As the August primary approaches, all four Democratic mayoral candidates gathered Saturday morning for a forum held by the Ann Arbor Democratic Party to debate several of the key issues in the upcoming election.
Current mayor John Hieftje (D) is not seeking reelection, making this the first time in 14 years that there hasn’t been an incumbent running for the position and producing an especially competitive race between the four Democratic candidates — City Council members Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), Sally Hart Petersen (D–Ward 2) and Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) — vying for the seat.
As well, there are currently no Republicans running for mayor, giving the primary heightened importance because whoever wins will likely not face an opponent in the general election, barring independent or write in campaigns.
Topics at the forum ranged from basic background information, to questions about the University’s relationship with the city and concerns about downtown development and the lack of affordable housing. Two overarching themes presented themselves: how would the elected mayor’s goals for the city differ in comparison with Hieftje’s objectives, and how did each candidate prioritize the unique needs of each Ann Arbor citizen?
As members of the same party, the candidates had somewhat similar objectives, but their strategies varied widely, especially when it came to the city’s current policy frameworks.
While Taylor expressed the belief that the city, under Mayor Hieftje’s leadership, is already on the right track, other candidates, particularly Kunselman, expressed the need for redirection.
Several candidates also argued that two parties have formed within City Council and within the race — those who stand with current mayor Hieftje’s policies, and those who don’t.
During the debate, Briere condemned this approach, and asked candidates to focus on the current election, not past divisions.
“I don’t belong to a faction,” Briere said. “John (Hieftje) is gone and we should get over it. Now we look at the future. As much as we may like John or agree with his policies, I’m not running against John and I’m not running to beat John.”
As Briere emphasized her long history of maintaining an open minded, representative perspective on issues before the Council, Petersen discussed her vision for improving Ann Arbor through her relatively newer, unique perspective by taking the city in a different direction. This is Petersen’s first term on City Council, and Briere’s fourth. Kunselman and Taylor are serving their fourth and third terms, respectively.
“I am running for mayor in order to bring new leadership and a new plan to Ann Arbor that will transform the economic growth ahead of us into much needed revenue to pay for our priorities,” Petersen said.
One of these priorities, she added, will be to create a more open and cooperative relationship between the University and the city. Instead of asking for measures such as the controversial payment in lieu of taxes program, which has been brought up by city officials several times as a solution to the tax revenue the city loses every time the University buys property and it becomes tax exempt, Petersen said the city needed to create a dialogue with the University to address these kinds of issues.
Other candidates leaned more towards a focus on representing the non-University portions of the city and prioritizing the needs of local, voting citizens, emphasizing a different kind of cooperation from the University.
“We certainly need to have a Board of Regents that is cognizant that if they keep growing and buying Ann Arbor city property, they are going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg because all of these amenities downtown are going to be nothing but a student food court,” Kunselman said.
Taylor encouraged this same sort of education and awareness from the University.
“They (the University) are not evil,” he said. “They just don’t understand.”
Candidates also debated the importance of prioritizing either the downtown area, or its surrounding neighborhoods.
While Briere argued that improvements downtown will benefit neighborhoods and therefore should be the priority, Kunselman preferred a more infrastructure focused approach, providing safe, well maintained neighborhoods and roads first before funding downtown needs. Petersen and Taylor remained more neutral in their stance on either pro downtown or pro neighborhood, emphasizing the need to work with both groups, instead of being in favor of one or the other.
The need for affordable housing, a concern City Council has discussed for years and which continues to be an unsolved problem in the city, proved to be one of the most differentiating issues of the morning, eliciting multiple different stances from candidates.
Briere argued that Council needs to reach out to other entities in order to fund workforce housing to achieve what she believes is a necessary goal while not taking money away from roads, parks, police, and other necessities.
In contrast, Kunselman said as mayor, he would focus on the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, maintaining those residences and attempting to create more, if possible, in lower-cost real estate areas instead of on a downtown location. Petersen also emphasized the need to make affordable housing a priority, and said as mayor she hoped to de-mystify the idea of affordable housing near other neighborhoods.
Taylor said part of the affordable housing problem stems from students, and proposed incentivizing investors to build affordable housing downtown instead of student housing.
Candidates also discussed inspiring commercial development and the possible re-zoning of Main St., better non-motorized transportation, the City Council’s relationship with the Downtown Development Authority, and how to further utilize the University as a resource to the city’s growth and development.
The Ann Arbor Democratic mayoral primary will be held Aug. 5. Five additional debates between candidates are scheduled within the next few weeks.