East Lansing's hot race

MSU student giving City Council incumbents a challenge

Two incumbents are running for reelection to the East Lansing City Council, but Michigan House Democratic Leader Sam Singh is telling voters to look out for the new guy, Aaron Stephens.

“I was impressed by his compassion for getting involved and engaged,” said Singh. “Even though he’s younger, he understands the larger issues facing the community.”

Singh, who represents East Lansing in the House and came up through the Council, has endorsed the 21-year-old Stephens for one of two Council seats that will be filled on Nov. 7. But he is backing neither incumbent, Susan Woods, 65, and Ruth Beier, 56.

Another Stephens backer is longtime Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner, who represents East Lansing. Grebner said he’s also backing Beier over Woods because of Beier’s caution in approving property deals with developers.

Ingham County Treasurer Eric A. Schertzing, an East Lansing resident, said Stephens was impressive and suggested that Beier and Woods should “start knocking on doors.” Schertzing endorsed Beier but hasn’t decided between Stephens and Woods, though he pointed out, “Stephens has reached out to me, Woods has not.”

Stephens, a senior majoring in political science and pre-law at MSU, cut his teeth during last year’s presidential election, working with both the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns. He helped lead the successful student registration drive, which East Lansing City Clerk Marie Wicks said was “pretty nuts.”

“We went from 19,999 in August to around 27,500 by the time of the election,” Wicks said.

Stephens said a conversation with a resident during that registration drive inspired him to run for office.

“I sat down with him on his porch and talked with him for hours,” said Stephens. “He told me people would knock on his door during an election season but never return again after they were elected. This man felt forgotten. I’ll never forget that moment. It taught me what being a public servant is about, representing people like him no matter what.”

Still, Stephens has an uphill battle because the incumbents have greater name recognition.

“People already know what I stand for,” said Beier. “Aaron does not have that. The way for him to get known is by doing what he’s doing. I’m more interested in talking about the income tax than my own reelection.”

Beier referred to proposals also on the Nov. 7 ballot that ask voters to lower the property tax and impose a 1 percent income tax on residents and a half percent on nonresidents.

Woods said she has been preoccupied with the East Lansing Film Festival, which she founded and serves as executive director, but she said she does plan on visiting with voters in the coming weeks.

Citizen journalism website East Lansing Info published an article highly critical of Stephens, relying on statements from Michael Metiva and Emily Weiner, former colleagues of Stephens at MSU’s model United Nations organization, where Stephens was one of four vice presidents.

Metiva and Weiner accused Stephens of mismanaging the student organization’s finances after his resignation to work for the Clinton campaign.

“Their argument was that because I did not return a checkbook, they couldn’t become financially viable, which just isn’t true,” said Stephens. “I do apologize for not returning the checkbook sooner, but the idea that would create financial instability is ridiculous.”

Beier and Woods have both defended Stephens’ position.

Woods, who according to Singh is likely to be Stephen’s primary competitor, has faced scrutiny over an alleged conflict of interest between her role as the festival’s director and the Council’s liaison to the East Lansing Arts Commission.

Woods recused herself in September from any Council decisions that would financially impact the film festival. “I apologize for not recusing myself sooner,” said Woods. “But the festival never had influence on anything I’ve ever done as a Councilmember.”

The demolition of the bank building on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbot Road may have given Beier and Woods momentum as incumbents. East Lansing residents greeted its destruction with a collective sigh of relief on Frida, and Grebner said he was happy to finally see it come down.

All three candidates support the income tax. “We need to get it passed, so we can pay our obligations,” said Beier. Should the income tax proposal fail, Stephens suggested renegotiating a deal with MSU similar to President Lou Anna K. Simon’s offer of $20 million over eight years. Stephens said he will remain optimistic if defeated. “My generation has to be the one to step up and really make a difference,” said Stephens. “People may think they can get rid of me, but I am not going anywhere.”