I have been paying attention to local candidates and trying to learn about the people I might be working with on Council later this year. I’ve noticed where candidates engage with issues seriously, in a way that is factually accurate and reasonably informed. I’ve also seen (and heard) where candidates stretch the truth or simply mis-state facts in situations where they do not expect anyone to correct them. Some candidates concern me quite a lot based on their approach to public discourse.
STATE & CITY RELATIONSHIPS
Some may know that I have a very special constituent in Ward 4: our State Representative Yousef Rabhi. We are very lucky to have Yousef representing us. He’s a passionate advocate for Ann Arbor, committed to fighting for progressive values in Lansing. Yousef is someone who is also unfailingly kind and supportive of local leaders. He does not endorse in local Ann Arbor Council races, not even when one candidate was a friend from college.
Yousef understands that he has an obligation as a State Representative to advocate on behalf of our local government no matter who is eventually elected. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell recognizes this principle, too: she does not endorse local candidates competing for election, either. Representative Rabhi and Congresswoman Dingell know that politicians in higher office are often called on to represent local interests, as expressed by whoever gets elected. Ann Arbor City Council regularly votes on resolutions that specifically ask our state representatives to work on our behalf – this happened most recently with a resolution I brought, asking for changes to state policies related to our local police oversight commission.
This year’s local Democratic primary is remarkable in that one of our state elected officials has chosen to endorse multiple candidates for local office. For the first time as a state-level official, former State Representative and current State Senator Jeff Irwin has endorsed candidates in our local City Council primary races. In Ward 4, Senator Irwin’s endorsement is notable: he endorses his own stepmother, Jen Eyer. Senator Irwin does not live in Ward 4 and – despite written commitments to be more transparent about this personal relationship – none of his endorsements of Jen Eyer have ever included the explanation that she recently married his father.
Thousands of mailers, online ads and other communications promote the Irwin endorsement as significant yet do not mention the family relationship. It is unusual to see a state elected official wade into our local primaries at all, so it’s reasonable to wonder why. When directly asked how he knows Jen Eyer, Senator Irwin has said that he knows her professionally. This is a very incomplete response. When important decisions assign power and influence to specific people, family relationships are relevant context. We all understand that.
I remember what it was like to be a candidate, how exciting it was to meet so many new people, introduce myself and learn about the various issues impacting Ward 4 neighborhoods. I believe that our town wants to be a community where we respect each other, listen to each other, and care about each other. Local elections can prompt a more meaningful and constructive exchange of ideas. Campaigns are an opportunity for serious conversation about local policy when candidates are sincere about sharing perspectives and earning the trust of the community. Our campaign seasons also bring out a small number of folks who view our local contests as something more vicious and hostile, where personal attacks are fair game and “just politics.”
Personal attacks should be more shocking at this level of politics because every local candidate is someone you might bump into at the grocery store or walking down the street. Candidates are our moms and dads and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors. When political races turn personal and nasty, it means that people feel comfortable hurting members of our local community. I appreciate that tactics of character assassination are commonplace at higher levels of politics and government, but I reject those strategies in our local political sphere, where we can actually know each other and take the time to understand each other.
In 2018, our local elections turned particularly ugly, thanks to the close business associates of a current candidate for Council. Only after the primary election of 2018 – in conversation with local reporters and local leaders – did I learn just how many people participated in schemes for negative campaigns about me and several other candidates. It was eye-opening. Non-local interests spent thousands of dollars for negative campaigns coordinated by the president of Jen Eyer’s Lansing-based public relations firm, where she is a partner (“small business owner”). I encourage everyone to educate themselves about this recent history:
MLive: ‘Dark money’ attacks on Ann Arbor candidates raise concerns (Aug 5, 2018)
This year is, unfortunately, very similar to 2018: many non-local donors and business interests have funded thousands of dollars worth of glossy mailers. Given recent history (and common actors), I would not be surprised to see campaigns turn ugly again. Unfortunately, some people think that these tactics are an effective way to win local elections. Personal attacks are certainly easier than talking about the complexity of issues and the serious work of Council.
I’ve seen copy-and-paste emails that our Mayor is sending Ward 4 residents, endorsing Jen Eyer while describing the current City Council as “a difficult bunch.” This is a strange statement/insult to share without explanation. In the same emails, the Mayor also makes the bizarre claim that there is a “conservative majority” in our local government, again without explanation as to what that means.
The work of incumbents is a record that can be checked, both in public documents and in direct conversation with your representatives. Most of our votes at City Council are unanimous, but when there is disagreement, it’s an opportunity for us to explain our points of view and persuade each other with thoughtful explanation. (I publicize my votes and the votes of my colleagues because I believe that all of Council should be able to explain our choices.) I see where it is easier to make vague negative characterizations rather than point to facts. However, I believe all of our Council Members – as well as candidates for Council – should be able and willing to discuss local issues specifically and in detail.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been clued in to misinformation being spread around town. I’ve heard residents repeat completely opposite/wrong ideas about where Council Members have voted in support or opposition to a wide variety of local issues. It’s amazing to me that in a town as educated as ours, people are still confident about spreading demonstrably false information – they expect that residents will not question it (or bother to seek out the truth).
If you hear someone make broad claims like “That politician always opposes XYZ” it’s a good idea to ask what that means. It’s also a good idea to research candidates to find out what they actually support/oppose. This is true for all candidates, but for incumbents especially because there is a public record of their work. When you ask an incumbent where they stand, they can point to a record.
Lately, we have far too much political messaging that elevates hostility and misunderstanding, rather than thoughtful debate about legitimate difference on policy. In our local community, we have maximum opportunity to interact directly with political candidates and share perspectives around values and issues. Facts are available from primary sources. Since my election, I’ve compiled a whole lot of data (and links to primary sources) on this website because I believe that facts should be at the center of all our political conversations. If there are particular issues that you care deeply about, I urge you to look at candidate websites, ask direct questions, and push for substantive answers.