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The two-term incumbent Lansing City Councilwoman Jody Washington faces a new kid in town this November: Brandon Betz, a 28-year-old progressive economist and native of Alaska, who moved to Lansing only two years ago.
“The people here are fantastic. The businesses are fun. I love it here,” said Betz, who came here in 2017 after graduate school to take a job with the state of Michigan, analyzing unemployment reports. He works now for the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing.
He may be a johnny-come-lately, but he has a passion for politics and felt frustrated the heavily Democratic city wasn’t more progressive. “It’s time for real, visionary ideas,” he said. “I meet so many people who are ready for change, the working-class people of the city. … I’ve got ideas, why don’t I step forward?”
Betz lives on the east side of Lansing with his girlfriend, Melina Brann, dog Ellie and two cats, Carrot and Crouton. He wears yellow horn-rimmed glasses and a neat beard, with a penchant for pastel shirts and colorful socks. He’s fastidious with a necktie, even as he sits at home in socks.
A key difference between Betz and Washington is their attitudes toward marijuana. He wants to lift the rigid caps on marijuana businesses that Washington has supported and allow more local entrepreneurs to get licenses to sell pot. “I think it’s really important that we have local people running these small businesses,” he said, especially in minority communities that for decades were disproportionately targeted in the war on drugs. He’s argued the current rules favor big out-of-state businesses.
He wants to slow down traffic on Michigan Avenue and put in bike lanes. He also wants to boost the number of trees planted all over the ward, ameliorate some of the concrete jungle feel and cool the temperature down during the increasingly hot summers.
Betz wants to take a more careful look at the tax breaks given to big developers and ensure they’re contributing a fair amount to rebuild the city’s ailing infrastructure as well as its job base.
His second-place finish caught some by surprise. Another challenger, Scott Hughes, outraised Betz and Washington, and Hughes had the endorsement of Ingham County Commissioner Mark Grebner as well as Hughes’ boss at the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, Carol Siemon. Hughes also had the backing of some members of the local marijuana industry.
But when the chips fell, Washington received 895 votes, and Betz got 633 votes, considerably more than Hughes’ tally of 353 in third place. Betz also won two precincts. One is north of Michigan Avenue and east of Marshall Street, where Betz lives. The other is across Oakland Avenue to the north.
Washington received 40% of the vote, but 60% voted for a challenger. And on Nov. 5, that opposition will be consolidated in just one opponent, Betz.
Betz said his grassroots ground game compensated for his smaller campaign money chest. He personally tried to knock on every door in the ward, and he had a dozen volunteers canvassing the northeast side of Lansing where the First Ward is located, distributing literature.
His father, Tom Betz, who donated $1,000 to his campaign, works on the Alaska Oil Pipeline, while his mother, Alexi Betz, who gave him $500, works as a nurse manager in Anchorage. Betz was his own biggest contributor, donating $1,022 to his campaign.
Betz has degrees from Syracuse University and Brigham Young University. He was raised Mormon, but he left the Church of Latter-Day Saints because of its anti-LGBTQ stances and conservative politics generally. He now considers himself agnostic.
Washington is keeping her focus on nuts-and-bolts issues in the hopes that people will stick with her experience and her long history in the community. “I’m going to work on street funding, sidewalk funding, public safety and our city’s economic viability.” She also maintains the backing of labor unions, as well as the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce.
She wasn’t surprised that Betz outmatched the better-funded Scott Hughes. He had the endorsements and the money, but Betz seemed to have more volunteers spreading the word about his candidacy.
Washington’s base is in the precincts south of I496, an area that includes part of REO Town as well as some beleaguered neighborhoods further east. “I put in a lot of time into the neighborhoods that are marginalized so I’m not surprised when I do well there,” she said.
Betz disputes this. Washington lived much of her life as a single mother and lived in public housing. But now he says she’s lost touch with those communities.
“She’s got name ID. She does not do things for the marginalized groups of the city,” Betz said. “She lives in one of the richest subdivisions in the city. She’s been out of touch for a very long time.” Betz was referring to a decade-old development of single-family homes near Central Catholic High School off of Saginaw Street.
He said he was unable to reach voters in working-class quarters like Potter-Walsh because many residents were away at work when he came to the door, and with turnout only at 10 to 15%, the vast majority of people in those neighborhoods didn’t bother to vote at all.
Betz supports ranked-choice voting for municipal races and wants only one election each year, in November, which might boost voter participation. He would also like to move city elections to even years.
He promised not to stop engaging with voters if elected. “I want to have happy hours, coffee hours, with city residents.” After taking a brief breath after the primary, Betz said he would be right back out later this month, raising his profile, knocking on more doors.