As the Council Party fades, what do party labels mean to local politics?
We are nearing a November election that will possibly result in a major shift in direction on the Ann Arbor City Council. For a time, John Hieftje enjoyed a nearly complete hold on power to command votes from the Council. This coming election may lose him that, though it will by no means render him without major influence over the City’s fate. This August’s primary saw the defeat of one of his longtime supporters (Jack Eaton defeated Marcia Higgins) and the failure of his effort to unseat one of his critics (Stephen Kunselman held his own over Julie Grand). The November election will pit his chosen candidate, Kirk Westphal, against an old opponent, Jane Lumm. Westphal is a Democrat running against an Independent, thus he has garnered endorsements not only from the Mayor, but from a number of prominent Democrats. (His endorsement list reads like an honor roll of the Council Party, including kingmaker Leah Gunn and vocal CP spokesperson Joan Lowenstein; many of the same names appeared on Grand’s and Higgins’ endorsement lists.) Next weekend the Ann Arbor Democratic Party is having an “Endorsement Saturday” that will include Westphal’s endorsement. And Lumm’s candidacy, along with the success of many of her political supporters, has brought out some shrill voices attempting to use party labels against her.
One of the most confusing aspects of recent Ann Arbor political history has been that traditional party labels have become very nearly meaningless as the balance of power has shifted. The labels and issues that relate to the national and even state parties have receded into the background as we debate specifics of how Ann Arbor is to be governed.
Ann Arbor is one of very few Michigan cities that elect members of City Council on the basis of political party. Here we hold primaries in August to win the nomination as a Democrat or a Republican. (I don’t know whether technically a new or third party could qualify to have a primary ballot.) (But see the SECOND UPDATE below.) Otherwise, one runs as an Independent, who appears on the ballot only in November.
At one time, control of Ann Arbor City Council shifted back and forth between the two dominant political parties, but two things happened to alter that. One was the shift of city elections from April (low turnout, mostly of long-term residents) to November, when many state and national elections are also held. (See our history of this.) Another was the election of George W. Bush to the Presidency of the United States, which began the ruination of the Republican brand among Ann Arbor’s relatively liberal populace. Coincidentally, Bush’s election was paired with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor of Ann Arbor. As we noted in an earlier post,
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.
The (old) Ann Arbor News’ concept of the Council Party leaders after an email scandal. L to R: Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke, Margie Teall
The move to a monolithic Democratic council coincided with the rise of a dominant political faction which we dubbed “the Council Party”. It was to some extent John Hieftje’s Council, but former Councilmember Leigh Greden was also a dominating force. (Here is our analysis of the impact of Greden’s defeat.)
It is difficult to characterize the Council Party’s agenda succinctly but it has principally been pro-development, pro-growth, nominally liberal on social and environmental issues, and relatively nonresponsive to actual Ann Arbor residents and taxpayers, showing a willingness to pare services in order to redirect those resources to favored initiatives. Under the management of former City Administrator Roger Fraser (hired in the first year of John Hieftje’s tenure as Mayor), city staff have been pared severely and departments combined. (Here is an excellent overview of those dark days from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)
The result of these resident-unfriendly policies has been a small revolution within Democratic ranks. Beginning in 2006, there have been primary challenges, where Democratic challengers have run against incumbents. There have also been strong contests for open seats. And notably, Jane Lumm, a former Republican council member and mayoral candidate, ran as an Independent in 2011 and trounced Stephen Rapundalo with the support of many Democrats. (In doing so, she bested another former Republican mayoral candidate.) This article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle has a table showing changes in the Council since 2007.
The dissidents have generally run against incumbents on the basis of fiscal issues (the redirection of tax dollars from services to such projects as the City Hall addition and the Fuller Road Station), the direction of development of the city (loss of neighborhood integrity, domination by the DDA and development interests in the downtown), and support for our park system. An early review of the differences between this set of longer-term residents and taxpayers and the dominant majority on Council were highlighted in my article, Our Town vs. Big City. Another reflection on these differences is in the post, The Council Party vs. The Ann Arbor Townies. I don’t like the term “townies”, really, because it is often used to draw a distinction between town and gown (a different dichotomy, and many UM workers and faculty may be more sympathetic to the residents’ viewpoint). Similarly, the Council Party no longer seems quite as descriptive as it was, diminished to the rump faction that it now is. So let’s just call the factions Our Town and Big City for now.
So why are so many lifelong Democrats supporting Lumm for re-election? Because she has our backs. She has been a moderate Republican (not Tea Party or even particularly conservative) with liberal social views. She supports the use of our city taxes for city services. I am not representing her campaign so will not attempt to characterize her further. Westphal is the current chair of the Planning Commission and has supported most of the Big Development moves of recent years, such as the notorious 413 E. Huron project. He generally follows what he refers to as the “progressive” party line, referring not to social convictions but rather to Big Picture and Bold Idea views. In a Democratic candidate forum (Lumm was not, of course, invited) the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported his remarks as, “this is a really exciting time for Ann Arbor” The Chronicle goes on to say, “It seems that Ann Arbor is increasingly being mentioned in the same breath as some larger cities across the country – as a place that people who have other choices can locate their business and move to.” and further quotes him as saying “I think that we can set our sights even higher”.
In electoral contests between the two factions over the last seven years, success has visited both sides but Our Town has slowly increased its numbers to the point where it is a serious challenge to Big City. This means it is time for name-calling and the use of partisan labels. Recently a new political blog surfaced. The “Middle of the Left” is anonymous and allows no comments, which considerably undercuts its credibility. But it is a fair representation of the efforts to discredit Our Town on partisan grounds. This continues the overall tenor of earlier attacks by Joan Lowenstein. Now of course, Jane Lumm makes no claim to be a Democrat. But the general theme is that anyone who supports her politically is also not a Real Democrat. MOTL calls the Our Town faction “Teapublicans” and even accuses them (us) of being “birthers” (a reference to the right-wing crazies who consider our President to be not really American). He also manages to apply the DINO (Democrat in Name Only) label.
Partisan name-calling is, in my opinion, a refuge of the weak. But there is no question that this is a partisan issue. Don’t forget that the word “partisan” has a much broader meaning than the D/R split we often hear about. According to Collins’ English Dictionary, the first meaning is “an adherent or devotee of a cause, party, etc”. But that and other dictionaries draw attention to the use of the word in revolutionary or resistance movements, notably during World War II but in other conflicts. There is no question that there are two “parties or causes” here, but the Democrat/Republican designations are not the point. The point is the view of what the future of Ann Arbor should be, and what purpose city government should serve. Is it to serve the citizens of Ann Arbor, or is it to transform Ann Arbor into a different community altogether? The Big City folks clearly choose the latter.
The Democratic Party has had plenty of factions before. There is no conflict like an intraparty conflict. When I was the chair of a Democratic club in Southern California, we held a “unity dinner”. I was a little bemused by the “unity” label but it was explained to me that plenty of folks were still angry with each other over the Vietnam War. (This was 1982!) The New Deal was constructed by Franklin Roosevelt using an ungainly collection of Southern segregationists and Northern union members. And people still quote Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat”. The point is that insisting on some sort of Party purity is rather silly for Democrats. We know who we are and there are some core beliefs that get us there. Many times the details differ.
When does principle and objective overtake party identification? As I have related, I’m a lifelong Democrat. But there was a day I registered as a Republican. It was to see that Winthrop Rockefeller was nominated to be Arkansas Governor, following the long reign of Orval Faubus. (You may remember Faubus as the governor who resisted the integration of the Little Rock high school.) Win Rockefeller was running against Justice Jim Johnson, an outspoken segregationist – but a Democrat. I turned Republican to help get Rockefeller into the statehouse – and was rewarded by the image of the Governor of Arkansas linking hands with black Arkansans to sing “We shall overcome”.
No, our small issues in Ann Arbor do not rise to that heroic level. But they are meaningful and many of us on both sides of the divide feel very strongly about them. One reason the voices on the Big City side have gotten so shrill is that the Mayor has already lost the ability to push big money issues through. Many of those require 8 votes on Council. For most regular business, he needs 6 votes. (This would include his own, as he has the 11th vote.) Assuming that both Sabra Briere and Jane Lumm are re-elected (disclosure: I am supporting both of them), by my count there are 4 definite votes against most of the Mayor’s agenda, 3 sure votes he can count on at all times, and 3 council members who will vote very independently and can’t be counted on by either side. So there are enough votes to block him on big money issues, but for all others he’ll need to win 2 of the three independents. That gets serious.
UPDATE: Kirk Westphal’s endorsement page is linked above but I’ll repeat it here. Jane Lumm’s endorsement page is here. It includes many longtime Democrats.
SECOND UPDATE: Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum responded to my inquiry about third-party primaries. Here is his answer.
Unlike many other states, Michigan insists that all party qualification matters be handled statewide. There was an unsuccessful legal challenge to this about 15 years ago. Village elections used to be held with local parties like “Peoples” and “Citizens”, but those were wiped out in the 1960s when the state insisted that only parties with statewide ballot access, such as Democrats and Republicans, could appear on village ballots. Similar reasoning applies to whether a party nominates in primaries or at caucuses. The threshold for holding primaries is determined by the vote at the top of the ticket in the last statewide election. For example, following John Anderson’s presidential race in 1980, on the “Anderson Coalition” party ticket, there were Anderson Coalition primaries for all partisan offices in August 1982. Almost no one filed for those nominations, however. That being said, Ann Arbor had Human Rights Party primaries for city offices in the 1970s. There may be some wrinkle about the way parties are handled in the city charter. I’m guessing, though, that the state Bureau of Elections would be strenuously opposed to that today.
THIRD UPDATE: Jack Eaton’s comment reminded me that I failed to note a major influence and organizational force for the Our Town folks. It is the Neighborhood Alliance, which just celebrated its fifth anniversary. Jack has been the major maintainer of the website for the Neighborhood Alliance. This site has many policy positions enunciated and resource listings.
FOURTH UPDATE: Mayor John Hieftje has announced that he will not run for re-election in 2014. He told the Ann Arbor News that the changing dynamics on Council were not a factor, but one can’t help but wonder. After all, he has lost several of his council contingent despite his own personal involvement in their campaigns. His influence will persist for years in the many board and committee appointments he has made. Not known: whether he is grooming a replacement.
FIFTH UPDATE: At the October 12, 2013 Ann Arbor Democratic Party meeting, numerous politicians sought an early endorsement. Candidates who won Democratic primaries for Council were, of course, in essence already endorsed by the Democratic Party, since that is the point of the nomination process. Apparently Kirk Westphal requested a special endorsement. (Sabra Briere and Stephen Kunselman, who also have opponents in the General Election, did not request this extra endorsement.) Rather than have the membership vote on an endorsement as they had for all other candidates present, the Executive Committee voted to endorse Westphal at an earlier meeting. There was an attempt to rescind this action from the floor, but it failed.
SIXTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s coverage of the October 12 Dems meeting resulted in a rather comprehensive gallery of local Democrats. Rather delicious, actually.
SEVENTH UPDATE: Westphal renewed the “Tea Party” label at a forum held on October 17. As reported on MLive, he said Lumm was “Tea Party” because she has questioned spending city money on the Fuller Road Station. One commenter on that story made a very good comparison of this smear with the notorious “pinko” smear used by Richard Nixon in an early Congressional campaign. It is true that in Ann Arbor and many other places now, “Tea Party” is every bit as inflammatory and damaging as “Communist” was in the 1950s. Political smears are a tempting tactic, but the candidate should realize that it makes him appear venal.
EIGHTH UPDATE: In another gasp from the Big City folks, Charles “Chip” Smith announced a write-in campaign against Mike Anglin in the Fifth Ward. “He’s worried Anglin and others on council are more interested in building an Ann Arbor for now, and not an Ann Arbor for the future.” Translation: not pro-development enough. Smith works for a civil engineering firm, Wade Trim.
NINTH UPDATE: The Washtenaw Democratic Party has now weighed in to support the Democratic nominee in the Second Ward. Lauren Coffman, campaign manager for Kirk Westphal, sent an email under the WDCP masthead calling for help with a GOTV (Get Out The Vote) effort in the next five days. Jane Lumm’s name is not mentioned. The title of the message is, “Let’s bring this victory home for the Democrat!”
TENTH UPDATE: Ypsilanti resident Mark Maynard posted a request on his Facebook to have his friends explain the appeal of Jane Lumm. The results were quite nasty, with a lot of ageism and misrepresentation of political views. What stands out is that a younger generation (the “Millennials”?) are beginning to show some political push behind the growth paradigm – evidently a wish to see a better future for themselves has made them buy the development meme. Unfortunately they often do not look below the surface of the message. Long-time Ann Arbor residents are going to have to embrace the question of what will happen for the generation that has just emerged into adulthood.
ELEVENTH UPDATE: I evidently stepped on some toes with the prior update. See the comments on my old campaign blog which tell me that the generation causing the uproar is not the Millennials, but people in their late 40s (Gen X). Apparently I fell into the popular preoccupation with Millennials (technically born after 1980). But it still does seem that a new generation is starting to flex its muscles. I probably overreacted to the comments on Maynard’s blog. That is what partisan politics will do for you, especially on election day.
TWELFTH UPDATE: All incumbents won the election, except that Jack Eaton had already displaced Marcia Higgins in the August primary. The Ann Arbor Chronicle and Ann Arbor News have details. Of interest is the relatively strong showing for Chip Smith, who evidently received nearly a third of the 5th Ward votes in his write-in campaign. As I have noted, that is indicative of some political winds that are blowing, perhaps generational. The Our Town candidates will now have to demonstrate how their vision of the city’s future and approach to governance should prevail over the long term.