be too independent for the CP, but Hieftje evidently saw it as bad form to endorse an incumbent’s challenger.)  Some garnered even more impressive endorsements; Congressman John Dingell endorsed Tony Derezinski in the Second Ward,  and Carsten Hohnke (to whom I lost the Fifth Ward race) was endorsed by State Representative Rebekah Warren and her husband, Conan Smith (a Washtenaw County Commissioner).  As Smith (who succeeded me on the BOC) explained in an email, “…we are more concerned by the divisions that are emerging between two factions than by the actual decisions that the council ultimately comes to…we feel that restoring balance to the process is the most pressing issue.  It’s our opinion that Carsten has the better chance to bridge that gap, due in part to his strong relationships with the ‘veteran majority’…”.

But though, as seen at Greden’s campaign website, he was favored with extremely strong endorsements that included Congressman Dingell, State Senator Liz Brater, Water Resources Commissioner Janis Bobrin, and four councilmembers (Rapundalo, Higgins, Teall and Taylor), in addition to Hieftje and Gunn, he still captured only 36.1% of the vote.  (Warren and Smith did not endorse him, as might be expected, since Rep. Warren fought and won a hard primary against him in 2006.)

Now to November

The November general election will be the next test of popular dissatisfaction with the CP. Only one council seat is contested: that of long-time councilmember Marcia Higgins, who with the Mayor is now the longest-serving CM. (She was first elected, as a Republican, in 1999.)  Higgins was not opposed in the Democratic primary, but now faces a challenge from Hatim Elhady, who is running as an independent.

Hatim Elhady, contemplating the future (Photo H. Elhady)

Hatim Elhady, contemplating the future (Photo Marla A. Alvarez)

Elhady is what one might describe as a “fresh face”. His parents emigrated from Yemen in the 1970s and he was born in Grosse Pointe, but grew up in Detroit. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2009 with a dual major in economics and Near Eastern history and is now applying to an MBA program.   There are no campaign statements or a website yet (his campaign kickoff will be sometime around September 15). However, some sense of his thinking can be found in a discussion chain on the Ann Arbor Chronicle, in which he shows a nimble ability to learn.  He clearly has a lot to learn, but the comments reveal that he has already been attending meetings and buttonholing officials.  (See the Chronicle’s account of his comments at a council meeting.)

Under most circumstances, Elhady’s chances of unseating Higgins would be considered to be very low; “student candidates” have not historically done well in council contests.  (One of the last, Eugene Kang, was defeated by Stephen Rapundalo in his first run for council, but Kang has made do since then with the Obama administration.)  But Elhady refuses to be stereotyped; “My campaign is not built around students, it is built atop serious issues for ALL Ann Arbor residents and for all those who take these issues personally just as I have”. He also makes a strong personal impression.  I was interested to meet him after hearing from several different neighborhood advocates such comments as “Really sharp” “Very impressive”.  After a brief unplanned conversation at a council meeting, I made a small (unplanned) donation to his campaign.   On reflection, I think that it was not any particular statement that he made, but the overall air of confidence, energy, intelligence, and presence.  It reminded me of another 22-year-old who impressed me in a similar way.  Jeff Irwin went on to win a four-way primary and is just celebrating 10 years on the Board of Commissioners (two as the Chair of the BOC).

One of the factors that could affect Elhady’s chances is the WISD ballot proposal also on the November ballot.  This is likely to bring out many voters who have little information about the council race, and they are likely to vote for the incumbent.  It will be a real test of his campaign, and of the political mood.

UPDATE: With all the other history, I neglected to put adequate information about the 2008 contest into the post.  I have now added a link to the Ann Arbor News story.  Here is what Mayor Hieftje is quoted as saying at the victory party:

“This is a victory for the city… We have elected five council members with a big-picture vision of the future of Ann Arbor. … They have the ability to work together to see it through.”

SECOND UPDATE: CM Sandi Smith commented that she had her own victory party.   I apologize for the error.  Friends had told me that the entire group was present at Vie Fit and the News story gives that impression, listing her name with the others in a separate sentence.

THIRD UPDATE: Mr. Elhady now has a campaign website up.  No website for Marcia Higgins seems to be available at present.  There has been a fair amount of chat about this campaign on Arbor Update, in which it was revealed that Ms. Higgins is struggling with some illness in her family, which caused her to decline the scheduled League of Women Voters debate.  (The debate presumably was not rescheduled because there is another race in the First Ward, which will have a debate.)

FOURTH UPDATE: Marcia Higgins’ website has been announced. It is here.

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10 Comments on “Recounting the Impact on Ann Arbor Politics”


  1. I think healthy dissent (as opposed to bringing weapons to town hall meetings or bringing profane signs to city council meetings where children will be present) is key to the Democratic process. I am tired of factions, whether they support what I do or no. I miss the days of Ingrid Sheldon, although she wasn’t a member of “my” party.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    I agree with you about dissent being healthy. As to “factions”, it is natural that people with the same views will work together; that is the basis of political parties. Ironically, in the 2008 primary, the Ann Arbor News painted those of us who dissented from the council majority as a slate or faction, partly because we were endorsed by the same organizations. But we scarcely communicated with each other, did not have common platforms (just some similar issues) and it was the mayor’s faction who had a common victory party.

  3. Sandi Smith Says:

    I had my own victory party.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Apologies. I was misinformed (naturally, I was not there) and the News story also gave the impression that the whole group was there. I’ll correct the post.

  4. susan wineberg Says:

    My understanding was that the shift from Republican to Democratic majorities was the result of changing the council election from April to November. November elections always bring more people to vote and this seemed to result in favoring the Dems. in the long run.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, I thought about including that in my post but I didn’t want to get into a long side story. Council elections used to be in April and it was felt that that favored Republicans because of low turnout. (It also made it miserable to go door-to-door.) I’m not taking the time to do the research, but I believe the switch to November (as result of a citizen referendum) for Council elections was about 1990 and did mark the beginnings of increased Democratic representation on Council.

      • Leslie Morris Says:

        While it is certainly true that the low turnout April elections favored Republicans, our off-year November elections, when only local candidates and issues are on the ballot, are also low turnout. Since Republicans haven’t been successful recently in either the Second or Fourth wards, we clearly have had some continued demographic shifts here in Ann Arbor that have favored Democrats.
        I don’t really understand why Republicans dislike cities more than Democrats do, but this seems to be true. Ann Arbor is no longer a quiet college town. And the Republican party has changed over time. I once researched Ann Arbor precinct voting records, and was surprised to find that 60 years ago Burns Park, which was full of U. of M. faculty, often voted Republican. It was also the precinct most likely to support local tax issues. Many Republicans were liberal reformers, like Doug Crary, who was a strong advocate for city planning. Many Democrats were moderately conservative descendants of German, Irish or Greek immigrants.

  5. varmentrout Says:

    Interesting detail, Larry – thanks.

    • varmentrout Says:

      This was in response to Larry Kestenbaum’s comment, that was tagged as spam:

      I was involved in Eugene Kang’s campaign for city council in the 2nd ward in August 2005. He lost, of course, but it was a very close race.

      So close, in fact, that Eugene must have won easily among Democrats, only to be swamped by Republicans crossing over into the Democratic primary.

      Why would the Democrats of our most affluent ward choose a 22-year-old student over a well-established Pfizer scientist?

      Maybe some of it was that Kang is charming and outgoing, whereas Rapundalo is comparatively shy and reserved. But I think a bigger factor was partisanship. Eugene was seen as the “real Democrat”, whereas Stephen was dismissed as a Republican.

  6. Jack Eaton Says:

    I am pleased to announce a meet-the-candidates-event for the 4th Ward City Council election. The Fourth Ward is runs from Pauline and Maple Road on the west to Packard on the east. The exact area can be found in a map on this site:

    http://www.a2gov.org/government/city_administration/City_Clerk/Elections/Pages/VotingDistricts.aspx

    As you may know, this year the 4th Ward Council race is between incumbent, Democrat Marcia Higgins and challenger, independent Hatim Elhady.

    The election is next Tuesday, November 3, 2009.

    The event is:

    Meet the Candidates Night
    Friday October 30, 2009
    Starting at 6:30 p.m.
    Dicken Elementary School Media Center
    2135 Runnymede Blvd.
    Ann Arbor MI 48103

    Please join us for an opportunity to hear from the candidates for 4th Ward Council seat.

    Neither the Friends of Dicken Woods nor the Dicken Elementary School endorse or support candidates for public office. This event is for informational purposes and does not constitute support for any candidate.


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