A building reads 'CITY HALL' above two glass double doors.
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Ann Arbor is a one-party town. Democratic candidates ordinarily do not face competitive races in the general election. Therefore, when voters go to the polls on Aug. 2 to vote in the Democratic primary, they will almost certainly be voting for our new City Council. At a moment when national crises are so dominant in the media, it is easy to lose sight of the importance local politics has in our daily existence. The city of Ann Arbor is facing an acute crisis of affordability and is enmeshed in the national crises of anthropogenic climate change and racist policing. The decisions made by the City Council — things like renters’ rights, alternatives to policing and public transit — all have an immediate and strongly felt impact on our lives as Ann Arbor residents. That’s why it’s more important than ever for University of Michigan students and workers to make our voices heard by voting in the City Council primary.

Graduate Employees’ Organization members recently voted to endorse three candidates for the primary: Cynthia Harrison in Ward 1, Ayesha Ghazi Edwin in Ward 3 and Elizabeth Nelson for re-election in Ward 4. Our endorsements reflect our position within the activist and trade union movements, as well as our priorities of housing affordability, climate justice and abolition. They are also informed by the urgent needs of our membership and by our often frustrating experience working with the council. This year, we wanted to back candidates who are a cut above the rest, who share GEO’s values, who are willing to actually act on those values and who bring a unique or missing perspective to the council. Consequently, we did not make endorsements in every race, choosing instead to only back candidates who really differentiate themselves from the status quo. We call on members of the University community who share our values to support these candidates.

Graduate students face many daily hardships, only some of which can be fixed through our employment contract with the University. For that reason, GEO is committed to an organizing philosophy that prioritizes doing good for the community as a whole and looks beyond the contract for other avenues where we can improve our lives and fight for justice. GEO members have worked with the council and other activist groups on a variety of fronts: leading the charge for tenants’ rights, like the Early Leasing Ordinance and Right to Renew; fighting alongside others in the community for public power and action on climate change; and joining with our allies to demand police accountability and a non-violent response force.

Ann Arbor City Council is often understood as being divided between two main factions: those who are (generally) pro-development and those who are (generally) anti-development. We find both approaches to be inadequate. While new development is clearly and urgently needed to remedy the housing crisis, it cannot be a blank check to developers to build luxury housing that remains unaffordable to most people and insufficient to meet the demands of the climate crisis. We also find that despite near-uniform appeals to progressive values among City Council Democrats, this discourse all too rarely translates into actual action in support of Ann Arbor’s most vulnerable populations. City Council’s chronic failure to defend renters — who make up the majority of the town’s population — is a case in point. We need City Council members who actually follow through on the ideals to which they lay claim.

For this reason, when conducting our endorsement process, we looked for candidates who have significant relationships with social and labor movements and are responsive and accountable to them. Further, we looked for candidates who do not create tradeoffs that otherwise undermine our interests. Our endorsements thus reflect both the candidates’ stated aims and our experience working with Council on issues that are important to us. While no candidate is perfect, we do believe there is significant overlap between values of the candidates we endorsed and GEO’s own — enough to warrant your vote. 

In Ward 1, we endorse Cynthia Harrison. She demonstrates a great deal of expertise on a variety of issues our members care about, with robust answers on tenants’ rights, policing and climate change. In particular, her assessment that “City staff are not properly holding landlords to account” is reflective of our experience working with the city of Ann Arbor. She understands that the severe housing crisis facing Ann Arbor will not be solved by balancing the interests of tenants, landlords and developers. We need City Council members who are attentive to, and willing to challenge, power structures, and we think Harrison is up to the job.

In Ward 3, we endorse Ayesha Ghazi Edwin. Ghazi Edwin demonstrates a keen understanding that the issues facing Ann Arbor residents did not appear out of nowhere and are instead rooted in deep structural problems. Tackling these issues will require that City Council members take a side, and Ghazi Edwin has made it clear whose side she’s on. We are glad to see that she is also willing to fight at the state level for changes we need — including rent control and funding for unarmed crisis response teams. Ghazi Edwin will be a true partner in the fight for social justice, and we are excited to work with her once she is elected!

In Ward 4, we endorse Elizabeth Nelson. Nelson has worked closely with GEO in support of the Early Leasing Ordinance last year and has consistently stood up for renters’ rights. She is nothing less than a champion for her constituents. We do not agree with her on everything (e.g., the expansion of the Medical Center Bridge without bike lanes), but experience has shown us that Nelson is far more responsive to her constituents than the typical City Council member. With Nelson, we know what happens when the rubber meets the road. She has proven herself to be a rare, solid ally for GEO and Ann Arbor’s renters on the City Council. 

Ann Arbor has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Much of the counterculture and radicalism that once were the town’s hallmarks have been pushed to the margins, if not eliminated entirely. Rents have skyrocketed while housing quality has plummeted. The forces of gentrification are pushing residents to outlying communities. If we want Ann Arbor to be anything more than a husk of its former self, we need to demand better from the City Council. We must join together to elect public officials who are reflective of our values, responsive to and rooted in social movements and willing to govern in the interest of the most vulnerable, not just the wealthy developers, homeowners and landlords who have so much power in this town.

The Graduate Employees Organization is a union representing graduate workers at the University of Michigan. Our Solidarity and Political Action Committee (SPAC) heads up our engagement with local politics and can be contacted at spacchair@geo3550.org.