In first time in 14 years without an incumbent running, as the Ann Arbor Democratic mayoral primary approaches on August 5, both the price tag for the race and the stakes for the University are higher than ever.
Among the four Democratic candidates running for the position — Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Sally Petersen (D–Ward 2), Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3), and Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), an unprecedented pre-primary sum of $154,847 has been raised in total, not counting other non-monetary donations of goods and services, according to campaign finance reports released .
Taylor’s campaign was the most costly, raising $75,698. According to campaign finance reports, the bulk of his campaign expenses come from monthly campaign consulting amounting to $20,000 and website expenses of about $2,195, not including the $3,870 he spent on Google and Facebook promotions.
Some notable donors included several University LSA and Law School professors, as well as University Regent Mark Bernstein (D).
Petersen has taken a more self-reliant route, contributing $11,684 of her own money to the campaign along with $16,000 from family members contributing toward a total of $44,495. She also incurred a few University affiliates’ donations, including several University professors in the Ross School of Business and the Medical School, as well as Jenifer Martin, director of government relations for the School of Public Health. Petersen spent about $5,886 on campaign consulting, $1,288 on Facebook and Google promotions, and thousands on local advertising, including $2,414 for advertising from MLive and other media groups.
“That was intentional, we decided at the get-go that we were going to fund this about 50 percent,” Petersen said. “We didn’t hire a professional staff to work day-by-day like other candidates, we relied on a small group of volunteers who work full time. It’s been a lot of time focused on the messaging. My time is more important, rather than doing the fundraising, spent with the voters.”
Briere raised about $26,680, $1,000 of which was from a family member, and the rest of which was from various property companies, University affiliates from LSA and other community members. Notable donors include Sava Lelcaj, owner of local restaurants Sava’s and Aventura and Dennis Dahlmann, owner of Dahlmann Properties in Ann Arbor.
Kunselman raised $7,474, most of which was from fellow city council members and other local community donors.
“You have candidates that are raising lots of money from the wealthy, and I think it is hypocritical for someone to raise a lot of money for a campaign to win an election while promising to provide for government subsidies and affordable housing, it just doesn’t add up,” he said of the reports.
Relationship with the University
Though the August primaries occur a few weeks before most students return to campus, and typically, student votes in the primaries are low, along with finances the University’s relationship with the city has also been a major theme leading up to it.
Candidates are quick to admit the importance of a positive relationship between the University’s president and Ann Arbor’s next mayor, but University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the future for University and city relations is still up in the air, especially as President Schlissel enters the first year of his presidency.
“I don’t anticipate a dramatic shift, but at this point, he is still getting to know the campus and the Ann Arbor community, and Ann Arbor will have a new mayor, so we will have to wait and see exactly how that takes shape,” Fitzgerald said.
When it comes to the city’s position, land ownership is the name of the game — an issue that has often left the University and city at opposites with each other on major purchases. Whenever the University purchases a property, it is removed from the city’s tax rolls.
Though all of the Democratic candidates have some history with the University, be it Taylor’s four degrees from the University or Kunselman’s ten years as the University’s Environmental Conservation Liaison, none see exactly eye-to-eye or necessarily have a clear solution when it comes to diffusing University-city tensions.
In January, Taylor said the possibility of requesting a payment in lieu of taxes from the University was both appropriate and reasonable, but all of the candidates for mayor seem to be singing the same tune on the possibility of voluntary payments to the city.
“As much as I would like a payment in lieu of taxes, no, that is not something I would bring to the table at this point,” Taylor said.
Petersen said that any conversation of a voluntary payment from the University to the city would negatively affect the city’s relationship with the University, and therefore she could not support formally requesting any payment.
“We know that they are not going to do a payment in lieu of taxes, but I do think we should have a conversation about other ways that we can collaborate, and those include transportation, job creation and quality of life,” Petersen said.
Kunselman said a payment in lieu of taxes would cause legal problems for the University, as a public entity giving public funds to the city.
Instead of using the University as a financial resource, Briere emphasized, both in an interview with the Daily and at the Ann Arbor Democratic Forum last month, that there are other ways the city could be using and collaborating with the University for the entire city’s benefit.
“The University has been expanding its borders,” she said. “That is a challenge for the city, and to be fair to the University as well, they are trying to figure out the best way to serve their citizens, the students, staff and donors. But from my experience as a resident of the city, the difficulty is that it’s hard, really hard, to have the University expand its borders without recognizing that extension affects the tax base and the livability of the community.”
Kunselman said what he plans to do as mayor benefits both residents and students — he doesn’t make a distinction between the two.
“I think it is most important that we build trust,” he said. “I have voted for a number of the high-rise construction student housings downtown, but I’ve voted against those that are intrusions to surrounding neighborhoods. The number one issue right now on the campaign trail is the condition of our roads, and roads affect students just as much as they do every other resident.”
Taylor said when it comes to the future of Ann Arbor, young professionals are the residents he is concerned about, including how to keep students in Ann Arbor after graduation and how to make the town appealing to young professionals looking to start families and establish careers.
While Briere said there is often a wall between the city and the University, she also said she feels the University isn’t always necessarily looking out for the city of Ann Arbor, or even the day-to-day lives of the students.
“The University is not concerned about students, they are concerned about the University, and the University includes their physical plant, what they build, where they build it,” she said. “It includes their athletic activities. It includes maintenance of the existing physical plant, and it includes their various revenue sources, but it’s not about the city and the students. It’s about the city and this organization that answers only to the legislature in Lansing.”
Because both Petersen and Taylor’s terms on city council end this November, if they aren’t elected mayor, they will lose their seat on city council. Kunselman and Briere keep theirs regardless of the outcome.
Independent candidate Bryan Kelly filed the required number of signatures to be on the ballot July 17, and he and the primary winner will vie for the mayor’s seat in the general election, held November 4.