Four candidates are competing in Ann Arbor’s Democratic mayoral primary on Aug. 5 – all of them currently members of the city council: Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Sally Petersen (Ward 2), Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).
The fact that all of the primary candidates are current city councilmembers does not in my view reflect positively on Ann Arbor. In a city that prides itself for its diversity, are there really no others beyond established political personalities who’d be willing to serve the community as mayor?
Putting aside that lament, the upside is that all four candidates have been recently vetted by the local electorate. And council service can be a useful common denominator for contrasting the four candidates. Over the last few weeks, they have appeared at several forums, fielding questions in a variety of formats. And the candidates have attempted to contrast themselves with each other. But on occasion that contrast has been hard to hear – because it has been oblique or offered quickly in passing.
The Chronicle has broadcast live audio from three candidate events, hosted by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, Literati Bookstore and the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber. We wanted to provide that service, because those events would otherwise have been inaccessible – except for those physically present. And even those who were physically present might want to check their recollections against the actual audio recordings.
During these forums, it has been interesting for me to listen to the range of ways that candidates have tried to distinguish themselves from the others. I think in some cases those attempts have not been necessarily conscious and deliberate. And in some cases those attempts rely on lumping other candidates together.
Based on these candidate forums, here’s how I see the most salient aspects of the mayoral campaign strategies – listed in the order that candidates announced their intention to run.
Stephen Kunselman is asking voters to cast their ballots for him the person: A vote for Kunselman is a vote for integrity and dignity, and for someone who was born and raised here.
Christopher Taylor is inviting voters to identify him with the city of Ann Arbor itself in broad terms: If you think Ann Arbor is basically a great place, on the right track, and you’d like it to stay on track, then vote for Taylor.
Sabra Briere is asking voters to notice that she has accurate knowledge of the issues: If you want a mayor who is willing to work down in the weeds on policy questions, and get something done based on analysis of those policy questions, vote for Briere.
Sally Petersen has absolutely pounded the theme of economic development in her campaign messaging: If you want a mayor who will develop a strategy to pay for all the things people say they want, and won’t get distracted from that plan by factional squabbles on the council, vote for Petersen.
Those summaries are a bit one-dimensional. And I’m sure that the candidates themselves would argue that there is much more to their campaigns than that. And there is, of course. But I’d like to share in a bit more detail how I arrived at those summaries.
Kunselman: A Person to Vote For
At the Ann Arbor Democratic Party forum, Kunselman made an overt effort to contrast himself with the other candidates – by contending that he was the only one of the four who was not looking for votes from supporters of outgoing mayor John Hieftje. That was the choice being offered to voters, he contended. That choice is somewhat supported by the fact that Kunselman is endorsed by four other councilmembers who might be fairly characterized as Hieftje’s political opponents: Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1), Jane Lumm (Ward 2), Jack Eaton (Ward 4) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).
But that was not the contrast that was most evident throughout that particular forum: Kunselman was the one candidate among the four who shared specific details about his personal self with the audience – not just during his opening and closing statements, but sprinkled throughout his remarks. From that forum you knew that Kunselman was married – to Letitia, who he called “the dynamo behind my politics here in Ann Arbor. Without her, I would not have the courage to stand before all of you.”
You learned that Kunselman has a stepson – who had flatted out on his bicycle twice recently on Ann Arbor’s roads. You learned that Kunselman grew up in Ann Arbor, attending Pittsfield Elementary, and that his grandparents were founding members of St. Francis Catholic Church. You learned that he was raised by a single mother, and that they lived adjacent to the Library Lot for a time.
Kunselman also managed to work in the fact that he still holds a certified water distribution system operator license from the state of Michigan – from his days as township planner and supervisor in Sumpter Township.
From the Dems forum alone, attendees could not have learned much of anything about the other candidates’ personal backgrounds: Are they married? Do they have kids? Where in the city do they live? Briere did quip, “I don’t know that man,” when her husband Dave Cahill rose to speak and cheerfully admonished those audience members standing in the back to “sit down…and shut up.” But to get the joke you had to know already that Briere and Cahill are a couple.
At the Dems forum, Kunselman identified himself in his closing statement as a common-sense, fiscally responsible Democrat, who lives in a low- to moderate-income neighborhood, not an upscale neighborhood – a precinct where there’s a mobile home park. The attempted contrast was apparently to neighborhoods where Petersen and Taylor live, which feature median home values of something like $370,000 and $440,000, respectively. Even though it was Petersen and Taylor who were probably being lumped together, it was Briere who was stirred to respond. In her closing statement, she said she wouldn’t talk about her economic status, but anyone who’s been to her house knows she’s not living in a posh neighborhood. “The idea that we play against each other that way strikes me as absurd, because we’re not here to work for ourselves and we’re not here for any other reason except to represent you,” Briere said.
Kunselman also highlighted his personal self at the Literati Bookstore forum. At the Literati forum you learned that Kunselman worked as a roadie in the past. From that forum, you also learned that he grew up in Ann Arbor and had an acquaintance with a police officer: “And I remember the beat cops. I remember Officer Blake. We got to know them as teenagers. … I won’t tell you why! From that experience, as a teenage rebel growing up in Ann Arbor, I have great admiration for the police force as an adult. Because I understand the difficulties that they have to deal with, I understand the clientele they have to deal with, and I think that’s the number one issue.”
Briere played off Kunselman’s vignette a bit later at the Literati forum and got a laugh line out of it: “I remember beat cops too, although I was not a troubled teenager. I wasn’t a rebellious teenager, either!” If it was not clear from that follow-up that Briere was in some sense chiding Kunselman for talking too much about himself, then it was possibly more apparent later on when she gave her closing statement: “I didn’t talk a lot about myself, I talked a lot about what I think and what I believe and what I have done. … That’s what I bring to this – a skill set …”
It’s not as if Kunselman talked only about his person at the Literati forum. He did talk about things he’s done – like his vote against the original A2D2 zoning for downtown. That vote was taken in late 2009, so it served to contrast him with Briere and Taylor, but not with Petersen, who was not a member of the council at the time. And at the Dems forum, Kunselman contrasted himself with Taylor by talking about something he would not do: He doesn’t work on something then plop it on the council table – after the city attorney’s office has been told not to communicate it to other councilmembers.
That was an allusion to the approach that Taylor reportedly took to his development of a charter millage question on public art, which the council put on the November 2012 ballot. Voters rejected it. Responding to a Chronicle query about whether he’d asked assistant city attorney Abigail Elias not to talk about the millage question before he unveiled it, Taylor at the time refused to answer the question, but stated: “It strikes me, therefore, that the attorney who declines to speak with one council member about legal advice given to another council member does so in the public interest.”
But at the chamber forum, Kunselman seemed to take a cue from Briere – by talking more about what he has done and was doing on the council. On balance, Kunselman’s prepared remarks at the chamber forum highlighted more of those things he considered to be his accomplishments on the city council than his personal background. Those included: leading the effort to amend the ordinance regulating the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority tax capture; opposing the countywide transportation initiative in favor of a more limited expansion like the one that was eventually ratified; eliminating the city’s Percent for Art funding mechanism; advocating for the sale of the former Y lot, which led to its sale; and advocating for preserving Argo Dam and for building a new skatepark – both of which were successful.
And a question from Sean Duval – founder and CEO of Golden Limousine International and chair of the chamber’s executive board – allowed Kunselman to talk about some of his council work that he’d done that very morning, as a representative to the taxicab board. Duval’s question was about Uber and Lyft, which have entered the Ann Arbor market – so Duval wanted to know what Kunselman would do as mayor to regulate those companies. Kunselman told Duval that the taxicab board was already addressing the issue – by considering a recommendation on a draft ordinance that would require all drivers for hire – including those for Uber and Lyft – to be registered with the city.
But the chamber’s forum also showed that in impromptu settings, Kunselman is among the candidates probably the most inclined to share anecdotal vignettes about his personal background. After his prepared remarks, responding to a question about the condition of local roads, Kunselman included his skateboarding as a youth in his answer: “I’ve been the most consistent councilmember, the most consistent politician focusing on those things because of my work history, and because of the community that I grew up in. I remember when our roads were in great shape, because I was a skateboarder and didn’t have to worry about any potholes.”
Taylor: Embodiment of the City of Ann Arbor
Taylor has identified himself in the role of the city of Ann Arbor itself in a few different ways. At the Ann Arbor Democratic Party forum, he led off in his opening statement like this:
I sorta think that … we’re goin’ in the right direction. You know, we’re far from perfect. It’s not Elysium, it’s Ann Arbor, we live in Michigan. But I think we’re doin’ the right things for the most part. We have improvements, but we can be confident that we’re doin’ all right. If I’m elected mayor I’d like to work on two piles of things, broadly speaking. Number one is all the basic stuff ….
The first way Taylor identifies himself with the city is to stress that our current direction is basically right and should not change much. The sentiment of “We’re doin’ all right” was one he also highlighted at the chamber forum. So Taylor is not a candidate who perceives a need for radical reform or change from the current course. This is a well-known and established successful campaign strategy in American politics. Taylor has essentially invited voters who look around the city and ask themselves if they are content and comfortable with what they see, and then vote for the candidate they think is most likely to continue the existing quality of life they enjoy. Taylor has made an explicit effort to make voters think of him in that context.
A second way Taylor has identified himself with the city of Ann Arbor is to highlight the role of the mayor as the city’s external representative. Just by way of background, the mayor, of course, represents the interests of all city residents in the context of our internal local governance. That’s the mayor’s role as a member of the city council. The mayor is, in some sense, merely an at-large city councilmember with only a few extra powers – most notably to preside at council meetings, to nominate members of boards and commissions, and to veto legislation. Somewhat remarkably, at the Dems forum, not one of the four candidates mentioned the power to nominate members of boards and commissions when asked to name a key distinction between a councilmember and the mayor. The mayor is also described in the city charter as being the “ceremonial head” of the city.
So, when asked at the Dems forum how the roles of mayor and councilmember are different, the point that Taylor highlighted was the role of ceremonial head. Specifically, he highlighted the mayor’s role in representing the city to third parties – like the state, the county, and the university. He called this role the “head of state” or “secretary of state” for the city.
And at the chamber’s forum, Taylor misspoke in a way that I think is, if not revealing, then at least interesting in this context. He began by saying he was running for the city of Ann Arbor – then realized he’d misspoken, and joked that he knows the chief executive embodies the city, adding “but I think that’s getting a little grand.”
So Taylor is inviting voters to weigh the question of which candidate would seem more mayoral in a context where the person is supposed to be the embodiment of the city. That plays to Taylor’s advantage, because Taylor is the candidate I think more voters would cast in the role of mayor in a movie, compared to the other three. He simply looks the part. That’s not just because he’s always well-mannered and neatly pressed, but because he is significantly taller. There’s at least some research to suggest that taller candidates win elections more often than shorter candidates. Taylor’s exact height (6′-6″) is a fact about himself that he volunteered at the chamber forum – as a time filler, waiting for someone to ask a question. He also managed to work his height measurement into his remarks delivered at the recent grand opening of the new skatepark.
Taylor has implicitly invited voters to identify himself with the city – not just as an abstract institution, but also as a kind of synthesized amalgam of the entire populace of the city. His speech patterns at recent forums have often been those of an everyman, alloyed with an aspiration to erudition – even if that alloy is not always perfectly forged. The opening passage above is a typical example. Taylor drops his g’s like a regular guy – unlike a former law review editor, and unlike the councilmember most likely to sprinkle his speech with gratuitous Latin phrases or technical vocabulary. Then, Taylor tosses in a reference to Elysium – a somewhat jarring juxtaposition, to my ear at least – but nevertheless more consistent with the persona he’s cultivated over the past six years of his city council service.
As the city’s head of state, speaking to different groups who might have different expectations or backgrounds can require some adjustment in presentation, even at the level of word choice. And Taylor has demonstrated during the campaign that he is capable of adjusting his lexical choices to suit an audience. For the general audience of the Dems Taylor offered [emphasis added], “If I’m elected mayor I’d like to work on two piles of things,” and to the general audience at Literati Bookstore, ”If I’m your mayor I’m gonna work on two big piles of things.” But for the members of the chamber – a possibly somewhat more buttoned-down crowd – Taylor was slightly more refined: “If I’m elected mayor, I’d like to work on two big sets of things.”
The two sets of things that Taylor wants to work on are (1) basic infrastructure and services, and (2) those things that make Ann Arbor more than just a basic city. This second set of things – consistently recited by Taylor at forums – has included affordable housing, parks, mitigation of climate change and mass transit. While voters will likely differ slightly on various details for policy implementation in those topic areas, these are all topics that resonate strongly in the community. More than 70% of voters supported the recent transit millage earlier this year. And on the National Citizen Survey conducted in Ann Arbor last year, 50% of those surveyed rated Ann Arbor’s parks as “excellent” – top of the scale. Another 40% gave parks a “good” rating for a total of 90% rating Ann Arbor’s parks as good or excellent.
So Taylor is linking his candidacy not just to a general contentedness with quality of life in Ann Arbor. It’s linked to specific areas in which many residents take pride.
Briere: Action Based on Sound Policy Knowledge
Candidates at the Literati Bookstore forum were asked to comment on how they saw the downtown and Ann Arbor in general five years from now. Briere pivoted away from the five-year time frame by focusing on the much longer-term, which depends on sound basic policies:
I don’t really like speaking in five-year increments. I know a lot of plans do that but the truth is we should really be talking about 40 years. We should be talking about 40 years, because the changes we make today are still going to be with us in 40 years.
And Briere highlighted longer-term planning in her remarks at the chamber’s forum, saying that more than just two-year or five-year planning is necessary, because just doing a street project can take five years of planning. It doesn’t make sense to talk about how much difference one person is going to make in a two-year term, she said, because it can take two years to get an ordinance passed – from the time that you think about it, until it’s approved by city council and implemented. That doesn’t even factor in evaluating it to see if it’s been done correctly, she noted.
Beyond a focus on the longer-term effects of policy choices, Briere seems to have made a conscious attempt to convey her mastery of factually accurate detail, related to specific policy areas.
The Literati forum provided an opportunity for candidates to talk about public safety. With respect to public safety and police staffing levels, Briere’s embrace of factual detail took the form of an allusion to technology that the police department has implemented – which automates the measurement of how officers are spending their time. ”For the past year the city police chief has been looking at what the police do. And looking at what the police do, he’s discovered that he had a lot of slack time that he could reassign. He reassigned police to traffic enforcement, he reassigned people to walking downtown. This process of looking at our expectations and how well we can meet them is a much more effective way to convince me how many more police we need and what we need them to do.”
Action based on knowledge of policy was evident at the Literati forum, when Briere said that she would, no matter what the outcome of the election, work to incorporate into the zoning regulations requirements for protected pedestrian walkways during downtown construction. At the Dems forum, Briere conveyed her command of factual detail related to zoning policy considerations by outlining the way development incentives work in the downtown, describing the by-right 400% floor-area-ratio (FAR), and how building residential units (as opposed, say, to office units) can result in an additional 300% premium, for a total of 700% FAR.
That sort of wonky command of zoning regulations is in Briere’s wheelhouse – as the city council’s representative to the planning commission. Taylor, at the Literati forum, expressed his view of the problem with residential premiums, by saying that the residential premium tended to encourage 6-bedroom units, which were marketed primarily to students.
But Briere subsequently countered Taylor’s characterization with some factual detail: “Almost all of the buildings that have been built under D-1 zoning, the modern zoning, don’t have six bedroom units. They have one-, two- and three-bedroom units. I think that’s important to keep in mind, because honestly the people who can afford to live in those buildings don’t want to live with five other students. The other thing to keep in mind is that not everybody who lives in those buildings is a student. There are a lot of people who live in those buildings who work downtown. It always surprises me, but it is just true.”
The way Briere concluded that statement – “… it is just true …” – is another way of saying, “What I’m telling you is factually accurate.” Another variant Briere sometimes uses to convey the same idea is to introduce a statement with: “The truth is …”
And Briere will sometimes correct factual errors made by other candidates – which might come across as pedantic to some listeners, especially when the point seems to be minor or inconsequential. But in the case of such a correction made by Briere at the Literati forum, the end result was, I think, an amplification of part of Briere’s implicit message – that she knows what she’s talking about because she works hard at it.
The factual point in question was a passing comment from Petersen to the effect that all four mayoral candidates had served on a joint committee of councilmembers and DDA board members. Briere interjected that she had not served on that committee. Petersen gracefully walked back that minor factual mistake like this: “You attended the meetings, it felt like you were there. Thank you for attending.” Petersen had made Briere’s point for her: Briere puts in the time and the effort to keep informed – showing up when she’s not required to. And that supports Briere’s campaign theme of having mastered the material, because she’s put in the necessary homework.
A question about city income tax was posed at the chamber forum, which is a topic that has not been an active part of community debate for at least three years. But Briere gave a decent general summary of some of the issues at stake, including the fact that in Ann Arbor, the charter prevents adding a city income tax layered on top of the existing operating millage. That is, we could levy a city income tax or a general operating millage, but not both. More telling than the basic competence of the answer was, I think, the way Briere responded initially to the person who asked the question, local attorney Scott Munzel. As he was introducing the topic, Briere said: “Oh, really, Scott – are you going to bring that up?” That quip had about the same effect as if she’d said, “I know this topic cold, folks, so if you want to ask about the city income tax, well, take your best shot.”
So one of Briere’s basic themes is that she has a factually accurate mastery of policy issues. Put crassly, that could translate as: “I have studied things, and I am right about things.” At the Literati forum, that theme was both highlighted (by way of contrast) and hedged with some humility by Briere’s mention of a book, “Being Wrong.” That mention came as candidates were asked to talk about what book they were reading currently: “And you may think ["Being Wrong"] is an odd thing for somebody to read. But first it is a fast read, second it is a comprehensive read, and third, it reminds us that we all make decisions based on just inadequate information from time to time. And as we talk about being wrong we also talk about how to be right. But how to admit you made a mistake is a really important part of my life. And it’s a really important part of city government.”
Petersen: A Way to Pay
Anyone who has listened to the mayoral forums and has not heard a main theme of Petersen’s campaign as “economic development” has not been listening very closely.
During the Literati forum, the word “economic” was uttered 12 times total. Of those 12 mentions of the word “economic,” Petersen accounted for 11 of them. The other one came from the moderator. So it’s not just that Petersen talked explicitly and often about local economic development at that forum – it’s that other candidates seem content to allow Petersen complete ownership of the topic.
That can’t be chalked up an unwillingness to step on each other’s toes. Candidates are not in general squeamish about adopting each other’s talking points when the situation demands it. For example, at the Literati forum, Taylor stated: “We will have a new mayor, we will have a new university president, we have a school district that is, candidly, in trouble …” Those who listened to the Ann Arbor Democratic Party forum will have heard Petersen say something similar: “They’re [University of Michigan] going to have a new president. We’re going to have a new mayor. It’s time for a new attitude to really balance the town-gown relationship.” Just barely on mic, Petersen’s reaction to Taylor’s remarks at Literati was this: “Where have we heard that before?”
On that occasion, Taylor had brought up the university’s change of leadership in response to a question about the city’s possible role in the K-12 public schools. But as part of Petersen’s campaign, the university fits into the priority that she’s placing on economic development. And in that context, Petersen does not want to dwell on the fact that the University of Michigan does not pay property taxes.
So a key part of her economic development strategy is better cooperation between the city and the university – through regular conversations at the top levels of leadership. In her formal response to Taylor’s comments at the Literati forum, she stated: “And I will finish Christopher’s statement that, yes, the university will have a new president and the city will have a new mayor, and it’s time for a new town-gown relationship. The city and the university don’t have a strategic dialogue on a regular basis at the top, and this needs to happen. The city for too long has been resentful, not just the city government, but there are plenty of residents who are resentful towards the university for not paying property tax, and we need to get over that.”
The first part of Petersen’s economic development strategy, as articulated at the Dems forum, is to grow jobs in Ann Arbor. An economic outlook report for Washtenaw County states that 12,500 jobs are coming to the county in the next three years: “I want those jobs to come to Ann Arbor – but where are we going to put them?” Her economic strategy would include a plan to redevelop the downtown and business corridors in ways that preserve the community’s character and heritage. The point of Petersen’s emphasis on economic development is to make sure there is sufficient revenue to the city to pay for those things that are priorities: better roads, more beat cops downtown, and safer mobility for motorists, pedestrians, cyclists and runners.
Petersen is able to pivot from pretty much any topic to the general question of economic development strategy and increased revenue. At the chamber forum, responding to a question about road repair, Petersen acknowledged that roads are one of the key pieces of infrastructure that the city needs to improve. The city has a revenue problem, she said, and without an economic strategy, “I don’t know how we’re going to solve that revenue problem.”
Petersen helped establish economic health as a council priority at the council’s December 2012 retreat. And she’s made into a campaign resume point an economic collaborative task force she led the council to create. At the chamber’s forum, she gave some detail about the work of that task force, describing it as taking inventory of several economic development activities. Gaps were identified, she said. While the DDA focuses on downtown Ann Arbor and SPARK’s focus is countywide, no entity is solely focused on economic development throughout the city, outside of the downtown. For example, she noted, the city recognizes the need to encourage redevelopment of areas like the North Main corridor and South State Street, which are major gateways to the downtown. The task force recommended continuing its work after a new mayor is elected, with additional stakeholders including UM, Washtenaw County, and potentially the chamber of commerce. [.pdf of economic collaborative task force report]
Also at the chamber’s forum, she more narrowly focused a strategy she’d used at the Dems forum to address a possible perception about a lack of experience on the city council. [Petersen's nearly two years of service is at least four years less than other candidates' time on the council.] At the Dems forum, she invited attendees to focus not on her shorter experience on the council, but rather on her full scope of experience: She’s lived in Ann Arbor 18 years, and has held leadership positions in the private sector, the nonprofit sector, and now the public sector. But at the chamber forum, she highlighted the parts of her background related more to economic development, like her private sector experience and her business degree. Petersen noted that she’s the only candidate with an MBA. She also cited her work in senior-level positions at CFI Group, ABN AMRO Mortgage Group and HealthMedia.
Another part of Petersen’s campaign message is that she’s not a part of factional politics on the city council. At the Dems forum she characterized the council’s factions not in terms of personal politics, but rather in terms of pro-neighborhood versus pro-downtown. She described herself as aligned with neither of those factions. Separate from those remarks, she also noted that she’d been elected to the council as a “supposed outsider” – which helps support her contention that she’s not a part of a council faction.
It’s worth repeating an observation from the beginning of this column: No doubt the candidates and their supporters would argue that there’s much more to their campaigns than those aspects of their remarks that I’ve highlighted here.
I’d encourage you to listen for yourselves – either to the audio recordings that The Chronicle has provided of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, Literati Bookstore and the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber forums, or to upcoming forums or city council meetings. Three forums will take place in the coming weeks:
- Wednesday, July 9, 8 p.m. The League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area is hosting a weeklong series of candidate debates. Space for a limited live audience is available at the Community Television Network studios at 2805 South Industrial Highway. The forums will be broadcast on CTN Channel 19, which is also streamed live over the Internet.
- Tuesday, July 15, 7 p.m. A group of faith organizations is hosting a forum on homelessness at the St. Clare of Assisi Episcopal Church and Temple Beth Emeth, co-located at 2309 Packard Road.
- Saturday, July 19, 1-5 p.m. Hosted by the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Black Chamber of Commerce, this event will provide a 3-minute opportunity for candidates running in mayoral, city council, and judicial races. This event will be held in the Morris Lawrence Building at Washtenaw Community College.
The next city council meeting takes places on Monday, July 7 starting at 7 p.m. You can watch it in person at city hall, 301 E. Huron, as broadcast on Channel 16, or streamed online by Community Television Network.
You might hear things differently than I do.
But because the outcome of the Aug. 5 Democratic primary will almost certainly determine the next mayor of Ann Arbor, now’s a good time to start listening.
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