Editor’s note: A forum hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party on June 8, 2013 drew six of seven total city council candidates who’ve qualified for the primary ballot.
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.
This final installment of coverage from the June 8 city council candidate forum focuses on the remarks candidates made that were overtly about the campaign – to the extent that those remarks weren’t included in one of the previous reports on this forum.
The fact that the forum was hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party meant that party politics was an obvious potential topic. State representative Jeff Irwin set that tone early as he addressed the audience with a legislative update. And Ward 2 candidate Kirk Westphal, who’ll face independent Jane Lumm in the general election, stressed that he is a Democrat.
Part 1 of this series focused on the candidates’ concept of and connection to Ann Arbor, while Part 2 looked at their personal styles of engagement and views of how the council interacts. Part 3 reported on the theme of connections, including physical connections like transportation, as well as how people are connected to local government. And Part 4 covered the theme of downtown and its role in the life of the city. Chronicle election coverage is tagged with “2013 primary election.”
The League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area will be holding its candidate forums for Ward 3 and Ward 4 primaries on July 10 at the studios of Community Television Network. Those forums will be broadcast on CTN’s Channel 19 and will be available online.
Julie Grand led things off by saying she had truly enjoyed the opportunity so far of “getting out in the community, listening to your concerns, listening to your solutions.”
During her closing comments, Grand added that if people at the forum had other questions about her campaign, they could look at the literature that had been placed on tables in the back of the room. Her website would be live shortly, she said. [Grand's website] She offered to talk after the forum or when people saw her out in the community – as she was not taking any vacation over the next couple of months.
Grand felt she has a strong record of public service to the community – one that she said has been characterized by hard work, transparency and strong public engagement. That’s what she’d continue to do, she said. [Grand is chair of the Ann Arbor park advisory commission, on which she's served since 2007. She has served on several task forces during that time, including one that's currently focused on the North Main/Huron River corridor.] Grand said she is looking forward to the opportunity to continue listening to people’s ideas and working hard for them.
Stephen Kunselman said he’s seeking re-election. Back in 2011, he noted, he’d campaigned on the tagline of a “strong voice, bold vision, an honest ethic and a new direction.” This year, his tagline is “experienced, effective, ethical leadership you can trust.” [Kunselman's website]
Kunselman thanked Grand for throwing her hat in the ring. Campaigning is not easy, he said. He allowed that it’s a good time because you meet a lot of people – but it’s not that much fun. He thanked other candidates who stepped forward, because it really does give the city a broad representation of interest in the dialogue that’s going to be taking place in the next couple of months, he said. He repeated his tagline for this year: “Experienced, effective, ethical leadership you can trust.” He’d be going door-to-door over the next couple of months, he said.
He’s accomplished a lot during his service on the city council that he’s very proud of, Kunselman said, working with councilmembers Sabra Briere and Mike Anglin. As an example, he gave the public art ordinance that was given a major revision at a recent council meeting. The revision to the public art ordinance meant that the city would no longer be transferring restricted monies into pooled funds for public art.
As another example, he gave his service as the council appointee to the taxicab board. When there were complaints about limo drivers assaulting University of Michigan female students, he had stood up to make sure that the police department was addressing that issue, he said. When there was a proposal to close fire stations in the last year, he’d opposed that with others on the council, and added FTEs during the last fiscal year. About the former YMCA site – a city-owned property at Fifth and William – he noted that he’d campaigned in 2011 on the idea of selling it. A broker is now being selected by the city administrator, so that the city can be put back on the tax rolls again.
Kunselman commented on the houses along Main Street – across from the Ann Arbor Community Center, where the forum was held. He noted that the dilapidated houses, which had been part of the demised Near North affordable housing development, had now been demolished. [Demolition had been delayed, in part because the city expected that federal funds could be used to cover the cost, but that proved not to be the case.] Where did that money for demolition come from? Kunselman asked. When he’d been returned to the council by voters, he said, he’d used his experience working in local government. And because of that experience, he said, he’d pushed not for using the city attorney’s office to deal with blight in the community. Instead, he’d said: Let’s use the building department. He’d previously run a dangerous buildings program in a prior position, and he knew that the building department could be effective.
There’s a tremendous difference between playing poker politics and putting the cards on the table for all the public to see, Kunselman said. He gave forum attendees information on his campaign kickoff event.
Jack Eaton said it’s time now to turn attention “from stopping the bad ideas to a positive agenda.” He said it’s important to revisit the idea of protecting the city’s parkland from misuse. “We need to address our infrastructure needs. We need to address our unfunded liabilities. I want to help rebuild our police and fire departments,” he said. He’s running because he wants to be responsive to Ward 4 voters. But he also wants to represent the interests of the entire city. [Eaton's website]
Eaton reported that when he goes door-to-door talking to voters, he hears repeatedly that people really like it when he talks about commonsense priorities. It’s not that difficult to understand that public safety is more important than some of the other things the city spends money on, he said. It’s not that difficult to understand that when roads are in horrible condition, the city needs to address those problems. It’s not that hard to understand that neighborhood flooding should have been addressed a long time ago and we have just ignored the symptoms, Eaton said.
Sabra Briere ventured that she’d been “annoying my spouse lately” because every time she goes through a neighborhood and sees the sidewalks being repaired, she says, “If I have accomplished nothing else, I’ve done that.” She described how the first thing she did after she was elected to the council was to object to the method of paying for sidewalks. At that time, it was an individual’s responsibility as a property owner to pay for the sidewalk adjacent to your property. She was really happy that the community was asked to approve a millage for that, and had agreed to pass a millage to pay for sidewalk maintenance.
“Infrastructure is my big deal,” Briere stated. Her other big deal, she said, was a focus on affordable housing and human services. She’d been working on that “more quietly perhaps than some people might like, but it is making a real change in the budget.” She pointed out that this year the council was able to allocate $100,000 to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, when that had not been done in the last several years. That’s important because it’s a community value, she said.
Briere said she’s really tried over the last few years to be open and available to the public – to benefit from other people’s viewpoints as much as possible. Sometimes she’ll play devil’s advocate, she said – countering somebody’s view with someone else’s view to see how well they can defend it. Yes, she has a website, Briere said, and yes, you can e-mail her. But she pointed out that you can also talk with her – every Monday morning at the Northside Grill at 7:30 a.m. She stays until at least 9 a.m., she said. Some of the candidates and councilmembers at the forum had come to visit her there. She’s there to hear what anybody has to say. If nobody shows up, she has other stuff to do while she’s sitting there – adding that Northside Grill makes “a decent cup of coffee.”
As a gathering of members of the city Democratic Party, it was not unusual to hear partisan talk at the June 8 candidate forum.
Democratic Party: State Politics
Jeff Irwin – representative for Michigan’s 53rd House District, which includes most of Ann Arbor – led off the morning by filling some time until moderator Mike Henry was able to arrive.
Irwin described how progress had been made on the possibility of Michigan adding LGBT individuals [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] as a protected class under its civil rights law. Based on an NPR news story he’d heard, Irwin indicated that Republican Rep. Frank Foster would be willing to introduce the necessary changes to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen civil rights act. “This is something we have been working on in Lansing as Democrats for at least a decade,” Irwin said.
Michigan is one of only a few states that does not have that language in its civil rights act, Irwin continued, so Democrats have been working on this issue for years and years, trying to get LGBT protection inserted into Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen act. Explaining why it’s a Republican who’s bringing the proposal forward, Irwin explained: “When those of us like myself get to Lansing and see the Republicans control everything, we realize very quickly that, you know, the best way [to move the issue forward] is to get a Republican to lift up the banner and carry it across the finish line.”
So a number of Democrats had been working behind the scenes with Republicans to try to encourage them, particularly younger Republicans, Irwin said. “… [I]f they want to have a political career in Michigan, that if they want to survive in politics, they need to understand that the politics of this issue is moving so fast that they are going to get run over and flattened if they don’t get on the right side of it.” If the Republican Party wants to maintain its “bigoted position” on marriage, he said, then the Elliott-Larsen change would be a way to mollify that and “save themselves.” Irwin thought a number of Republicans had been convinced that a change to Elliott-Larsen is a good move for the Republican Party in the next couple of years.
And in response to a question from local attorney David Cahill about Democratic Party prospects statewide in 2014, Irwin took the opportunity to heap criticism on the most recent Republican U.S. president. Michigan Democrats are looking at 2006 as a model for how to achieve success, but one part of the 2006 success had been the fact that George W. Bush was in office – something that couldn’t be repeated, Irwin noted, describing Bush as a “buffoon.”
Democratic Party: Candidate Forum
The candidate forum also touched on partisan themes. In particular Kirk Westphal asserted his Democratic Party credentials. Although he’s unopposed in the Ward 2 primary, he’ll face incumbent Jane Lumm in the general election. Lumm is running as an independent, though she ran for mayor in 2004 as a Republican and served in the mid-1990s on the city council as a Republican. Lumm attended the June 8 forum and sat in the audience. She told The Chronicle she had no expectation of participating in the candidate forum, and that she was there just to listen.
In his remarks, Westphal noted that he’s unopposed in the August primary by saying, “I’m the only Democrat running for the seat in the Second Ward – so I’ll keep my remarks brief and mostly focused on personal background.”
Later, Westphal stated, “I’m a strong Democrat,” and went on to list out where he stood on basic issues. He believes in a strong government role in the environment, the arts, transit, affordable housing and in successful cities overall. He wanted to bring those values to the Ward 2 council seat.
Westphal characterized the local government as the face of the community. Some folks think that a local government should play a very small role, he allowed, He felt, however, that the local government captures the personality of the community. He added, “And I’m frankly running because a lot of my wardmates and I have not seen progressive Democratic values reflected in this council seat. And we believe that these values are important to the future, both locally and nationally.”
The other explicit mention of the Democratic Party came from Sabra Briere, who told the audience that she’s sorry there’s no Democratic primary in Ward 1 – saying that’s not her doing.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor’s city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!