A City Divided: Why city council lacks Republicans

By Shoham Geva, Daily News Editor
Published February 1, 2015

Let’s lay out a hypothetical scenario: it’s the 2014 gubernatorial election and the statewide results are based solely off the vote tallies in Washtenaw County. The results? To say the least, we’d find a very different state government.

A Democratic governor. A Democratic attorney general. A Democratic secretary of state. And, in the only totals that align with the actual reality, Democratic senators and representatives both in the U.S and state congressional bodies.

In Ann Arbor, which makes up about a third of the county’s population, that distinction only grows more pronounced.

Growing up here, the jokes are pretty frequent. We’re “25 square miles surrounded by reality” or “The People’s Republic of Ann Arbor.” And nowhere is that easier seen than in local politics, where Democrats have held all but one seat on the Ann Arbor City Council for 10 years.

Last year, following the status quo for the past few decades, no Republicans ran for office in Ann Arbor. There are no Republicans currently on Council, and only one independent, elected in 2011. Ann Arbor Mayor Chris Taylor (D), after winning a four-way Democratic primary, faced off against 28-year-old independent Bryan Kelly in the actual race, who said at the time he was running primarily to create options for voters.

I moved to Ann Arbor when I was six, in 2001, one year after the last Republican to hold city office, mayor Ingrid B. Sheldon (R), chose not to run again. For four years after that, Ann Arbor’s Republicans clung to a diminishing minority — two Council seats.

Following them, no Ann Arbor resident has been represented by a Republican locally.

The implications of that, however, are sometimes a little harder to find. On the surface, Ann Arbor isn’t that different from other cities; its size and its policies, many less easy to define as liberal or conservative like they might be at the statewide level, echo those of many other cities in the state.

At least in name, it’s Democratic — that’s clear. What isn’t always clear is what that means, both for residents and for the path of the city for years to come.

Checkered history

To understand Ann Arbor’s unique composition, it’s first important to understand that it hasn’t always been this way.

Fifteen years ago, Sheldon, a popular Republican, was mayor of Ann Arbor. She was the 27th Republican mayor the town has had in its 191 year history, interspersed with a steady stream of independents, Democrats, and, in 1851, a Whig. Ann Arbor’s newly elected mayor, Chris Taylor, marks only the 28th Democrat to hold that position, meaning that, historically, the balance is actually pretty even.

A similar narrative holds true for City Council, which began to see Democratic predominance over the past few decades, cemented by the end of the last two Republicans on Council — incumbent Mike Reid, who chose not to run again in 2005, and fellow incumbent Republican Marcia Higgins, who switched parties.

Longtime residents and City Council members point to several reasons for the slow collapse of Republicans running for office, namely the change of general election dates from spring to fall in 1992 and the redrawing of the wards in 1991.

Ann Arbor attorney Tom Wieder, who helped orchestrate both those policies, said the changes helped highlight a long-term trend in the town’s demographics.

“Basically, the town just became — by the evolution of history and talent — a Democratic town,” Wieder said. “I mean, it used to be a Republican town many years ago, but that’s before students voted, 18-year olds voted — that was the biggest change. But then there’s been a change in populations getting older and a lot of the townies who used to be Republican conservatives, moderates, they were replaced by liberal baby boomers.”

City Councilmember Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2), who served three terms on Council as a Republican from 1994-1998, said the city’s Republicans viewed the fall election dates as a significant challenge because of an increase in voters.

“That was around the time the City Republican Committee dissolved, because it was essentially viewed as no longer really likely or possible to elect Republicans in these fall elections,” she said. “The turnout during presidential, gubernatorial races … local elections get lost in those election cycles, which is unfortunate.”

The ward changes, which came a year earlier and are still mostly represented in the current divisions today, were also a contributing factor, though aided heavily by the election change, Wieder said.

“(The wards) were drawn to try and ensure Democratic majority,” he said. “At that point, that was thought harder to do, but as things kept changing — we got the November elections put in in 1992 — I wouldn’t say made the ward boundaries completely irrelevant, but it diminished their importance because at least in the even years, with such a big turnout, you could be very sloppy almost in drawing the boundaries and still get five Democrats elected.”

Political Science Prof. Ken Kollman pointed to another phenomenon linked to the moving of election dates — the increase in partisanship on the national level for both Democrats and Republicans, which in turn pushes people to become more polarized on the state and local levels.

“Ann Arbor is not all that unusual in being a one-party city, for a city of its size,” he said. “People who are in Ann Arbor and deciding where they’re going to vote for Republican or Democratic are primarily thinking about the reps of those parties at the national level. So as the Republican party, nationally, has trended more conservative, more to the right over the last 30, 35 years, places like Ann Arbor are going to just naturally become predominantly Democratic. It goes the other way, of course. The state of Mississippi is predominantly Republican for much the same reason.”

All the same policies

When it comes to policy, Ann Arbor is, perhaps, arguably progressive, as evidenced by objectives like early movements towards conservation of natural resources and a mandated living wage. But despite the oft-repeated jokes, many of the day-to-day activities local government engages in — like funding streets or deciding on zoning laws — are not that easily definable as such. And despite the clearly strong Democratic predominance, it’s hard to pin down exactly what changed, in regard to policy, as that dominance grew. The two "liberal" examples referenced above, for example, come from years where there were still Republicans on Council — 2003 and 2001.

Kollman said that’s not uncommon for city-level politics.

“Dealing with issues that are strictly local, it’s hard to attach conservative and liberal labels to them that have meaning at other levels of government, like national levels,” he said. “In other words, is spending more money on roads and streets, is that a Democratic or a Republican pro-kind of policy? Well, who knows. You’ll find plenty of Republicans who would say the government should spend money on roads and streets.”

Lumm agreed. She said her party affiliation rarely comes up in her role as a Councilmember — rather, she said she’s been able to focus is on the issues, both in discussions with constituents and during formal sessions.

“If you look at the issues that we deal with at the local level, they tend to be more operational,” she said. “It’s not so much the great philosophical debates of the day, but it’s operational things like public safety, and making sure people are safe, and feel safe, maintaining the infrastructure of streets, water, sewer systems, city parks, rec facilities, picking up folk’s garbage and recyclables.”

Instead, when talking about divisions on Council, it becomes more about the issues, such as development, removal of homeless camps from city land, and support for the mayor’s policies.

“You have to be paying very close attention to know the subtleties of who is on which side of these issues, because the party labels don’t give you any indications,” Kollman said. “I mean, all the Democrats on the City Council, there’s two pretty powerful divisions, or have been, on the Council, over some important issues for the local residents. But the party label obviously doesn’t communicate anything. You have to be paying attention closely.”

City Councilmember Julie Grand (D–Ward 3) said while she agreed not everything had a party label attached to it, some issues, like the recent issue of homeless camps, did.

“I think a lot of issues we deal with are non-partisan,” Grand said. “For example, things like potholes. Very non-partisan issue. But I also feel like there are values that come into play when you’re setting priorities, and some of those are inevitably shaped by what I would call Democratic values. So for example, last week I was a co-sponsor of a resolution that was addressing, or helping to design, our practices in terms of homeless encampments, and I think that focus is influenced by Democratic values.”

She said at the local level, strict partisanship loyalty sometimes has less of an impact, such as with issues like raising taxes, which has been contentious on Council.

“It’s a difference of opinion, and one I don’t think Democrats would tend to argue with at the state level,” she said. “They would agree that yes, we need to grow our tax base and pay for things like social services and other types of services that make us an attractive state. But at the local level, it becomes a little more insular in terms of thinking.”

For students, both LSA senior Gabe Leaf, chairman of the College Republicans, and LSA junior Trevor Dolan, chair of the College Democrats, say the impact is mixed.

“I think it gives us a lot more opportunities for programming and collaboration,” Dolan said of the Democratic nature of the city.

However, he added that the group rarely engages in policy at the city level.

“I think that there are a lot fewer partisan issues on the city level,” Dolan said. “Because we swing so heavily Democratic. And I think there are a number of social issues that can be addressed on the city level, but more often than not it’s fiscal issues, and we find issues with a lot broader appeal on the state and federal level.”

Leaf expressed a similar sentiment. He said the College Republicans rarely gets involved with city politics, namely because of the lack of Republican representation, but that there are policies Council has considered he would support.

“One of the platforms was increasing public transportation for the city of Ann Arbor,” Leaf said. “Whether that be buses, or more Amtrak, all that kind of stuff that is more of just a policy instead of a Democratic versus Republican issue. So that’s something I feel like we can get behind.”

Like the College Democrats, he said their ultimate interest lies with broader issues.

“There’s dialect, but not really a campaigning effort with them,” he said of city politicians. “We focus on the larger state or national state.”

The future

Adding another layer to the puzzle is that, perhaps ironically, Ann Arbor is one of the few cities that still relies on partisanship for its local politicians. There are two others: Ionia and Ypsilanti. Every other city has adopted a nonpartisan system, which means that local officials do not run for office under the banner of a party — proposal that hasn’t gained much traction here.

For cities that have done it, there have been mixed responses. Bay City, Michigan, faced controversy earlier this year over nonpartisan city commissioners posing for pictures to be used in partisan promotional materials. Writing for the Royal Oak Patch in 2011, Frank Versagi, editor of the Versagi Voice, a news outlet focused on city politics, said Royal Oak elections still had partisan tinges.

“So-called ‘non-partisan’ elections for mayor and commissioner aren't really non-partisan, anyway,” he wrote. “Candidates come with a history known by most voters, but party affiliation has little influence on most local issues which a City Commission must address.”

Everyone interviewed for this piece echoed the same idea — that, in Ann Arbor, winning as a Republican is currently not really an option, a sentiment most also said they didn’t like.

Lumm, the sole Independent on Council, said she thought nonpartisan elections would allow a broader scope of individuals to run, regaining some of the diversity lost from not having both parties represented.

“With nonpartisan elections, voters will then be more likely to focus on the individual candidates, their qualifications, positions and local issues, and that’s a good thing. And also, what’s happening now is Ann Arbor elected officials are being elected now in these off-peak primaries, in August, and that’s when we have very low turnout, and that’s certainly not the optimal situation.”

But Grand said while she would welcome more engagement, she also likes having her Democratic affiliation.

“I am hesitant to give that up, because for me being a Democrat means something, and I’m proud to have that ‘D’ next to my name,” she said. “I feel very conflicted about it, honestly. I see the pros and the cons. But the pros of bringing more citizens into the system, if I felt that it was really going to increase our voter turnout and engagement, that would be a more compelling pro than what I’m seeing right now, but I don’t know if it would actually do it.”

Kollman, too, said party labels are important. Nonetheless, he said the current situation — one-party control — might not be sustainable for the city.

“I think (party labels) communicate a lot to voters,” he said. “In the long-run, not having healthy party competition tends to lead to a disconnect between voters and their government, and also leads to cronyism and so forth. Now, is Ann Arbor headed in that direction? I don’t know. I hope not. It’s not always the case that that happens, that that leads to bad things. I think that the evidence from the history that I know, is that one-party dominance at any level is generally less desirable than healthy two-party competition.”