Low primary turnout is bad predictor

By Walt Sorg

“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

Nobody is using that as a campaign slogan, but it is the theme of this fall’s Lansing City Council election. The man behind the curtain is Mayor Virg Bernero. Last week’s primary election set the table for what promises to be a heated and sometimes nasty campaign for control of the Council in which the major — but “behind the curtain” — issue is Bernero’s leadership of the city.

Bernero’s own reelection isn’t seriously in doubt. Former councilman Harold Leeman Jr. is the official opposition but stands to be overwhelmed by the mayor’s endorsements and campaign war chest. Leeman reported raising just $940 during the primary while Bernero hauled in more than $75,000. Bernero has all the major organizational endorsements.

Bernero’s focus is bringing in with him Council members more likely to be supportive in the major battles: incumbents Kathie Dunbar (At-Large), Jessica Yorko (4th Ward) and Tina Houghton (2nd Ward), along with political newcomer Judi Brown Clarke (At-Large), who would replace Bernero nemesis Brian Jeffries.

The low 8.7 percent turnout in the primary provided no major surprises. In the battle for two At-Large seats, Jeffries, Dunbar and Brown led the field with a spread of just 329 votes from first-to-third; Ted O’Dell came in a distant fourth for the final spot on the November ballot. 

In the 4th Ward, incumbent Jessica Yorko’s relatively large 290-vote margin over runner-up Chong-Anna Canfora — 38 percent to 30 percent — raised some eyebrows. There was no primary in the 2nd Ward where only Houghton and challenger Charles Hoffmeyer are running.

With the prospect of the marijuana ballot initiative increasing voter interest in November, don’t read too much into any of the primary results. Turnout will likely more than double in November, which makes the final outcome very unpredictable.

Just go back four years. In 2009, incumbent 2nd Ward Councilwoman Sandy Allen trounced Tina Houghton in the primary 57 percent to 27 percent, only to lose in November 55 percent to 45 perent. The difference: a doubling of voter turnout, plus a concerted effort led by Bernero on behalf of Houghton.

Beyond relations with the mayor, there are few — if any — major policy disputes separating the candidates. The differences are subtle and nuanced, more centered around the personalities that have turned some Council meetings into mini soap operas. 

Some other normally decisive factors are neutralized as well. Organized labor, usually a potent get-out-the-vote force, is split. So is the money, with campaign finance reports showing that Dunbar, Jeffries and Brown Clarke will all be well funded in the At-Large race. Yorko and Canfora are equally matched financially as well.

City elections have become known for the under-the-belt attacks featuring anonymous robocalls, whisper campaigns and mailings from unknown groups. This year should be no different. The most vicious will probably target Dunbar, whose very difficult marital problems brought with it challenges with meeting attendance and a largely manufactured mini-scandal over a damaged laptop.

In the 4th ward preliminaries, some Canfora supporters have already tried to create an unlikely link between Yorko and right-wing Amway billionaire Dick DeVos over a flimsy campaign finance complaint filed against Canfora by a DeVos-affiliated committee.

In a low-turnout election, grassroots organizational skills can have a significant impact. That should give a slight edge to incumbents Dunbar and Yorko — both longtime community activists — and Brown Clarke, who likely will have the backing of the city’s African-American ministers.

It also could mean significant impact on the part of the Lansing Association for Human Rights, the area’s LGBT alliance. While all of the Council candidates are viewed favorably by the organization, only Dunbar received the group’s top rating (Extremely Positive) and was the only candidate to receive LAHR financial support ($500) in the primary. 

Replacing De Leon

A much smaller election takes place in two weeks to select a successor to Ingham County Commissioner Debbie De Leon, who resigned to accept a job as vice chairwoman of the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians in Petoskey. Five candidates applied for the position, which will be filled through a vote of the 10 remaining Democrats on the 14-member commission. Commissioners with whom I’ve talked to are truly undecided going into interviews with the applicants later this month.

Political pedigrees would seem to favor two of the applicants: 39-year-old Bryan Crenshaw, director of the Eaton Rapids Senior Center and a onetime staffer for Gov. Jennifer Granholm; and 25-year-old Catherine Mooney, president of the Northtown Neighborhood Association who received 46 percent of the vote in last year’s primary election against De Leon. But several commissioners have told me it is a wide open competition and any of the five applicants — who also include Robert “Rock” Hudson, Bryan Beverly and Cindy Redman — could end up with the job