Ann Arbor Elections – The Season of Poison

Every two years, Ann Arbor has an election of members to its City Council. Councilmembers are now elected to four-year terms, as is the Mayor. Here is the Ann Arbor Observer’s description of the Council races this year.

For the last couple of elections, the results have been momentous. We summarized some of this in the post Disruption, Dysfunction and Dismay (I). Briefly, Mayor Christopher Taylor, who was anticipating great things, had some disastrous losses in 2018. He then won much of it back in 2020, with his handpicked slate of strong candidates (well-supported by donations, including support from the Michigan Talent Agenda/Inspire Michigan PAC), who knocked out incumbents of opposing views (more on that contest in the post Disruption in Ann Arbor: It’s a Promise). The new Council wasted no time in undoing much of what the previous one had done. As we commented recently, our politics has gotten to be very reactive. But it has also gotten seriously nastier and less honest. Much of this can be laid at the feet of the Taylor machine.

Yes – I believe that Taylor has constructed a classic political machine. As Wikipedia says, this is defined as “a party organization, headed by a single boss or small autocratic group, that commands enough votes to maintain political and administrative control of a city, county, or state“. It also notes that the term is often considered pejorative. But I believe that in Taylor’s case, it is simply descriptive.

Christopher Taylor was first elected as Mayor in 2014, strongly supported by the Michigan Talent Agenda/Inspire Michigan). The Michigan Talent Agenda is the educational/marketing entity, supported by a PAC, Inspire Michigan. The overall agenda is described in our post, The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. Briefly, the concept is to build a vibrant and attractive urban center that will attract “talent”, typically young people skilled in the high-tech industries. Or, as stated in their most recent postcard (July 2022) endorsing three candidates in the upcoming election:

The Michigan Talent Agenda is a statewide platform that seeks to drive public policy outcomes to develop, attract, and retain the highly-talented, highly-educated citizenry that Michigan needs to succeed in today’s knowledge economy. This requires a commitment to building and investing in the sorts of communities that mobile talent values.

Since then, Taylor has been gaining power and influence by accretion. At least two nonprofits that also do some business with the City, the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and the Ecology Center, openly participate in campaign-season activities (remember the Climate Voter signs? And the WHA was similarly involved in the Neighbors for More Neighbors campaign). Taylor has had the power of appointment to boards and commissions for eight years, and that builds up a very strong support base. For several campaign cycles he has received maximum campaign donations from Oxford Properties’ owner and other real estate interests, as well as a University of Michigan regent. Most recently he has begun receiving donations from the Michigan Laborers’ Union (note his endorsement by LiUNA!). And now he is endorsed by multiple officeholders and candidates for state-level offices, including County Commissioners.

All this is giving him real muscle. He has been using it in the last election and this one to recruit and support strong candidates who will be loyal to him. His purpose appears to be that he wishes to preside over a unanimously supportive Council, with no discussion. I believe that if you examine the voting record since the 2020 election, you will find very little dissent from members of his slate. And now it is clear that he is determined to eliminate two of the troublesome incumbents who have been effective in criticizing and questioning his leadership on numerous items. He has put his full support behind Jenn Cornell (running to oppose Ali Ramlawi in the 5th Ward) and Dharma Akmon (running to oppose Elizabeth Nelson, 4th Ward). His treasurer, Joan Lowenstein, is their Treasurer. At one point Taylor called upon his own supporters and volunteers to turn out for a massive field day to support Akmon in the 4th ward. (I have been told that Cornell received the same assistance recently.) And it is evident that the same agency (Blue Path Solutions, according to the Observer) prepared their campaign postcards. That is perhaps unfortunate, because the postcards resemble each other both in their mischaracterizations of certain actions, and also in the graceless effort to smear the characters of both incumbents. (Click on the figure to view larger version.)

Happily, I am not obligated to explain Elizabeth Nelson’s response to these items, because she has done that herself. Read it in her own words. The Difference is Clear 

What jumped out at me was that the very first thing on the list was the silly issue of Jeff Hayner’s clumsiness. As explained in MLive at the time, he fell into a trap of his own making by quoting a paragraph that contained a word that is offensive to LGBTQ people and then defended his right to quote literature while making another quote containing the N-word, to a Black reporter, no less. I have always found Jeff to be troublesome, but I believe along with many others that he was not actually expressing his feelings but simply being stubborn and insisting on his rights. (Nelson is clear in her statement that she rebuked him for this usage.) Regardless, Taylor’s people have found this to be immensely useful, to the point at which acolytes have suggested on social media that a Black candidate (Angeline Smith) was likely a friend of his because they both live in the First Ward and implying that she was racist! Is this really the issue on which the future of the City of Ann Arbor should hang?

And then the second item is Howard Lazarus’ firing. Actually, he resigned after some serious negotiation and I noticed that he has now found a job as County Executive elsewhere. The Taylorites will never stop mourning his passage, but is this a forward-looking issue?

Taylor himself does not engage in the nastiness. He has a flock of acolytes to carry his message of character assassination and mischaracterization of actions throughout social media. (Most of them are the #a2council twitterers I affectionately call the Jackals.)

So why are we constantly being assaulted with nasty implications, insults, and false descriptions of actions by Council? Because they want to change the subject. Taylor has made it clear that he represents a major change of direction and agenda for the City, and many of his agendas are aimed at bringing in a new population and in inciting growth and economic development. Densification, replacement of current homes and businesses, tax increases and other changes of performance by our government do not favor current residents and small businesses. What his slate emphasize in their anodyne statements is “quality service”. Jenn Cornell, for example, extols “clean water, reliable trash and recycling, safe roads and sidewalks, and parks that are maintained and activated”. That is reassuring to hear, but we hope those things were already in place. (Oddly, Taylor’s recent postcard mostly emphasized his gender sensitivity in placing tampons in public restrooms.) We are not discussing the big issues like how to pay for A2Zero, what radical rezoning will likely look like for the future, or how community members can have a full role in determining the City’s future shape.

Endorsements

We are lucky to have brave souls who are still willing to run for office against all this power. Here are my recommendations.

First Ward: Angeline Smith. She is connected with Arrowwood Cooperative, a strong community that preserves affordable housing and democratic ideals. Her sermon at her Zoom meeting on “trickle-down housing” was a treasure. In addition, she has experience with financial matters that will serve us well.  Her opponent Cynthia Harrison seems to be a good person and has a moving life story, but she can be counted on to be one of the Taylor yes votes.

Second Ward: Chris Watson is running unopposed. He will offer a fresh youthful voice.

Third Ward: Ayesha Ghazi Edwin is running unopposed. She has endorsed Taylor and his slate.

Fourth Ward: Elizabeth Nelson. She is an incredibly diligent, intelligent, and thoughtful representative who also has a sense of humor when permitted to exercise it.

Fifth Ward: Ali Ramlawi is thoughtful and brings a valuable perspective as a downtown businessman. He is very fiscally prudent and makes efforts to bring people together, though it has been tough lately.

Mayor: Anne Bannister has taken on a steep hill to climb against an incredibly powerful and well-funded incumbent Mayor, but she is doing a superb job of voicing a vision that is oriented toward the citizens of Ann Arbor rather than toward developing a successful economic engine. She deserves attention and has my thanks and respect.

UPDATE (July 24, 2022): Christopher Taylor’s postcard is similar to those for Akmon and Cornell, with a series of negative but questionable accusations. The political newsletter, Ann Arbor Independent, has an exhaustive discussion of these points.

Section of Christopher Taylor’s campaign postcard with comparisons against Anne Bannister

SECOND UPDATE (July 27, 2022) As reported in the Ann Arbor News, Taylor’s candidates did indeed receive disproportionate cash contributions, approximately twice those of the two incumbents and Angeline Smith. This was exceeded by contributions to Taylor’s own campaign, again reported by the Ann Arbor News.

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13 Comments on “Ann Arbor Elections – The Season of Poison”

  1. poodlechild Says:

    Another wonderful blogpost, Vivienne. Thank you.

  2. Peter Eckstein Says:

    Vivienne, an excellent analysis, and one of the first to give a name to what some of us have just talked about among ourselves–that a powerful political machine now dominates city politics and is determined to eliminate any dissenting, or even questioning, voices from City Council.

    It is charitable of you to consider the term merely descriptive, not pejorative, but I m not so charitable. The Machine marshals unheard-of sums of money from outside the wards being contested, and even outside the city and the county. Four years ago, according to his campaign filings, Taylor held a fundraiser at Birmingham’s posh Townsend Hotel and garnered ten contributions of $2,000 each from the lawyers and lawyer/developers who attended. One of whom was promoting a large development project in Ann Arbor. That’s $20,000 in one evening.

    The Machine appoints promising citizens to city boards and commissions, where they earn their credits by promoting the Machine’s policies, and are then eligible to be selected by The Machine to run for City Council.

    Local development interests seek massive favors from the Planning Commission and City Council. One of their leaders, Jeff Hauptmann of Oxford, donates generously to The Machine’s candidates and to PACs that support those candidates or vilify their opponents. The latest striking manifestation is the string of “yard signs” currently in front of Hauptmann-owned or managed properties along Eisenhower on both sides of Industrial and along Industrial north of Eisenhower.

    This is the least Hauptmann should be willing to do to support a Machine that has just upzoned dozens of his properties along State Street, permitting vastly larger developments that are required to make no contribution to our alleged affordable housing goals or to incorporate features that will contribute to our alleged sustainability goals. These practices exemplify the “Pay to Play” practices that are typical of some of the most ruthless political machines.

    Winning elections is not the only way The Machine stifles democracy in Ann Arbor. Once Mayor Taylor regained control of City Council in 2020, it promptly reversed a reform that would have required for major proposed street reconfigurations to be reported to Council, so that the staff can spring changes without notice, and therefore without any opportunity for the neighbors and users of the streets to have any meaningful input on the changes.

    The Machine also rammed through a policy originally promoted by real estate interests and by Rick Snyder and the Republican-dominated Legislature. It allows the Machine-appointed Planning Commission to exercise final approval of major developments without any input from the elected City Council or from the public that would be drawn to a Council hearing on the subject. The developers should be grateful, but the public should not.

    The French intellectual Paul Valery one wrote: “Politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs that properly concern them.” The Machine has mastered that art, and democracy in Ann Arbor is being subverted.

    • Mark M. Koroi Says:

      One phenomenon is noteworthy in the comment – pay to play politics motivated by outside interests.
      Check the political contributions that are disclosed in the public record and you will that a substantial percentage of donations to campaign committees of judges, city council members, and other elected officials are made by persons who live outside the jurisdiction.
      I investigated this phenomenon and discovered many of the donors are connected to city vendors – or in the case of judges, those who have business before the court.
      Ordinary citizens are typically frozen out of the political processes. The campaign committee donors are those who public officeholders have a soft spot in their heart for.
      I discovered in the City of Hamtramck for example a judicial candidate who outraised an opponent by a 10-1 margin received most of her campaign monies from those who resided from outside Hamtramck. City of Hamtramck residents donated less than 25% of the total campaign contribution amount collected.

  3. Brad Pritts Says:

    A thoughtful, thorough post as always, thanks!

  4. Patricia L Alvis Says:

    Vivienne, This clarifies my thinking as I shuffle through a growing stack of shiny candidate cards. I sometimes feel that no one of our leaders anymore understands the value of looking at debatable questions with the end in view of reaching a plan of action. You remind me that no candidate should be allowed free rein to mudsling if it means a win. We voters should demand better.

  5. Michael H. Belzer Says:

    The term “Machine” is way too kind and actually insufficiently informative. This is a classic oligarchy, and oligarchy has replaced democracy in the US, especially since Citizens United. It is a feature of that ruling, not a bug. The decline of local newspapers has made government unaccountable nationally and locally. Amazingly, the lack of depth in education has created the perfect fog for the destruction of the democratic form if government.

  6. Edith Croake Says:

    Vivienne, thank you for this, once again, very informative piece. I appreciate the history, the specific details, the concern for such things as an Ann Arbor who takes care of those who cannot afford very expensive housing amidst dense development. I learn from your pieces. They influence my actions.Please keep writing.

  7. John Smith Says:

    Vivienne, thanks for the updates. It is clear that Pat Lesko’s latest October Surprise posts have drawn some blood and the machine is smarting. The self-righteous, self-serving & arrogant response is actually a thing of beauty for those of us paying attention. Change the subject is the essence of their Modus Operandi. In fact, dare I say that is the main reason elections have been moved to even years only where voter bandwidth is spread-out to Federal & State issues. This is a change that needs to be reversed if we want Democracy to do better in this town. We need two things: 1) Odd year only elections, 2) Non-partisan elections. These two things hold in practically every other city in Michigan but not in A2. Having non-partisan elections in odd years will keep straight ticket voters deciding mainly on Federal & State candidates from skewing the election results. The voters who come out in odd years are better informed and have had more time to study the issues. Those voters are also less susceptible to word salad politicians who talk a lot but never give out any meaningful information about what they will actually do (are you reading this Dharma?). A2 is dominated by the Democratic Party which makes the August Primary the deciding election in A2. We could implement Ranked Choice Voting in November with Non-Partisan voting.

    So what makes A2 unique? I think a clue is in the taxable value of this town being greater than that of Detroit at one point even though UM pays no property tax. This town is getting a lot of attention from wealthy people and institutions outside the city who see only dollar signs and could really care less what the people who live here want. These financial interests have found a willing collaborator in our current Mayor who is more than happy to play ball. The Taylor machine has aligned itself with people who believe that the rent can NEVER be too damn high and they would like for all of us to be renters who own nothing and are happy (while they are happy owning everything!)

    A final point, anytime you hear the word “NIMBY” remind the speaker that they are a bigot and they deserve to be subject to a Salvatore “investigation” (you know, an “investigation” where by definition they are guilty and Salvatore will find the facts to prove it.) The use of the term “NIMBY” is designed to silence the voice of the people who live here so the developers can get what they want without compromise. Tell these people to shut the hell up, and no, the developers are not going to lower your rent anytime soon no matter how many luxury condos they build.

  8. Beth Collins Says:

    Great analysis, Vivienne. What “gets me” is that they all (including MLive) call Lockwood 1 “senior affordable housing”. It was to be market rate senior apartments at about $2500-3500 a month rent, with the PUD required affordable units included in the 95 apartments (which was 19, until the developer saw resistance from the residents and made it 40). The site is zoned single family and this PUD was to be very commercial in nature (commercial kitchen, hair salon, chapel, activity center), with a semi truck loading zone and commercial dumpsters 15 feet from an existing residence. This site is also adjacent to a steep slope going to a natural glacier made lake and wetlands, where Lockwood’s heavily salted impervious surface would flow down into these natural features. The very high dioxane 60 feet under this site has an EPA recommendation to “not” place the stormwater infiltration machines that Lockwood was to place, unless we do not care about the movement of the plume (which we do). The residents of the Sister Lakes (350) were 99% against this egregious up zone and the Sierra Club opposed this development. The Comprehensive Land use plan stated that this quadrant of Wagner and Jackson should remain residential, due to all the commercial around us. The developer would have needed a supermajority 8 votes and they received 5. It was not even close, so for Dharma and Mayor Taylor to say this in their comparisons, downplays the facts for anyone who paid attention during the 1 1/2 year debacle. This would have harmed our neighbors quality of life and the environment and those who voted against it, listened to the facts about it. Lockwood 2 is under construction and unanimously passed Council, the loading zone and any part of the new building is 70 feet from the closest residence.


    • Yes. I didn’t recall all the details but I did know that the description on the postcard was misleading and overly abbreviated. I think it would be true of almost all decisions made by Council on a split vote that a “sound bite” description from the losing side would not be very accurate, but these were deliberately misrepresented.


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