Chicken and Egg
As primary election nears, candidates campaign to the choir
Tina Aquirre sits on the front porch of her small house smoking a cigarette. Her 27-year-old son, Tony, is there as well. She gestures toward the street in front of her home where a chunk of the road has literally caved in, creating a hole. Then she points to other streets, identifying the holes there.
Aquirre, like many Lansing voters, wants the roads fixed. But she’s not holding her breath that a new 4th Ward Councilmember is going to change that.
“They’re not really from this ward, they don’t represent this ward in the Aug. 8 primary election, they don’t know what goes on in this ward,” she said. “To be honest with you, they don’t give a shit about what goes on in this ward.”
She can’t name any of the seven candidates vying for the ward, or for the at-large race. She said she “thinks” she might have gotten some political fliers, but can’t be certain from whom.
‘They’re not really from this ward, they don’t represent this ward, they don’t know what goes on in this ward. To be honest with you, they don’t give a shit about what goes on in this ward.’
- Tina Aquirre, 4th Ward resident
Aquirre’s frustration is likely reflected in the low voter turnout City Clerk Chris Swope has estimated for the primary. Despite having a record number of candidates on the ballot — besides the seven vying for the 4th Ward seat, five are running in the 2nd Ward, five for mayor and a dozen for two at-large seats — Swope said he expects turn out to be about 13 percent, with the majority of the ballots being cast by absentee voters.
Aquirre is among the forgotten citizens: Since they haven’t voted, candidates don’t knock on their doors. When, for example, Fourth Ward candidates Jim McClurken and Brian Jackson talk of knocking on doors throughout the ward, what they really mean is on doors of likely voters — and in McClurken’s case just likely absentee voters, at least for the primary election.
“I wish I could hit every door because everyone voted,” Jackson said. “But that’s not happening.”
City Pulse’s Elo Wittig knocked on 28 doors in several different precincts in the city’s 4th Ward last week. He found that 16 of those homes had not been visited by any candidate, while the remaining homes reported seeing several candidates, including McClurken, Jackson, mayoral candidate Andy Schor and at-large candidate Peter Spadafore. One reported 4th Ward candidate Kathi Raffone had knocked on the door.
That leaves people like Aquirre off the beaten track for candidate contact, further exacerbating their perceptions that politicians don’t care about them.
“Lansing is a passionate place to live, and this passion can be displayed in the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum, whether that be one of joy, sadness, anticipation, fear, and even apathy,” noted 4th Ward candidate Amanda Bernes. “I include apathy, because that is the point at which we give up and allow those extreme moods that we once had to be lost as we too feel the loss of our hopes.”
Over the last few weeks, City Pulse has been asking council candidates for their visions for the city and what specific steps they will take to bring those visions into reality. Not all the candidates chose to respond to inquiries, despite repeated phone calls and emails.
Fourth Ward candidates Elvin Caldwell Jr., Larry Hutchinson and Jason Durham as well as at-large candidates Rosalinda Hernandez and Evelyn Pech- Vasquez did not respond to inquiries.
Despite four Council seats being up for grabs in three arenas, commonalities in goals abound: finding the funding in a tight budget to fix roads, increasing public safety and finding unity through community engagement.
A Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce poll earlier this year found this issue to be a key concern of the majority of Lansing voters, and Aquirre agrees, considering she has a foot-long oval hole that is inches deep in front her house. The will is there to fix the roads and sidewalks, but the real question is how does the city fund it in a time when property values, and therefore tax revenues, have not rebounded from the Great Recession and the state continues a nearly two-decade trend of cuts to local revenue sharing programs that helped finance road repair.
“I will dedicate myself to examining the current budget line by line for any potential cost savings and opportunities to transfer funds to infrastructure improvement projects,” said at-large candidate Alexander Rusek.
“Bottom line make sure our tax dollars are spent where it’s needed, and what it is spent on what it is supposed to go to,” wrote Thomas Harris Jr. , another at-large candidate. “Hell I pay taxes just like everyone one else, and drive the same roads as well. I’m tired of driving over potholes, and roads not being plowed on the winter.”
Second Ward candidate Jaron Green wants to create a city of Lansing bank, funded with taxpayer money. That, he said, would allow the city to invest tax revenues and use interest revenues to invest in infrastructure development. He pointed to the state of Nebraska, which has a state bank capitalized with state tax revenues.
Justin DeBoer, another at-large candidatel said he wants to tax medical marijuana to fund roads.
“I would bring up a proposed tax rate on medical marijuana sales on the city,” he wrote. “I would make sure the tax would not be too high, but still good enough to bring revenue to the city for funding to fix potholes.”
“I know we’re not Nebraska, but it could work,” he noted. “It would be a new idea.”
It’s unclear if either DeBoer’s or Green’s proposals are legal under Michigan law.
For incumbent At-Large candidate Kathie Dunbar, continuing the focus on directed funding is key to digging out from under the infrastructure deficit.
“Now that we’ve moved beyond the recession and the economy is growing, I will continue to practice sound fiscal management of city resources, which includes investing a portion of any surplus into road/sidewalk repair and reducing unfunded liabilities,” she said.
Kyle Bowman, another at-large candidate, said he would “prioritize” funding for infrastructure improvements and public safety.
“If we can’t fix the roads and improve public safety, anything else we do will be a waste of time and money,” he said.
Despite years of rhetoric by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero that Lansing crime is down, federal and state law enforcement officials have stepped up their involvement in addressing crime in Lansing. That includes Michigan State Police troopers patrolling the city. Since Jan. 1, the city has seen at least 10 homicides.
That has attention of the candidates beside Bowman as well.
“We have to do better in making the city safer,” said Jeremy Garza, a 2nd Ward candidate. “That means we have to invest in our police. We need more police on the streets.”
Julee Rodocker, another 2nd Ward candidate, said she would make sure to “steer resources” into funding police and code compliance as well as for road improvements.
But at-large candidate Yanice Jackson sees a more directed neighborhood by neighborhood strategy in addressing public safety in the city.
“To help improve neighborhood safety I would encourage council as well as additional civic leadership to become more involved with our neighborhoods,” she wrote. “Increased civic engagement could help us recruit more of the community to participate in the neighborhood associations and neighborhood watch programs to improve our sense of community. We have to strengthen our sense of community before we can improve our community.”
And she is not alone in that message.
Jim DeLine, another 2nd Ward candidate also wants to focus on redeveloping neighborhoods to improve the city.
“It starts from the bottom up,” he said.
“You have to have that engagement.”
Transparency and communication
But that engagement is going to require not only that Councilmembers develop strong lines of communication between the neighborhoods and the city, but they also overcome the perception that factionalism has stalled Council work and interfered with the city’s business.
Some of that is fed, said Michael Ruddock, an at-large candidate, by low voter participation, something he would like to see addressed by creating publicly funded municipal elections. He noted that the city needed “leaders not fundraisers.”
“We need elected officials that will be the voice of all people; whether they live in a high voting propensity or not,” he said. “Only then will we get representative and a government that will work for all people.”
2nd Ward Incumbent Councilwoman Tina Houghton, who has been seen as a member of a faction supporting Bernero, pledged to work with the new elected officials if she’s re-elected.
“I commit to work collaboratively with new staff, administration, and council to address my vision and priorities such as infrastructure that include road funding and corridor improvements, increase tax base by creating jobs and retaining talent, and continue to support safe and vibrant neighborhoods by listening and giving voice to the citizens of Lansing,” she said.
4th Ward candidate McClurken said he would work with the Council as well, slamming past personality issues that marred the body’s public perception.
“I will build a cooperative relationship with other city council members that allows city government to thoughtfully resolve issues that affect our neighborhoods, a council which focuses on solutions and not personalities, a council that is not about infighting or name calling,” he said.
Also in the 4th Ward, candidate Jackson said he would work to make the city “more inclusive by engaging stakeholders and receiving input from those affected by my decision.”
Fourth Ward candidate Kathi Raffone said the key word if she’s elected will be “unity.”
“Unity with the neighborhoods, the councilmembers, the city,” she said.
At-large candidate Peter Spadafore said he would work with the new council and mayor to develop a strategic plan in an “open and transparent” way that involves all the city’s stakeholders.
“I will make every decision on Council based on that vision–a strategic plan must be more than words on a paper, it must be the guiding principles by which we govern,” he said.
For Guillermo Lopez, strengthen the relationships between Councilmembers and the Mayor’s Office and his team is key.
“I will work to establish a good working relationship with my City Council colleagues and the Mayor,” he said. “I do not see anything that is more important than establishing these relationships. Building those relationship is key to working proactively for all Lansing and the Lansing Region.”