BY RACHEL VAN GILDER
Published August 1, 2010
Ann Arbor loves to boast about its diversity. It’s home to the University and a variety of colorful characters that give the city a unique atmosphere. But that diversity isn’t reflected in the Ann Arbor City Council. Ann Arbor residents are so ardently Democratic that they have overlooked the value that a conservative candidate could have. Both Democrats and Republicans have something to offer in the debate regarding city issues. Ann Arbor voters shouldn’t feel bound to the Democratic Party when choosing City Council representatives. Instead, candidates should be judged on their understanding of the city’s varied set of needs— and that includes the needs of students.
The Aug. 3 party primary election is almost certain to determine the outcome of November’s final ballot because there won’t be a Republican contender in most wards. And since the Ann Arbor population is so strongly Democratic, it’s almost certain any Republican candidates won’t be able to steal the general election anyway. Incumbent John Hieftje, who has been Ann Arbor’s mayor since 2000, faces competition for the Democratic nomination for mayor this year from political blogger Patricia Lesko. Meanwhile, the campaign for the Democratic nomination for City Council seats in Wards 1, 4 and 5 are also contested. Only Ward 5 has a candidate for the Republican nomination: John Floyd, who also ran for Ward 5’s City Council seat in 2008.
It’s no surprise that infamously liberal Ann Arbor has a hard time drumming up conservative candidates. Voters often choose to vote for all the candidates of one party — sometimes as high as 60 percent of general election voters in Michigan, according to a 2002 report by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based nonpartisan research institute. People tend to feel a loyalty to their party of choice, and many are skeptical that a candidate from the opposing party could offer anything of value to any governmental debate.
But there’s no reason for Democrats to stick stolidly to party lines or for conservatives to give up on Ann Arbor. In an election this size, the most significant concern isn’t whether a candidate is red or blue. City Council isn’t the U.S. Congress. The fate of abortion or health care isn’t going to be decided by local governments. City Council deals with infrastructure issues (roads, water, etc.), urban planning (like the much-discussed Ann Arbor Discovering Downtown initiative) and the creation of ordinances.
Republicans and Democrats alike can agree that the East Stadium Blvd. Bridge is in desperate need of repair. And though the potential ban on porch couches that was put back into the spotlight after this April’s rash of suspicious fires is contentious, it’s not really a deliberation based on a moral debate between conservatives and liberals.
Just because a candidate shares your political perspectives doesn’t make them a good candidate. The case in point for me is John Floyd. I met Floyd in 2008 when he made his first bid for a Ward 5 council seat. To me, Floyd isn’t right for Ann Arbor, even though he and I share many political opinions. For example, Floyd didn’t seem to recognize the importance of the University or its students. He also didn’t support more and denser housing downtown, which students need.
But I do agree with Floyd that Ann Arbor needs some fresh blood and diversity of opinion on the City Council. There are a few debates that would benefit from a Republican voice, and having a variety of opinions is never a bad thing. The city’s property taxes, for example, seem excessively high to me. High property taxes contribute to the already expensive housing market in Ann Arbor — and students are directly affected by housing concerns. A cut on those taxes would make rent significantly cheaper by decreasing property owners’ costs.
And while a Republican might be more likely to push for lower taxes, the concern isn’t exclusively ideological for me. Instead, it’s important to the demographic that I belong to: University students. This is a demographic that often gets ignored in city elections because of students’ lack of interest and because many students aren’t in Ann Arbor for the primary. But candidates shouldn’t count students out because, in this race, every vote really does count. Last summer, City Councilman Stephen Kunselman beat out incumbent Leigh Greden in the Democratic primary by only six votes. Candidates shouldn’t count out the importance of any demographic, so they must be prepared to go to work on the issues that concern students.
The City Council should consider the needs of all its constituents, and that means taking an approach to government that isn’t defined by party affiliations. A more diverse council made up of both liberals and conservatives would advocate for a diverse population.
Rachel Van Gilder is the Daily's 2010 editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.