This piece was supposed to be a straightforward look at a city council race.
Instead it’s a column that gives an account of an unusual situation involving a council veteran, who dropped from sight when an adult daughter’s long battle with leukemia took a scary turn; and a political newcomer, who declines to be interviewed except via email.
The council seat at issue is in Ann Arbor’s Ward 4, the southwestern part of the city.
Incumbent Democrat Marcia Higgins has been one of the ward’s two council representatives since 1999.
Hatim Elhady, a student at the University of Michigan, is an independent who’s running against her.
Ordinarily, that kind of introduction would be followed by additional biographical information to provide context and then the meat of a story based – in large part – on interviews with each candidate.
But Elhady’s not talking.
Although I’d interviewed him in April for The Ann Arbor News – and he’d previously expressed an interest in sitting down with The Chronicle – the first-time candidate now takes the position that he should be able to respond to questions by email.
Chronicle editor Dave Askins and I have talked about this at length. We trust that readers appreciate the shortcomings of an arrangement that precludes the give-and-take of a person-to-person conversation and asks us to accept that responses are prepared by the candidate rather than an adviser.
Elhady is aware of the latter issue. In an email asking that questions to him be submitted for replies via email, he wrote: “You have my word that the questions will only be seen by my eyes and the answers will be authored by me and only me.”
Standards among professional news organizations certainly differ, but the fact is that actual interviews – face-to-face or over the phone – are organic: A comment, an interesting observation, can lead to a discussion that could never be anticipated and wouldn’t occur absent the spontaneity of two people talking.
Email is handy for getting facts – an age, a date, a budget figure. But unless the interviewee is in a situation where even a phone conversation is impossible, I wouldn’t use email, texting or instant-messaging as a substitute for an interview.
And there’s no reason that a local candidate shouldn’t be ready to sit down with a local news publication to discuss credentials, goals and ideas – and let those ideas be tested by the immediacy of someone else’s conversational turn.
I’ve stepped on a toe or two in a dozen years as a journalist in Ann Arbor. But Elhady says his no-interview approach had nothing to do with my earlier reporting. (That April reporting appeared in The Ann Arbor News, which has since closed.)
It’s not about me. It’s not about The Chronicle – at least one other local publication has received Elhady’s email-only proposition.
I attribute it to inexperience or bad advice or both.
For Higgins, the need to make a family illness public has been difficult.
“This has been going on for seven years for us,” she says. “Putting it out there, that this is the reason I haven’t been available, that was a hard thing to do. It’s very personal.”
Higgins and her husband, Pat Putman, have three adult children. Meredith, who’s ill, is 31 and has a 10-year-old daughter of her own. “Most people have understood,” says Higgins.
Friends, including veterans politicians like county commissioner Leah Gunn, are distributing campaign literature on her behalf. Voters will also get literature by mail.
First elected to council as a Republican, Higgins ran unsuccessfully for mayor on the GOP line against John Hieftje in 2002. She was re-elected to the council as a Democrat in 2005 and 2007.
Although she didn’t appear at League of Women Voters candidate forum on Oct. 22 – Elhady gave a solo performance – Higgins made time for a phone interview late that evening.
There’s work to finish on the city council, she says.
- The new downtown zoning, nicknamed A2D2 for “Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown,” is nearly in place. But there’s a commitment to review it after a year, notes Higgins, who helped shepherd the program through a process that’s spanned several years. “We want to look at it, see if we got it right and see what needs to be adjusted.”
- There’s also a separate effort to revise sections of zoning that are outdated or in conflict with one another. That work’s taking place in the city attorney’s office, but needs a champion at the council table, says Higgins who’s also involved in uniting the city’s multiple master plans into a single, citywide plan.
“As those things are completed, there are things I’d like to make more time for,” she says, “… like taking a look at how CTN fits as communications continue to change. And the budget is only going to get harder. There are ideas for reducing costs that we’ve said ‘no’ to before that we’re going to have to revisit.”
For now, all that takes a backseat to family.
“My colleagues on council have known that I’d work hard, but if there was an emergency they just wouldn’t see me,” Higgins. The circle of people familiar with the situation is now quite a bit bigger.
So why even try to run and continue to serve on council?
We talked about that a few weeks ago, when her daughter’s health had again become a serious concern but hadn’t yet pulled Higgins away from her city council service or her campaign.
Meredith wanted life to go on and didn’t want her illness to alter life for others, Higgins told me. That included her mother’s service on city council.
Faced with that situation, I don’t know what I’d do. But I’m glad I’m not in a position to find out, and am not about to second-guess anyone who is.
The Decision for Ward 4 Voters
First, some useful links:
- [Marcia Higgins campaign website]
- [Hatim Elhady campaign website]
- [Ann Arbor city clerk election page]
Ward 4 residents have plenty of concerns.
No ward is affected more directly by the possible failure of the East Stadium Boulevard bridges. The ward has town-gown neighborhoods, traffic problems, and regular debates over development.
Higgins has a record on all that, including complaints about city staff’s inattentiveness to the bridge that preceded weight limits and lane closures on the bridge by several years. She aired those frustrations when I’d regularly touch base with councilmembers as part of my Ann Arbor News work. It’s the same attitude reflected more recently in a Chronicle report from a February city council caucus:
Higgins said she was not happy with McCormick’s response to her query about contingency planning for emergency response, in the event the bridge is closed on the major east-west corridor. Higgins characterized the response as, “We’ll get to that.” ["Discontent Emerges at Council Caucus"]
Elhady has positions on the bridge and other issues outlined on his website. He’s previously expressed interest in the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority fare increase, traffic congestion and street repair.
It would have been nice to talk in some detail about those and other issues.
Our job is to provide information you wouldn’t have otherwise, so that you can better make decisions about public affairs. In this case, the information is about the dearth of information. It’s not very satisfying, but it’s an honest account.
If you’re a Ward 4 resident who’s been unhappy with Higgins on the issues or on a constituent-service level, then by all means think about a change.
If you’re a voter aggrieved that she failed to appear in a debate, or on your doorstep with a pamphlet, you should probably factor in the reason for her absence.
And, in either case, think about the alternative.
A candidate who – like Elhady – touts “transparency” and accessibility, but won’t talk to a news publication that you turn to for information, should also give you pause.
Election day is Nov. 3.
About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, and in Ohio, New York and several other states.