The Meaning of Elections in Ann Arbor

Wherein choices in the Council race for the 5th Ward Council seat are finally discussed near the end.

As we’ve said previously,  the oncoming election looks likely to make significant changes in the national political landscape.  Actually, the last decade has seen a couple of these “wave” elections, and the election of G.W. Bush in 2000 certainly made the nation’s course veer heavily in a different direction.  Yet through all this time, the political landscape of Ann Arbor has remained relatively static.  With the election of John Hieftje as Mayor in 2000 and the establishment of the Council Party, relatively little change in direction has occurred over the decade.  Just as Ann Arbor seems to avoid the very worst weather (I hope that I have not just condemned us to experience a derecho), the political tides seem to pass us by as a like-thinking coalition of mostly nominal Democrats (though including the occasional Republican like Mark Ouimet) have occupied both elected and appointed positions at the local level.  This “Hegemony”, as a friend of mine recently named it, has succeeded in maintaining power despite a couple of upsets.  Will this election shift the balance of power?

Of course, one possibility is that the majority of Ann Arbor residents are simply happy with the current direction of our local governments.  I’ll freely admit that I tend to hang out with the malcontents.  But based on what I hear and read, there is at least a countable minority who are concerned about fiscal management, loss of services to residents, a push to development that sometimes threatens established neighborhoods, and encroachment on parks.  The Hegemony pays attention to proper social ideals, including the environment and human services, but is basically a pro-development, Chamber of Commerce-friendly, pro-growth coalition who simply have a different vision of what the future Ann Arbor should look like.  (A recent article in a new publication, The Ann, captures some of this conflict.)

Our earlier post on elections made the point that one reason that they do not always express the will of the people is “structural, based in both the mechanics of elections and political tactics”.  A major deterrent to real choices has been the partisan election system in Ann Arbor.  Now that the Council Party is wholly composed of Democrats (which necessitated some battlefield conversions), most of the action has moved to the August primary.  We’ve previously discussed the idea of nonpartisan elections and some of the constraints that the August primary imposes.  One is that primaries are inherently unpleasant, with an overtone of “murder within the family”, and it is difficult to recruit qualified candidates to run against incumbents who have the advantage in money, endorsements, and name recognition. This year it resulted in an across-the-board loss for challengers, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

But another is that with the Democratic candidates for higher races (President, Governor) at the top of the ticket in the general election, a large majority of Ann Arbor voters have simply been voting straight party tickets with a single mark, thus bypassing any independent candidates or those from a different party.  So that has meant that for all practical purposes, the final sorting of the candidates has happened in August, with a limited number of voters participating, and any flavor is fine as long as it is Democrat.

This year is different. Republican Rick Snyder is likely to draw a lot of Democratic voters into a split ticket.  His presence on the Republican ballot is already thought to have had an effect on Democratic candidates in the primary, where it may have helped to defeat Ned Staebler in his race against Jeff Irwin.  Anecdotally, Snyder and Staebler yard signs were observed together in a number of locations.  Countywide, the Republican ballot drew 26200 votes to the Democratic 27059.  A sum of Ann Arbor votes is not conveniently available from the county website, but an arbitrary sampling of the conservative precinct 2-5 shows Republican: Democratic votes for governor as 197:305, while the usually heavy Democratic precinct 5-11 was 149:666.  General election voters are different qualitatively from dedicated primary voters,  and Snyder’s Ann Arbor connections and the perceived move towards his candidacy statewide may have an even more profound effect.  (Disclosure: I am voting for Bernaro.)  This sets the stage for independent, Republican, or third-party candidates who are farther down the ballot to have some chance in a local general election.

This year is also different in that there are several serious challengers in general election races.  In the past Libertarian or Green Party candidates put on a game show, but were seldom taken seriously.  In Ward 2, Emily Salvette has presented some credible positions in her race against Tony Derezinski, for which she was even given some faint praise by  Independent Steve Bean is running against Mayor John Hieftje, and I believe that he is serious, though it appears to some that this is a mystery running against an enigma.  (Read the decidedly lukewarm endorsements of Hieftje by and the Millenial Arborblahg.)  Bean may be a dark horse, but he is in the race.

But Ward 5 is really interesting, and not just because I live there.  It is a three-way race between the incumbent Democrat Carsten Hohnke, Republican John Floyd, and Upstart Independent Newcombe Clark.

Now here’s the thing about three-way races.  Their outcomes can be really hard to predict, and sometimes that outcome is the least acceptable to everyone. In an intriguing New Yorker book review that is really an extended essay, Anthony Gottlieb recently reviewed voting systems and their implications.  As he says, in three-way races, “the least popular candidate could easily win, if the opposition to him or her splits its votes between two or more other candidates”.   This has been well established by game theory.

We’ve had a couple of high-stakes local races recently with three or more candidates where the result has been a real squeaker and not necessarily what might have been predicted by the election sages.  Certainly Yousef Rabhi’s victory in a field of four challengers for a seat on the Board of Commissioners was not a given.  Rabhi is a long-time Democratic activist (despite his relative youth) and was an energetic candidate.  But he was running against Michael Fried, who had an impressive resume and an impressive list of endorsements, including from current commissioners Barbara Bergman and kingmaker Leah Gunn.  If only Fried and Rabhi had been on the ballot, the outcome might have been different.  But Alice Ralph and LuAnne Bullington took a total of 388 votes.  Rabhi initially won by one vote, which was extended to two (999 vs. 997 for Fried) at the recount.  It is also hard to know what would have happened if Leigh Greden had only been up against Steve Kunselman in 2009.

Back to the current Ward 5 race: Hohnke seems to have adopted a “rose garden strategy” and has been somewhat missing in action during the general election campaign.  (His campaign website, on the eve of the general election, is still talking about about his primary victory and “moving into” the general election.)  He took a pass on candidate forums organized by and the Ann Arbor Chronicle (read A2Politico’s hilarious mock interview with him on this subject and others).   On the other hand, he has been endorsed by almost every prominent member of the Hegemony, including most members of the Ann Arbor DDA.  Hohnke has been a “mayor’s man” from the first day  (after defeating me for the seat) and reliably follows the Council Party line. I’m still really burned with him for being the deciding vote against Project Grow after some fairly assiduous lobbying on my part.  But startlingly, he did stand up for some of his constituents in voting to defeat both the Heritage Row and the Moravian PUDs.   These courageous acts have earned him some gratitude and he should, from my viewpoint, be encouraged to stand firm on them.

Newcombe Clark’s campaign began with the defeat of the Moravian, which was his project.  But he is a phenomenon that extends beyond that one issue, with a quirky and irreverent sense of humor (Nuke the 5th??? Does that sound nice?), a taste for cocktails (ref. his tweets) and some sensible observations and positions.  (See the A2Politico interview.)  He came across in the Chronicle forum as pure Millennial, insisting that Ann Arbor should be more than “only the best in Michigan”.  He gained the endorsement of, presumably not only because he came to their forum but also because of his strong support for development.  In fact, they seem to have taken against Hohnke over the Moravian issue.  On the DDA, Clark has promoted the idea of the DDA taking over responsibility for developing downtown city-owned lots.  Despite his many appealing qualities, he is definitely not my candidate.

John Floyd is a Republican, a little hurdle for died-in-the-wool Democrats.  But he’s not one of those Republicans, rather he seems to be a specimen of that rarely seen type, the moderate R.  He’s also a thoroughly nice, sincere, and intelligent guy who seems to share most of my views.  He is also straightforward and sensible, as seen in his A2Politico interview. In a two-way race with Hohnke, I’d vote for Floyd in a heartbeat.

But can he win? This is a three-way race.  Now there’s the quandary.  Does one vote one’s “heart” or make a strategic decision?   The anonymous author of Arborblahg has the same problem in her preference for Clark:

“Do I think he’ll win. Nope. Straight ticket Dem voters, a lack of interest in local candidates, Hohnke’s vanilla record, and Clark’s lack of a strong ground game will mean council make-up will remain the same. Still, I’m enough of an idealist to say:  Go out there and vote your dreams, not your cynicism.”

I have the opposite problem: if I vote for Floyd, will that put Clark in?  Or if I vote for Hohnke, will that be the last little vote that Floyd needed to win?  Imagine each of us poor 5th ward voters out there, each one a study in human behavior, trying to make this choice.

What will it be?  If I vote this way – or that way – will it be the Lady? Or the Tiger?

UPDATE: The storm bypassed Ann Arbor again and all incumbents were re-elected.  I can only conclude that most Ann Arbor voters are pretty happy with the way things are going.

SECOND UPDATE:  The Chronicle provided an election autopsy that includes a really nice spreadsheet.

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9 Comments on “The Meaning of Elections in Ann Arbor”

  1. Once upon a time, the city had “instant runoff voting”, which let you pick a 2d and 3d choice candidate so that in case of less than a majority your second place choice would count.

    This generally serves to strengthen the vote of people who really prefer the least popular candidate, since they get to both vote for their choice and to pick a consolation prize. The result of this in the 1975 Ann Arbor mayoral election is told in the lawsuit Stephenson v Ann Arbor Board of Canvassers

    where Albert Wheeler won the mayor’s race because he was the 2d choice of almost all of those who chose the 3d party candidate.

  2. adjunctadvocate Says:


    This is a very thoughtful entry on a subject that deserves a lot of thought. Well done.

    Pat Lesko

  3. David Cahill Says:

    Hmm. With Hohnke getting about 70% of the vote, Floyd 21%, and Clark 9%, it looks like Fifth Warders preferred the Democrat to the Republican and the developer, thus cleverly avoiding both the lady and the tiger.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, even with a Republican sweep for statewide candidates, 5th ward voters are evidently not going to elect a Republican. Now we’ve tested that hypothesis and can move along.

  4. Leah Gunn Says:

    The “runoff” voting was used only once, in 1975, because of the strength of the Human Rights Party (David Cahill knows wherof I speak). Al Wheeler was electd as Ann Arbor’s first African-American Mayor. The city Democratic politicinas (including myself) saw no need for a repeat, as the HRP died soon therafter. In 1977, there was the infamous re-election where Al won by one vote – and that vote held up in a recount. However, there was a long drawn out lawsuit because an assistant in the City Clerk’s office (Tom Weider – you may know him) found that some people who voted in the election actually lived in a Township. One voter was cited for contempt by the judge because she refused to say for whom she had voted, and was taken in tears from the courtroom. Much angst later, the election was re-run in 1978, and Al lost to Republican Lou Belcher. The next adventure was in 1979, when the city tried punch card voting – and that experiment was also rejected after mounds of chad went flying around the Armory where the counting was taking place. ‘Twas quite a spectacle, to see a certain Republican lawyer tearing out his non-existent hair. Ah yes – those were indeed the days.

    From your local political historian…

    • varmentrout Says:

      Interesting – I knew of all this only from recorded accounts since I wasn’t around at that time. I certainly didn’t realize that Tom Weider was involved in a lawsuit surrounding the Wheeler re-election. He has been instrumental in a number of political shifts, including the 1990 redistricting to make Ann Arbor wards more accessible to Democratic candidates and the move to November elections for council and mayor.

  5. Jenna Says:

    You were on to something when you noted that you tend to hang out with a small group malcontents and thus, by extension, do not hang out with regular folks. But then you quickly lost sight of that realization by theorizing that your vote for Floyd might throw the race to Newcombe… as if this race had any hope of being close.

    Here’s the reality that you — and Pat Lesko, Jack Eaton, Lou Glorie, etc. — don’t understand: the vast majority of Ann Arbor residents — Democratic primary voters, general election voters, etc. — don’t share your view of which issues matter. They don’t care that a particular issue isn’t “transparently” discussed by the Council because these regular folks are too busy cooking dinner for their kids, socializing with friends, working, etc. They don’t read — and have never heard of — your blog or A2Politico. They like that they can throw their yogurt cartons in with their newspapers. They worry about potholes and snow-plowing, not Project Grow and the Mayor’s campaign finance disclosure forms. In other words, they have lives.

    In sum, Mayor Hieftje and his Council majority have dominated City politics for years — and will continue to do so — because they focus on issues that the average voters care about. You, on the other hand, focus on issues that most people find unimportant. Until you folks figure this out, you are doomed to lose elections.

  6. varmentrout Says:

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Jenna. I get some of your points though only part of your list are things I’ve ever commented on myself. I’m definitely obsessive on the local food issue and I objected to single-stream recycling because as a former chair of the Solid Waste Commission I have strong feelings about recycling. And yes, I know that lots of people don’t care about the tiny little details of many issues but only about things that directly affect their lives. Political activists are a special breed who have gotten fired up at some point and get into those details. We can let a particular issue become magnified so that it is the only thing in our sight. I am apparently irretrievably wonky, partly by nature and partly because I have been a part of government so I know the importance of each issue and understand many of the implications.

    But I am not identical to any of the other people you listed and I sometimes disagree with them, so please don’t conflate my views with theirs and allow me to state my own positions.

    There was in fact an upwelling of popular discontent a couple of years ago but it does indeed appear that the Mayor and his coalition are able to thread between different danger points to keep things stable for now. People usually get upset only when their own bills go up or a crime wave happens in their own neighborhood (as happened to mine a year ago) or a development actually threatens their own property. Some of us take a broader and longer view. History is being made as we speak, and it is being made in a hundred different little issues and details.

    But you are right that “we” (the malcontents, I guess) have failed to make our case and that a majority of voters has seen no reason to budge from the tried and true. Some of us will just hopelessly and helplessly watch, I guess.

    Personally, I just hope that I am wrong about some of the dire consequences I see for the future. I’m actually an enthusiastic person who likes to think about positive things and expansive programs.

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