Connor Kippe: Valuing activism in local politics

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 - 7:54pm

College students are perhaps some of the most educated and opinionated voters in the country, as we exist in a sphere of constant debate and idealism (and political memes, too). However, we often focus on the larger, more dramatic political theaters — federal and international governments — and end up ignoring the equally important local politics of the areas and states in which we reside.

Zachary Ackerman, recent University of Michigan graduate, Ann Arbor City Council member, and former Daily columnist, who was kind enough to sit down for an interview with the Daily, defies this phenomenon. He serves as a great example of how to get involved in local politics. At the age of 22, Ackerman was the first University student to be elected to a spot on the Ann Arbor City Council in 23 years when he took office this fall. He ran a fierce campaign and was elected, in part, because he went door to door launching a ground campaign to get to know voters on a more personal level.

Though becoming an elected official is a daunting task, starting much smaller can also be rewarding. Ackerman has done exactly that, working as an intern for a local candidate Pam Byrnes campaign to be a representative in the U.S. House in 2014. Needing signatures from citizens for a petition to get Byrne on the ballot, he had to stand outside of the Jackson Post Office on tax day in freezing temperatures. During those hours, he met a diverse group of people who illustrated an important part of local politics.

The first man he met drove up in a pickup truck, covered in the trappings of a construction worker or carpenter. This man had no interest in politics, so he didn’t sign the petition that Ackerman was offering. He went into the post office, sent what he needed, got in his truck and left. However, for some reason he returned and gave Ackerman a handful of hand warmers, and signed the petition before leaving again.

Next, there were three women, who when he stepped forward and asked them to sign, declined, as they supported Republican candidate Tim Walberg in the race. They were about to go on their way when Ackerman noticeably shivered, and in that moment, they agreed to sign, saying they would do it if it got him home sooner.

Finally, another man wandered up to the post office. He listened intently, and very earnestly wanted to get involved. However, when Ackerman offered to let him sign, he made several unintelligible marks on the paper that wouldn’t count as a signature. Despite being illiterate, this man was trying valiantly to be involved in the political process.

In each of these cases, the decision of these individuals to get involved depended on an emotional response, not an ideological urge. These interactions illustrate why local politics is so important: They make us realize our personal and emotional connection to politics, and allow us to be easily involved. If you knew your vote on a proposal would perhaps save you a flat tire in the future, because it would have passed a road repair bill, would you have used it? If you realized you could influence state politics by volunteering in a campaign that might help improve the schools in your area for your children, would you do so? If becoming representative could help better improve your life and the lives of those close to you, why not become one?

Sadly, in a country with low voter turnout in every type of election, local elections have the worst voter turnout of all. This fact, paired with distrust of both the government and the parties that compete to run it, leads to a democratic process in a severe state of disarray, where few people seem to want to answer these questions.

While I am not arguing we turn inward and ignore the role that national elections have, focusing on local politics can have just as profound an impact. Each of us can answer those questions in our own little, unique ways. We can answer them by voting, volunteering or serving. We can answer them by running for office, or working to help a city council member get elected. Or we can do so by a much simpler action, such as filling out a petition for a statewide or national issue. We can change our campus, our hometown or wherever we may live in the future by participating in local politics. By changing that little bit we can on an individual basis in the places we live, we can, together, change a lot. 

Connor Kippe can be reached at conkip@umich.edu.