Dems Forum Part 1: Conceptual Ann Arbor

Contested primaries for two Ann Arbor city council seats; other unopposed candidates also attend to share their views

Editor’s note: A forum hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party on Saturday, June 8, 2013 drew six of seven total city council candidates who’ve qualified for the primary ballot.

From left: Julie Grand (Ward 3 challenger), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3 incumbent), Jack Eaton (Ward 3 challenger), Mike Anglin (Ward 5 incumbent), Kirk Westphal (Ward 2 challenger), Sabra Briere (Ward 1 incumbent).

From left: Julie Grand (Ward 3 challenger), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3 incumbent), Jack Eaton (Ward 4 challenger), Mike Anglin (Ward 5 incumbent), Kirk Westphal (Ward 2 candidate), Sabra Briere (Ward 1 incumbent).

In the Aug. 6 Democratic primary, only two wards offer contested races. In Ward 3, Democratic voters will choose between incumbent Stephen Kunselman and Julie Grand. Ward 4 voters will have a choice between incumbent Marcia Higgins and Jack Eaton. Higgins was reported to have been sick and was unable to attend.

The format of the event eventually allowed other candidates who are unopposed in the Democratic primary to participate: Mike Anglin (Ward 5 incumbent), Sabra Briere (Ward 1 incumbent), and Kirk Westphal, who’s challenging incumbent Jane Lumm in Ward 2. Lumm, who was elected to the council as an independent, was in the audience at the forum but didn’t participate. The event was held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street. The Chronicle’s coverage is presented in a multiple-part series, based on common threads that formed directly in response to questions posed to the candidates, or that cut across multiple responses.

In their introductory remarks and in the course of responding to other questions, some of the candidates described their concept of and connection to Ann Arbor – how they came to live here, and how they conceive of the place. Other themes from the forum will be presented in subsequent parts of this series. Other Chronicle coverage is tagged with “2013 primary election.”

In her introductory remarks, Julie Grand told the audience she’d come to Ann Arbor 17 years ago. Hers might be a familiar story, she said: She came to attend graduate school, and fell in love with the university. Then, a few months later, she fell in love with a person. And over time she fell in love with the community, she continued. And it was that love of the community that made her and her husband choose to raise their family here.

So she settled in and became gradually more and more involved in the community. Eventually she began teaching health policy studies at the University of Michigan, Dearborn. So she’s running for city council because “I believe that we are an extraordinary community. And as an extraordinary community, we are worthy of having representatives that present thoughtful leadership and responsive communication to you.”

Stephen Kunselman began by noting that he grew up in Ann Arbor, which he thought everybody knew. He graduated in the same class as Ingrid Ault from Pioneer High School in 1981. [The allusion wasn't random. Ault was sitting in the front row of the audience. And before the forum started, she had updated the audience about the activity of a downtown park subcommittee of the city's park advisory commission, on which she serves and which Grand has chaired. Also, Ault had contested the 2011 Ward 3 Democratic primary, which Kunselman won.] Kunselman said he’d had a great time living in Ann Arbor all his life.

Later in the forum, Kunselman observed that having grown up in Ann Arbor, he was aware of all the amenities the city provided in the past – but he allowed that it wasn’t possible to provide all those things now.

Kunselman, who holds a masters degree in urban planning, rejected the idea that Ann Arbor should aspire to be more than what it is: a college town. “We can think of Ann Arbor as a great metropolis … but as an urban planner, all I see us as is a college town, a midwestern college town that empties out for four months out of the year in the summer. And that’s why we all love living here – because then the students are gone and we’ve got lots of room to park downtown!” The line drew applause from the audience.

Commenting on the possibility of a hotel/conference center in downtown Ann Arbor, Kunselman said the idea that a hotel is going to bring conferences in November or February or March is ludicrous. How many people are going to come to Ann Arbor in the middle of the winter and hang out with gray skies and sit out on the sidewalk? That’s not going to happen, he said. “So let’s stop pretending we are some metropolis and that we’re going to compete with Chicago or all these other big conference-type facilities,” Kunselman cautioned. It’s not going to happen and we need to focus on what we can accomplish: staying with the city’s core services, and letting the private sector take care of its business.

Jack Eaton described his connection to Ann Arbor through his neighborhood association. “I became involved in local politics through my neighborhood organization. I’ve led a number of efforts in my neighborhood, and have helped other neighborhoods organize.” [He was an organizer of the A2 Neighborhood Alliance.] He stated: “I believe that Ann Arbor is a special town and we [have the] obligation of taking good care of it and working on the small problems. It doesn’t require radical changes to our zoning or our town to keep what is special about it.”

Sabra Briere said: “What makes Ann Arbor special is why we are all here. … I’m here because of the people who live here. I am here because of the different ideas that they bring to my dining room table and talk to me about, and because I am made richer by those contacts.”

Kirk Westphal had described in his opening remarks how he had moved with his wife to Ann Arbor in 2004. In his closing remarks, he told the audience how they came to move to Ann Arbor. When they were thinking about making a change from New York City, they’d approached it like “some of those people you read about” who figured out where they want to live first, and then went about trying to make a life there. And Ann Arbor was at the top of his short list, Westphal said. He admitted he was “kind of obsessed” with the top-10 lists that you read about in magazines – in which Ann Arbor is frequently included.

Ann Arbor was attractive, because of what he’d read about it, Westphal said, including its progressive values – and the fact that it was Democratic “was noticed.” The fact that so much culture is here for a city this size was very important. Ann Arbor has exceeded his expectations, he said.

Westphal thinks this is a really exciting time for Ann Arbor. 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. He continued: “I think that we can set our sights even higher. It will never be Chicago nor should we ever strive to be a large city …”

But Westphal felt that he’d been able to offer some interesting perspectives in his service on the Ann Arbor planning commission. The city must plan for the people who are here now, and serve the people who are here, he said. But a city only thrives when we think about the next generation and what is motivating people to make it a great place to be. He’d played the role on the planning commission of an outsider, and was always thinking about: Why did I move here?

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  1. June 10, 2013 at 11:46 am | permalink

    That is an interesting question and I love hearing the answers of different people. Me, I swear that I recall coming to the hospital for asthma treatments when I was in early grade school. I have a distinct memory of being at a long stop sign (I would guess South U & State) and seeing some students with dyed blue hair walk by. I turned to my mom and said, “I am going to live here one day” and here I am! (My mom has no memory of this event, sadly).

  2. By john floyd
    June 10, 2013 at 5:11 pm | permalink

    The Council Party’s candidates so often rely on vague labels, like “progressive” or “Democratic”, that have no particular bearing on issues in our city. They also short on specifics on local issues, the very things about which the elections are supposed to decided. For example, how large do they think Ann Arbor should be? Do they think Ann Arbor (& immediate environs) should be 1/2 million people? Do they favor historic preservation? Do they favor stronger character zone ordinances? Do they want repeats of 413 E. Huron? Should we raise the taxes of Ann Arbor residents to pay for/subsidize the commutes of UM employees? Should we put city taxpayers on the hook for a conference center and/or hotel? It’s almost as if they prefer labels and name-calling to policy specifics, or other things on which they can be truly compared to other candidates.

    I would like to see a combination of vision (Ann Arbor should be, e.g. … a college town, or a major metropolis, or an edge city for Detroit, or the new population and employment center of Michigan.; and then I would like to see specifics about how they intend to get it there: subsidizing commuters, removing as much historic housing as possible, raising the height of the skyline further, placing green space in the center of town, etc. I think this would make it easier to decide who among the candidates best fits the electorate’s preferences.

  3. By Steve Bean
    June 10, 2013 at 5:53 pm | permalink

    John, wouldn’t you actually prefer a candidate who favors democracy and who would represent the majority of their constituents? Asking them to put forth their preferred vision only gives you one or two choices, after all, depending on the number of candidates in your ward. Why not ask them to respond to multiple visions, on multiple levels, in multiple categories?

    As for visions, they can be useful, but having one doesn’t (or won’t necessarily) make it so. The main thing I’ve learned in recent years is that the broader context tends to dictate possibilities to a much larger extent than most people realize or acknowledge (or assign credit for, for that matter). So in addition to alternate visions, I’d like to hear about their understanding of that broader context and the challenges it presents.

  4. By Libby Hunter
    June 10, 2013 at 6:58 pm | permalink

    For me, hearing what a candidate thinks about specific A2 issues occuring now helps me decide who to vote for. I guess that makes me in agreement with John Floyd.

  5. By Steve Bean
    June 10, 2013 at 9:02 pm | permalink

    Libby, what I’m suggesting is ‘shaping’ your representative rather than choosing between what (limited options) they offer. Of course, that doesn’t preclude asking about specifics, it just is a step beyond what we’ve learned to accept.

  6. June 10, 2013 at 9:42 pm | permalink

    Steve, I agree with John Floyd’s general point and not your idea.

    The real issue in Ann Arbor right now is what our (collective and individual) vision of what the city should be in its whole and in relation to each of us is. I’ll avoid characterizing the two opposing views at this moment, but I think most reading this know.

    Your idea is a lovely theoretical construct but among other objections seems to be driving toward government by referendum. (Otherwise, what does “shaping” your representative mean?) And it is unworkable in practical terms.

    As we are finding now, just electing representatives from one “viewpoint” does not determine their votes on any one subject. But it does predict their mindset, and that is useful.

  7. By John Floyd
    June 10, 2013 at 10:59 pm | permalink


    It’s not that I believe that representatives should not represent; my point is that in Ann Arbor, most “representatives” do not in fact represent, and they do have agendas. Apparent members of certain alliances among councilpersonsl have been skillful in pretending that they do not have an agenda. Given that many people around here seem to run in order to advance an agenda, my desire is for candidates’ agendas be explicit, not secret, so that people may choose among them. Under the circumstances, this strikes me as the most democratic outcome we could reasonably expect.

    As noted above, this to me means two things: what vision the potential council member wishes to advance, and at least some specifics of what that vision entails.

  8. By Steve Bean
    June 11, 2013 at 9:01 am | permalink

    Vivienne, I’m not talking about referenda but representation. See below.

    “The real issue in Ann Arbor right now is what our (collective and individual) vision of what the city should be in its whole and in relation to each of us is.

    That’s *one* issue, and it’s a distraction from government (that is, policy making) in part because people tend to be reactive and elect reactive “representatives”. That might sound contradictory to what I say below, but it’s both/and, not either/or—council members have the opportunity to both represent and lead. Also, for those residents who have other concerns, to say that this is *the* issue leaves them out of the discussion. Not very democratic, whether you agree or disagree with them about those concerns.

    I commented on the related coverage at on Julie Grand’s odd statement that she could direct residents to the person who could address their concerns. Wouldn’t that be their council representative, at least in some cases? Why the assumption that all concerns are those that city staff can address? But it seemed to be lost on other readers. Maybe it’s what they’ve come to expect.

    John, you wrote, “my point is that in Ann Arbor, most ‘representatives’ do not in fact represent, and they do have agendas.”

    And my point is that we can choose to stop accepting that, but it will mean that we have to tell them clearly what we want. I understand your your intention to be realistic, though. But that’s a choice.

    When I was a candidate, the first question from most residents I spoke with while gathering petition signatures was, “What do you want to do as mayor?” or “Why do you want to be mayor?” My response was that I wanted to represent and serve them. It’s as though we’ve been so unrepresented that we don’t understand the concept anymore. We’ve been taught that the choice is “Coke or Pepsi?”, and we’ve accepted that.

    The other aspect of this acceptance (at a certain level) is that we then feel and act more adversarial when we disagree. We don’t say, “I understand your perspective and your intention, and in this case I would like you to consider such and such.” Instead we don’t even talk to them because we “know” that they have an agenda. It’s self defeating. And it begins at this stage, before the election.

  9. By Steve Bean
    June 11, 2013 at 9:05 am | permalink

    Also, John, I do get your point about making agendas explicit. I’m suggesting that we “reasonably expect” more than that (or did I already say that? ;-) ).

  10. By John Floyd
    June 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm | permalink


    Most of what you say makes sense to me. After my own two campaigns, it does seem to me that most folks are too busy living their lives to take much time to focus on local issues, and what candidates have to say about them. On the whole, my sense is that they want someone to “handle” all this stuff so that they don’t have to think about it. This situation is what lets candidates (e.g., Carsten Hohnke) get away with campaigning on vague statements of intent that contain little or no substance – and certainly no tangible details.

    What does not make sense to me is the idea that vision is a single-issue item. It strikes me that “Vision” covers everything from what street surfaces are like, to better coordination of services and facilities with other government units, to zoning, to water rates and park maintenance.

  11. By Steve Bean
    June 14, 2013 at 8:42 am | permalink

    No disagreement on that, John, especially the “handle it” part. I think I interpreted your initial use of “vision” (now clarified as being broad) more like “goal” (singular and narrow). So I’m mainly saying, let’s help shape their vision early and not be passive and then complain later. From a candidate perspective, that’s the type of citizen I was interested in representing, not a divided (and divisive) member of a “side”. (And as you say, most wanted someone to just “handle” things for them.)