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.
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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