Ann Arbor’s highly partisan local elections make it an outlier among cities in Michigan, and City Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, wants to change that.
According to Lumm, only two other cities in Michigan — Ionia and Ypsilanti— have partisan local elections, while most have nonpartisan races, meaning candidates do not run as members of a particular political party. She also noted that Ann Arbor’s usual “benchmarks” — university cities like Berkeley, California; Austin, Texas; and Madison, Wisconsin — have nonpartisan local elections.
Since 2015, Lumm has introduced three ballot proposals before City Council to allow voters to decide if they want to get rid of partisan city elections. Each time, her proposal was voted down. Her most recent attempt in July 2018 fell one vote short of making the November ballot.
“It is, frankly, very frustrating, because I think that while one can debate the merits of nonpartisan versus partisan local elections, there’s no argument that I can see for not allowing voters to decide the question,” Lumm said.
Lumm said nonpartisan elections would shift the focus from Democratic primaries held in August to the November general election, when voter turnout is typically higher.
“Ann Arbor is a clear outlier in holding local elections on a partisan basis. We’ve been an outlier for a very long time,” Lumm said. “… None of our traditional benchmarks have partisan local elections. So that fact, coupled with the fact that Ann Arbor residents have not had an opportunity in 60 years to weigh in on this, are compelling reasons why this question about nonpartisan elections should, I think, be on the ballot.”
Lumm pointed out that despite the fact the council is composed primarily of Democrats, members still have disagreements and spirited debates over municipal issues, pointing out political parties are not particularly relevant in local races. She also said her efforts were not related to the fact that she is the only Independent on the majority-Democratic City Council.
“This isn’t about me,” Lumm said. “Local elections are not philosophical, ideological issues where party matters. It’s best practice. We’ll have higher turnout, we’ll attract more qualified candidates. It would require more voter scrutiny on the issues or candidates’ positions on the issues and the candidates’ priorities, and those are all really good things. I think it’s just good government, and that’s why I think we should be doing this.”
Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1 candidate, disregarded party affiliation when he ran as an Independent against incumbent Democrat Sabra Briere in 2013. Hayner said he did so to spend more time talking about the issues central to his campaign.
“I’ve been a registered Democrat since ’84,” Hayner said. “The Democratic Party is where it’s at. In 2013, I knew I didn’t really have a chance to win because the woman who held the seat was sort of a beloved figure in local politics. I ran as an Independent so I could go all the way to November and talk about two issues that I ran on, which hadn’t been talked about at the time, which was the Gelman plume — the dioxane plume that’s creeping under our city — and also our city’s woefully underfunded pension mandates.”
Hayner said he focused more on the issues than political ideology.
“I know we’re a heavily Democratic city — that’s pretty evident — but there’s all kinds of people that live here and some of them aren’t as interested in politics as issues, so I’m just more of an issues guy,” Hayner said. “I guess that would make me a moderate.”
Councilmember Sumi Kailasapathy, D-Ward 1, announced she would not be seeking re-election in April, and endorsed Hayner, who then narrowly won the Aug. 7 primary in a contentious race against Ron Ginyard, who was backed by Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor. Ginyard, a retired financial adviser, faced criticism for his failure to vote in an election since moving to Ann Arbor four years ago, while Hayner received scrutiny over several uncouth tweets as well as his membership in the National Rifle Association.
“It was closer than I would have hoped since he had never voted, which I think is sort of a big red flag for a Democrat, you know, but people are involved and active,” Hayner said. “There was a lot of get-out-the-vote efforts on one side or another. He had a backing from the current council majority, so you know, that’s a powerful lobby.”
In the general election, Hayner is facing off against Ryan Hughes, a Democratic Socialist. Hughes said he ended up running as an Independent rather than a Democrat because, by the time Kailasapathy announced she was not running for re-election, he felt there wasn’t enough time for him to marshal the resources necessary to compete as Democrat.
“I was worried if people saw the word ‘Independent’ on the ballot they would think I was just a Republican who was too ashamed to admit it or something like that,” Hughes said. “So I said, ‘I got to write Democratic Socialist on everything that I do.’ People have to know that’s what I stand for — I think this is the time and this is the place to be a Democratic Socialist right now.”
Hughes centered his campaign around the issue of affordable housing in Ann Arbor. He has called for the city to intervene directly to provide low-cost public housing. Hughes said there was a dichotomy between those who believed the problem could be solved with market forces alone and those who were preoccupied with concerns that building new housing would cause the price of existing housing to increase.
“That’s kind of been the spectrum of debate in the city, and I don’t think that either of those are very realistic plans, just in and of themselves,” Hughes said. “My whole point in running was kind of to say, there’s something else we could be doing. We could be tackling this problem more directly than either of those things will allow us to do.”
Lumm said she plans to introduce the ballot measure again after the November election, once the new members of City Council are seated.
“So in terms of next steps, where we go from here, I remain determined to provide voters an opportunity to decide this question and obviously I very much believe that we should afford residents the opportunity, not force folks to collect ballot signatures,” Lumm said. "If council rejects the ballot question for the fourth time, I am fully prepared to help folks obtain the necessary signatures.”