Column: Who’s-On-First of Local Politics

And: How votes for governor could affect mayor's race

It’s primary election day. No doubt every one of you Chronicle readers is voting today – if you haven’t already done it by absentee ballot. However, you can almost bet that many of your neighbors won’t.

Home plate at Allmendinger Park

Home plate at Allmendinger Park. It's been scuffed up, even though it hasn't endured a primary election.

On Monday, Washtenaw County clerk Larry Kestenbaum told The Chronicle that he didn’t have a specific forecast in terms of percentage turnout, but he noted that the relatively high turnout he’d been expecting didn’t seem to be panning out in the absentee ballot application and return rates. For the city of Ann Arbor, we’ve been tracking the city clerk’s absentee ballot return reports, and through July 31, 3,092 had been returned for today’s election. That compares with 2,578 absentee ballots cast in August 2006 and 2,803 in August 2008. It’s certainly an upward trend.

But we’re more interested in draft-horse governance than thoroughbred races (and I promise we won’t beat that analogy like a dead horse too much longer). So we decided to see what kind of base-level knowledge people in Ann Arbor had about their elected officials. Base level, as in: Who represents you on the city council?

And what better day than election day to present the results of our admittedly informal survey.

We didn’t ask about the mayor-ship in our survey, or state-level races. But this column is as good a venue as any to speculate about how the gubernatorial horse race on the Republican side might affect the Ann Arbor Democratic primary for mayor.

That’s like suggesting that the games in the American League West Division could have an impact on the outcome of games in the National League East. But there’s got to be a way to transition out of this awful horse race analogy. And a pennant race, yeah, that just might be the ticket.

Informal Survey on Council Representation

[For our readers who aren't familiar with the cultural reference of the headline, "Who's on First" is an Abbott and Costello comedy routine that trades on misunderstandings arising from words like "who" and "what." Watch it on YouTube.]

During the month of July, Chronicle intern Rebecca Friedman went out to ask people a simple question: Who represents you on city council? She surveyed nearly 100 people at several locations: the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Top of the Park, Ann Arbor July 4th parade, Townie Street Party and Ann Arbor art fairs.

The first filter for respondents was finding out if the person lived in Ann Arbor. Several people believed they lived in Ann Arbor, based on their Ann Arbor mailing address and the fact that their kids went to Ann Arbor public schools. But when asked to identify where they lived on a map, it turned out they actually lived in Scio or Pittsfield townships. So they were off the hook.

Of the 94 people that Rebecca surveyed who did live in Ann Arbor, 14% could name both current council representatives. Another 16% could name one councilmember. I should add that we were very generous in this tally – if a Fifth Warder said “Mike!” but couldn’t come up with Mike Anglin’s last name, we counted that in the “Knows” category. We worded the question so that it wouldn’t indicate that there’s more than one councilmember per ward. In some cases, people were surprised to learn there are two.

So 30% of our sampling knew at least one of their city council representatives. Is that good? If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, maybe so. Of course, that leaves 70% of residents who had absolutely no idea. (And if we’d asked who represents them on the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, I’m guessing the percentage of “have absolutely no clue” responses would have been significantly higher. Do you know?)

Rebecca Friedman

Chronicle intern Rebecca Friedman.

Interestingly, Rebecca reported that there were some people who were supremely confident they knew their councilmembers – until she asked for specific names. A couple of them got a bit defensive at this point, still asserting that they did, in fact, know who represented them. Perhaps if your self-image includes the characteristic “engaged community member” or “political activist” and that balloon is popped by your inability to dredge up a basic fact, well, I’d be grumpy too. Or maybe their synapses just weren’t firing quickly that day – it happens.

Wards 1 and 2 did well in terms of the number of the people who knew both of their council representatives – five people from Ward 1 could name both Sabra Briere and Sandi Smith as their councilmembers, and five from Ward 2 named both Tony Derezinski and Stephen Rapundalo. Two people from Ward 5 knew both Carsten Hohnke and Mike Anglin.

Only one person from Ward 4 could come up with both Marcia Higgins and Margie Teall as their council reps. No one from Ward 3 named both councilmembers – Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman.

To confirm that they were naming the correct council rep, Rebecca also asked people to identify which ward they lived in. Often, people didn’t know – but were able to confirm the ward by indicating where they lived on a map. But it’s also interesting that of the 41 people she surveyed who knew what ward they lived in, 17 couldn’t name a council rep.

Rebecca also collected some comments from the people she interviewed. Here’s a sampling:

  • “How embarrassing.” (This person didn’t know either council rep.)
  • “I should know these things. I’ll go look that up.” (Here’s where to find out.)
  • “Yes…don’t I? (pause) Mike… I should know the last name.” (It’s Anglin.)
  • “Uh, I can visualize the face…” (But not the name, apparently.)
  • “I know… what’s his name?” (The person then guessed Chris Easthope, a former city councilmember who was elected 15th District Court judge in November 2008.)
  • A Ward 3 resident: “I’m sick of it all so I stopped paying attention.”
  • A Ward 1 resident who knew both current council reps also knew that the challenger in the Aug. 3 primary had a “long Indian name that starts with a K.” (Her name is Sumi Kailasapathy.)
  • “I’m sure they’re Democrats and I always vote Republican.” (True for the primary, but stay tuned for the November election.)
  • A Ward 2 resident confidently said they knew their council representative was Joan Lowenstein. (Lowenstein last served on council in 2008.)
  • A Ward 5 resident had this to say: “Mike Anglin is the only one that represents me. Sabra Briere represents me but I’m not in her ward. Carsten Hohnke is in my ward but he doesn’t represent me.”
  • “I’ve lived here for twenty-some years and I don’t know.”
  • “Don’t know. I’ll vote for whoever is not in office.”
  • From a Ward 4 resident: “They drop a lot of stuff at my door and I just throw it in the garbage.”

What can we make of this? Well, I’ll say again that this was in no way a rigorous survey – our goal was to get a sense of how informed residents are about their city council reps, but other than the general observation of “not very,” I wouldn’t go much further.

But I would go back to the comment by the Ward 3 resident, who said “I’m sick of it all so I stopped paying attention.” I totally get the “sick of it all” sentiment, especially given the bizarre behavior we’ve witnessed during this particular primary election cycle. But consider this a plea to start paying attention – both for residents, and for councilmembers who could do a better job at reaching out to their constituents.

Paying attention locally is our mission is here at The Chronicle. We hope we’re making it easier for you to do the same.

Michigan Gubernatorial Politics, Ann Arbor Mayoral Primary

One school of thought we’ve heard through the community as election season has headed to the primaries is that the Republican nominee for governor will probably win the November election. It’s like when every inside-baseball fan knows that the winner of the National League playoffs – whoever it is – is going to win the World Series against whatever team the American League throws up against them.

What difference does the Republican nominee make for the predominantly Democratic Ann Arbor? Plenty. Many voters who think that the Republican nominee is likely to win in November, would like a say in who that nominee is. Of the Republicans contesting the race – Mike Bouchard, Mike Cox, Tom George, Pete Hoekstra, Rick Snyder – many local Democrats would like to cross over and vote in the Republican primary for Snyder, who’s well known here.

But one reason potential Democratic-to-Republican cross-over voters are hesitating is that it means they wouldn’t be able to vote in the Democratic mayoral primary, which is contested between 10-year incumbent John Hieftje and Patrica Lesko. There’s enough doubt in their minds about Hieftje’s re-election that they’re staying home with the Dems so they can vote for him. Others are taking what they think is a small risk that Lesko wins and crossing over to vote for Snyder.

On the flip side, some potential cross-over voters from the Republican side find Lesko’s message about focusing on the basics appealing. But some of them are still inclined to stay home and vote in the Republican primary, because of the importance of the choice for governor.

The Ann Arbor mayor’s race is further complicated this year, though, because of the large number of people who say they’re not happy with their candidate of choice. Many likely Lesko voters say they aren’t pleased to be voting for her, but at least she’s not Hieftje. And voters who’ll likely cast a vote for Hieftje aren’t happy about it, but at least he’s not Lesko. It’s like Ann Arbor voters have become the political equivalent of Mets fans – they actually think the Mets suck, but at least the Mets aren’t the Yankees.

In baseball as in voting it’s easy to tell who won – you look at the score. But in voting, there’s always a spin you can give the numbers, just like when you grip the ball across the seams. One record that Hieftje’s supporters often cite as point of pride is the fact that he’s never lost a single precinct in 10 years worth of elections. If that pattern stays intact, it’d be hard to spin a Hieftje victory as anything but decisive.

If Lesko receives more votes than Hieftje, of course, that’s an outright victory. But short of a majority, to claim at least a moral victory of any kind she’ll need to do appreciably better than the anybody-but-Hieftje vote as reflected in the last two Democratic primaries: 31% for Tom Wall in 2008, and 30% for Wendy Woods in 2006.

This kind of speculation is all academic at this point – it’s impossible to predict. What do they say in baseball? That’s why we play the game.


  1. By mr dairy
    August 3, 2010 at 7:59 am | permalink

    Imho, the local challengers, especially Pat Lesko, didn’t do themselves any favors with all the ranting and raving, from her blog to their debates. This kind of strategy gave the Council Party the opportunity to be above the fray as it were, to be the party of calm assurance and in these times, people want assurance, not revolution. Regardless of of how “the facts” are presented, if the majority of voters feel like they are hectored to outrage rather than being inspired by a candidate, it will drive down election day turnout, which, by itself is a political tactic. I will make the assumption that some folks who do not like the Council Party were turned off enough to not vote for the challengers by their stridency and aorta straining outrage. I know that I was.

    To get elected, Harvey Milk had to learn that you must give people something to be for, show them a different positive vision, give them hope and not just prey on their outrage and turn them off with excessive hyperbolic bashing of the opposition.

  2. August 3, 2010 at 8:54 am | permalink

    This is a delightful column. And you raise a question I’ve also been considering – the Snyder effect. I’m wondering how the crossover might also affect other local contests. It is little debated that since Democratic labels have become a necessity for being elected in Ann Arbor, plenty of Republicans have been voting in Democratic primaries, but now that there is a real contest in the Republican primary, many of them will be pulled in two directions. I’ve even heard Democrats speak admiringly of him (Snyder) and express the viewpoint that no Democrat will win the general gubernatorial election (thus supporting Snyder).

    Mr. Dairy has a point about the need to present a positive alternative but I don’t believe that the challengers for council seats have displayed the level of stridency he cites. Most of that actually comes from the A2Politico blog in pre-campaign days. From reading the Chronicle’s wonderfully complete accounts of the debates, they have presented reasoned viewpoints and he is overgeneralizing and labeling by characterizing them as “ranting”. Of course, they have been critical. That is why one runs against an incumbent, because there are a policy direction or results to criticize.

    As to “who’s on first” – wonder how many people, like me, are more familiar with that from its frequent quotation in the Rain Man rather than its original presentation.

  3. By Kristin Judge
    August 3, 2010 at 9:55 am | permalink

    Great article Mary. I agree that 99% of your readers will most likely vote. I wrote a blog about who bears the responsibility for residents not knowing who there representation is. [link]

    In my opinion, it is mainly the responsibility of the elected official to reach out to residents and let them know who they are and what they do. That has been my goal for the past two years. I send out a monthly email newsletter, go to homeowners’ meetings and mail out postcards with my own money. Elected officials need to take the initiative to reach out. That may help voters feel more inclined to vote. Just my thoughts.

  4. August 3, 2010 at 10:28 am | permalink

    I just love the “local character” of your coverage (a phrase taken directly from the darling ads featuring those charming caricatures of Dave and Mary), which also amazingly creative, even in describing a usually tedious topic like politics (“drafthorse governance…(vs) thoroughbred races”). I have to admit that when I read an article as good as this one, I go right to the Donate button–I just can’t help it! You two are just too good!

  5. By LiberalNIMBY
    August 3, 2010 at 11:02 am | permalink

    Great column and great research effort! I can’t help but wonder if any of the “Townies” at the Townie Party did any better than the rest.

    Yes, please do an analysis of the turnout and offer an opinion on the advisability of partisan elections at the city level.

  6. August 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    I am a pretty independent thinker when it comes to local politics. I abandoned the Republican Party during the Bush era and actually ran for City Council as a Democrat two years ago. I wish we could take partisan politics out of City government entirely. It gets in the way of finding good leaders. Why not just take the top 5 vote winners and put them on council? The person with the most votes becomes Mayor.

    …And yes I did cross over and vote for Rick Snyder even though there were many democrats that I know that I wanted to support today. The gubernatorial race is way too important for the future of Michigan.


  7. By John Floyd
    August 4, 2010 at 2:39 am | permalink

    Mr. Dairy,

    Is your point that an incumbent’s record is beyond examination? Is examining that record automatically “ranting and raving”? “REGARDLESS (my emphasis) of how ‘the facts’ are presented”?

    I certainly appreciate the yearning to be FOR something, not merely agin’m. Nonetheless, it strikes me that ONE part of explaining why agenda “B” is to be preferred, is pointing out the flaws in agenda “A”.

    I like to imagine that we can have agreeable disagreements – both progress and civil society depend on it.

    Would appreciate your further thoughts,

    John Floyd
    Republican for Council
    5th Ward

  8. By John Floyd
    August 4, 2010 at 2:44 am | permalink

    PS I did vote for Rick Snyder, and I did it without crossing over.