By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 25, 2014
There were no Republicans on the ballot during last fall’s City Council elections, but several Democratic candidates faced a challenge from another party.
The Mixed Use party, comprised mostly of University students, ran two candidates for seats on the council, including then-LSA senior Conrad Brown and Eastern Michigan University student Sam DeVarti.
Both lost, but were followed by several more student challengers this year — LSA sophomore Sam McMullen, who lost in this year’s Democratic primary, and now, University alum Will Leaf, a former co-chair of the Mixed Use party who is running as a Democrat in next year’s Council race.
Student City Council members have a short but interesting legacy in Ann Arbor. In 1973, University alum Kathy Kozachenko became the first openly gay or lesbian candidate to succeed in a bid for political office in the U.S. when she was elected to a Council seat. Preceding her in 1972 were two other student councilmembers: University alums Nancy Wechsler and Jerry DeGrieck.
Ann Arbor attorney Tom Wieder, who was a University student in 1972 and participated in several Democratic City Council campaigns during that time, said there was a heightened atmosphere of student involvement locally, namely because of the threat of being drafted.
“In ‘72, the Vietnam War was still going on and student activism across the political spectrum was a big deal,” Wieder said. “On campuses, everybody was into politics — politics were much higher on the list of things to get involved in and think about, talk about, particularly in a town like Ann Arbor.”
Mike Henry, chair of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, also pointed to the war as a reason for the spike in student involvement, which he said contrasted with today’s climate around student activism.
“I don’t think the culture or the things going in society are exactly like they were in the ’70s,” he said. “We were coming off a war where a whole lot of young people died, where a whole lot of young people were coming back to really difficult challenges they would have to deal with.”
Kozachenko, Wechsler and DeGrieck all ran on the Human Rights Party ticket, a liberal and student-focused third party that emerged in the 1970s following the ratification of the 26th Amendment to the U.S Constitution in 1971, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.
Since then, there haven’t been students on City Council. The Human Rights Party lost its seats in the following election, and ultimately dissolved to become a part of the Socialist Party of Michigan several years later.
The past few years’ involvement, both from the Mixed Use Party and from candidates like Democratic McMullen, represent some of the first instances of students participating in City Council since the ’70s.
Both Wieder and Henry said they saw this resurgence in students running as different from the ’70s, drawing less on a national sense of political activism and more from a group of individuals engaged in city politics.
Leaf, the former co-chair of the Mixed Use party and a 2015 Council candidate, agreed.
“I think the people who are running tend to be very detail-oriented, people who are doing it because they’re interested in it rather than as part of a big national plan,” he said.
Several other structural changes have also occurred since the ’70s, which could impact how successful student candidates are this time around.
City Council primaries are now held in August. Leaf said the timing presents a challenge when one party dominate Council; Democrats currently hold all but one seat. The election’s true competition thus occurs during the primary, when many students aren’t in town.
The dividing lines of wards are also a factor. Though they’ve always been drawn out from the city center, that division is now more sharply distinguished, with the city’s 40,000 students — over a third of the city’s population — scattered throughout several wards.
Complicating matters further, many of those students also don’t vote. During the November elections this year, Michigan Daily reporters at the polls found that precincts with heavy student populations had some of the lowest vote counts in the area.
Leaf also cited several other institutional issues as barriers to student voting, including the fact that absentee voters casting their vote for the first time in Michigan must submit their ballot in person.
“You can say whatever you want — like, I want more student engagement, I want involvement — but if the election times are August, and you have barriers to students voting, it’s not going to happen,” Leaf said.
Henry said in the current climate, a student-focused platform wasn’t a winning proposition for local elections.
“I tell most candidates, you can’t just depend on your one constituency to help you win,” Henry said. “You have to speak to everybody. And to be quite frank, students have not been reliable in terms of coming out.”
“I hope students prove me wrong, that in the near future they come out and are really supportive of their own demographic and their own interests … but students don’t always do that,” he added.
Leaf said his experience with the Mixed Use Party demonstrated that buy-in from city residents, not just students, is key to a successful race. Unlike the student-driven wins of the ’70s, for his forthcoming campaign, he said, he would be depending on support from across the spectrum.
“It’s not going to be a student-led thing,” he said. “A student might run, but they’re going to depend on other residents.”