Challengers swept incumbents in the Aug. 4 primary election for open seats in each of the five wards on the Ann Arbor City Council. Each candidate is currently running unopposed in the Nov. 3 general election and will take office later that month.
The Daily spoke with Lisa Disch of Ward 1, Linh Song of Ward 2, Travis Radina of Ward 3, Jen Eyer of Ward 4 and Erica Briggs of Ward 5 to discuss their reflections on their campaigns during a summer of an unabating pandemic and civil unrest, as well as their priorities when inaugurated in November.
Lisa Disch, D-Ward 1
As a University of Michigan professor in political science and women and gender studies, Disch said she will bring a unique perspective to city council after her inauguration. In an email to The Daily, Disch wrote she feels very lucky to have the opportunity to regularly interact with students who bring different political viewpoints into the classroom.
“I have developed skills of communication and habits of listening and working in the classroom that I hope will make me a more effective representative,” Disch wrote. “I’ve also always thought that my job is more about learning things than it is about knowing and ‘professing’ them. This is a political moment when openness to learning in the face of unprecedented challenges might be a very good thing to have.”
Disch wrote she was excited about her win considering it was her first time as a candidate.
“Nobody does systematic polling in an election like this one, and my excellent campaign manager and advisors had warned me throughout the campaign that Council elections are often very close,” Disch wrote. “I can honestly say that the results surprised me and my team — and thrilled us.”
On her platform, Disch cites urban and environmental stewardship, civic engagement and safety as some of her top priorities.
Disch wrote she wants to improve the tone of council meetings and work collaboratively with other council members to put problem-solving ahead of personal and political differences. She plans to push for more affordable housing and the redevelopment of North Main Street.
“There are many pressing issues in Ward 1 that I want to be prepared to take up right away with staff,” Disch wrote. “Such as traffic management on residential roads like Pontiac Trail and Barton Drive that have become major commuter through-ways, and implementing the parts of the City’s sustainability plan that help reduce the disproportionately high costs of energy for lower-income households.”
Disch said the unavailability of affordable housing intersects with so many other challenges that Ann Arbor faces.
“It means that too many people in Washtenaw County are paying too much of their incomes for rent and that too many people are commuting too far to their jobs,” Disch wrote. “It is a top priority for me because it is a contributing factor to economic stratification, to structural racism and to the climate crisis.”
Linh Song, D-Ward 2
Throughout Song’s campaign for a seat on council in Ward 2, which her former opponent Jane Lumm first held in 1993-1998 and again from 2011 to the present, Song emphasized Ann Arbor’s national ranking as the eighth most economically segregated community in the U.S. As the Black Lives Matter movement swept the nation with renewed energy following the killing of several Black men and women at the hands of police, Song said her campaign shifted gears from an emphasis on affordable housing to focusing on issues of racial justice.
“So if I keep saying, ‘We are the eighth most economically segregated community in the U.S.,’ that’s what we’re talking about: that history of racial economic segregation,” Song said. “And we need to own up to it.”
Song said knowledge of Ann Arbor’s racial history — from restrictive housing covenants to the political pushback following the election of Ann Arbor’s first and only Black mayor Albert Wheeler — must guide any conversations about the future of the city, including conversations around affordable housing and policing. In 2014, police officer David Ried fatally shot Aura Rosser, a Black woman living in Ann Arbor, and faced no charges. This prompted protests and the creation of a police oversight commission. Regarding policing, Song said she wants the council to push for reform beyond increased training and take a closer look at the police budget.
“I would love to see us take a look at … the police budget, and really push our police chief to get us to reform how we look at what our community actually needs,” Song said.
Song received a Master of Social Work from the University, specializing in program policy evaluation. She also was voted into a second term as president of the Ann Arbor District Library Board of Trustees, which Song said was when she first learned how expensive political campaigns are.
Song, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, was one of few women of color running for council. She said her direct experiences of racism offer an important perspective to the council's work.
“Racism happens here in Ann Arbor,” Song said. “I think it matters that people can speak directly to their own experiences if it’s going to influence policy.”
Song added that she experienced racism even during the campaign. In one incident, she said she and her campaign volunteers were distributing campaign signs, and a white woman approached and told one of the volunteers the signs should instead say “white lives matter.”
Even with the election of Song, the majority of the council remains white. Song said she hopes that this primary is the start of a broader shift toward more people of color taking office in a town she said will often “fake left and go right” politically.
“I really hope that the primary results tell people that we just need more people at the table,” Song said. “You know, this is a four-year term, I’d hope (in the future) to have twice as many candidates who could run — more diverse candidates, more economically diverse candidates — and that we can support those candidates.”
Travis Radina, Democrat, Ward 3
Despite inheriting a budget with a projected reduction of up to $16 million, Radina said his priorities haven’t shifted in light of the losses brought forth by the ongoing pandemic.
“I don’t think that COVID-19 changes any of my goals for what I’d like to accomplish while I'm in office, but it might impact our timeline for accomplishing some of them,” Radina said.
Radina said he would push efforts toward affordable housing forward as soon as he takes office. Specific short-term focuses for Radina include the formation of a renter’s commission as well as the development of housing targeted at commuters to the city, which is a number estimated to exceed 80,000 on weekdays, according to a pre-pandemic report.
“Pretty immediately, I would like for council to reopen the discussion on transit-oriented development,” Radina said. “Councilmember Ackerman, who I am hopefully going to replace when we make it official in November … had a proposal to direct the Planning Commission to explore a policy around transit-oriented development so that we can build additional housing along our major transit corridors, and council tabled that. And so I think we need to bring that back.”
Prior to running for city council, Radina has worked as the LGBTQ liaison to Mayor Christopher Taylor, a role he said has allowed him to work closely with current council members and also with community members. He cited multiple policy efforts he was involved with in his time as the LGBTQ liaison, including consulting experts and personally weighing in on a draft of a conversion therapy ban for Ann Arbor.
He has advocated for increased trans-sensitivity training for police officers. Through council work, Radina said he hopes to continue to advocate for trans inclusivity in health care policy and restroom options in all public buildings.
Radina said he personally supports allocating resources to the police oversight commission to fund comprehensive investigations of police misconduct along reallocating funds toward other social services like mental health professionals.
Radina also emphasized improving recruitment so the police force better reflects the local community, bias and de-escalation training for officers and repealment of racially biased local legislation, such as trespassing laws, which Radina said disproportionately affect people of color experiencing homelessness.
As for the council’s role in advancing these changes, Radina said he looks forward to working with the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission, which he hopes will lead the charge to “fundamentally change the way that we address policing and public safety here in Ann Arbor.”
“What I don’t want to see happen is for public attention to shift the closer and closer we get to the November election, and for us to kind of lose whatever momentum we may have had to address that issue,” Radina said. “I’m fairly confident that our incredible leaders on ICPOC are going to do everything in their power not to let that happen, but I want to make sure that it’s one of the first things that we talk about and start addressing under a new council.”
Jen Eyer, D-Ward 4
During her campaign, Eyer emphasized goals of taking climate action,bringing more sustainable transportation to Ann Arbor, promoting diversity in the community and addressing affordability issues.
Winning the seat over environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani and incumbent Jack Eaton, Eyer said she appreciated the support Ward 4 community members had for her throughout her campaign.
Eyer has worked for both MLive and The Ann Arbor News, which she said gave her the opportunity to create deep connections over her 20 years of living in Ann Arbor.
“When it came time to run for office, those were relationships that I had built and that people knew who I was and knew they could trust my leadership because they had worked together previously (with me),” Eyer said. “I think the campaign was indicative of my knowledge of the community and what people are concerned about..”
Eyer said she also wants to focus on making sure council members are conducting fair and efficient meetings that can be completed during waking hours. She wants to address Ward 4-specific issues such as flooding, power outages and roads.
“I want to focus on how we manage our budget during a pandemic and the resulting budget constraints that we will have that we are having right now because of it,” Eyer said. “That is one issue that I didn't anticipate when I first launched my campaign a year ago.”
Eyer launched her campaign over a year ago, meaning that the COVID-19 pandemic was not even remotely on her radar as a potential issue she would need to deal with, but she feels prepared to handle the financial side of it given her background in business.
“It is a challenge that I’m well prepared to face, having been involved in difficult budget decisions throughout much of my career at MLive Media Group, various non-profit groups and my own small business,” Eyer said. “So I come to the council with a great deal of budget experience, and I'm going to put that to good use.”
Erica Briggs, D-Ward 5
Briggs, who earned her Ph.D. in political science this past spring, said she was humbled to be elected to represent Ward 5.
“I’ve been a longtime community activist so I know what it means to try to fight for change and work for changes,” Briggs said. “I hope that I can be a really strong voice on council for connecting people with government and helping them solve their problems.”
Briggs has a background in environmental advocacy, sustainable land use and transportation, which she said she became passionate about through her previous work with the getDowntown Program in Ann Arbor.
“Given my background in working for more bikeable, walkable communities, I have a real interest in making sure that we are very clearly moving our policy goals in that direction,” Briggs said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic coming into play during her campaign, Briggs said she has now begun to focus on public safety. She said she wants to ensure the city is effectively and efficiently spending its money on the public safety model, especially with budget shortfalls.
“It is always challenging to take on new projects and really rethink, ‘How do you build a really sustainable community, more inclusive community?’” Briggs said. “Now we’re trying to do that with very limited funds as well. It’s going to be challenging.”
When she begins her term in November, Briggs said she plans to prioritize affordable housing. Briggs said she herself has been affected by the high price of living in Ann Arbor, having to move out of the city when she was younger to find more affordable housing.
Addressing Ward 5 affordability is a high priority for Ward 5 residents, Briggs said. She said she will work to make Ann Arbor a more inclusive community where people can build their lives as well as advocate for local businesses, many who have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People are really worried about the cost of living in Ann Arbor,” Briggs said. “Whether they're struggling or they’re seeing others struggling, they’re worried about what the future of Ann Arbor looks like.”
Daily News Editor Barbara Collins contributed reporting to this article.