Four candidates have declared for the Ann Arbor mayoral race of 2014, and though they all identify as Democrats, their personalities, the issues they plan to emphasize and the way they plan to interact with the University all differ.
Each candidate has a connection to Ann Arbor, whether it be academic or personal, and each has varying degrees of support for current Mayor John Hieftje (D) and experience as an elected member of the City Council.
Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) attended the University for 12 years, earning degrees in vocal performance, English and history and finally attending the Law School. His background has led him to explore his long-term interest in government and politics through the City Council.
Working as a transactional lawyer, Taylor believes he has an ability to work well with people in opposition to one another. Since his election to the City Council in 2008 — when he defeated Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), another current councilmember now running for mayor — Taylor has focused on a few key issues in preserving Ann Arbor’s character while still being open to innovation.
“Ann Arbor is a place where there is tremendous opportunity but there is also a value in its character,” Taylor said. “It will be important that the next mayor focuses on transportation, stability and trying to ensure that we have the kind of modest growth that will enable us to attract and keep young people in the city.”
While Hieftje has yet to endorse any candidate, Taylor’s voting history is very similar to the mayor’s.
Councilmember Sally Petersen (D–Ward 2) categorized the candidates as being in support or opposed to the mayor’s policies. Petersen, in contrast to Taylor, is an infrequent supporter of the mayor. She attended Williams College and Harvard Business School and has been on the City Council for more than a year. Although she and Kunselman have been in agreement on many of the issues that have appeared in the City Council over the past year, Petersen said their personalities differ greatly.
“He seems to be at odds with the mayor quite a bit,” Petersen said. “Steve and I actually tend to vote very similarly, but it’s not because I’m voting against the mayor, it’s because I really believe in the issue. His temperament is very different from mine — I like to consider myself very diplomatic and collaborative. He likes the argument.”
While Petersen is currently a stay-at-home mom, her background includes a focus on business and customer concerns, traits she said are highly transferable to the position of mayor. Although Petersen and Taylor do not seem to be in agreement on all past City Council issues, she identifies herself as being similar in personality to Taylor, citing the recent decisions in the pedestrian crossing ordinance.
“With Chris Taylor, I think our temperaments are very similar. He tends to vote more like the mayor and he tends to have a very idealistic approach, which I will say is not always the most pragmatic approach,” she said.
Petersen addressed concerns relating to her lack of City Council experience relative to other candidates.
“There may be a concern that I’ve only been on Council for over a year now, but I love Ann Arbor,” Petersen said. “If I am elected mayor, I will have had twice the experience as the current mayor when he was elected.”
The fourth candidate, Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), said her years of experience on the City Council and her years spent focusing on the concerns and opinions of citizens makes her the best mayoral candidate.
“I am open to working with people with whom I disagree,” Briere said. “That means that I have learned from people from all over this community who start the conversation telling me what I’m doing wrong, and leave the conversation knowing they have been listened to. And I have been told that is unique from all of the other people running.”
When it comes to the University, each councilmember hopes to establish strong relationships with the school in spite of some competing interests. As for expanding campus outward, Ann Arbor residents often voice concerns that their traditional, family-based neighborhoods could be in danger of a student takeover.
“It is not, however, because of the people in the building,” Briere said. “But for many people, their shorthand is we don’t want students because what they are really saying is we don’t want beer pong, and I can understand that.”
The expanding University has increased tensions with the city, reducing opportunities for tax revenue in Ann Arbor amidst downsizing within the city given the recent economic environment.
“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,” Briere 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.”
Kunselman echoed similar views, adding that the University tends to operate like a business enterprise.
Kunselman, an Ann Arbor native and University alum, said he’s disappointed with the political insincerity and dishonesty he said he has witnessed in Ann Arbor. He said he hopes to restore a sense of trust in local government, which will, in his opinion, translate to a more positive relationship between the city and the University.
“You’re not going to get a dime from the ‘U.’ There’s already a lot of existing collaboration between the University and the city so there’s not much more that you can do there. But what has been missing is trust,” Kunselman said. “The University has a very high standard for reputation, so if the government is not trusted, why would they want to be in the same room with it?”
In regards to his only loss in his six runs for City Council, Kunselman said his and Taylor’s politics and personality still differ for this election.
“That grudge is still out there,” Kunselman said. “There is a contingent of people that feel they are better than the rest of us.”
As a University employee, Kunselman has a unique approach to University and city relations. He has also emphasized his intentions to make Ann Arbor a more fiscally responsible and practical city.
“Local government has contracted in the past few years,” Kunselman said. “It’s going be a slow road to get back some of that because obviously government finance is much more constrained than it has been in years past.”