2021 Primary Election Coverage

Seventeen candidates are running in August. Only eight will make it to November.

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Seventeen candidates, including three incumbents, are facing off in the August primary election for a chance to lay out a renewed direction for the city of Lansing. By next year, the Capital City could find itself with a new mayor and up to four new members of the City Council.

Mayor Andy Schor is running for a second term against Council members Kathie Dunbar and Patricia Spitzley, as well as Melissa Huber, Farhan Sheikh-Omar and Larry Hutchinson Jr. Only the top two vote-getters will battle it out in the November election.

Second Ward Councilman Jeremy Garza is also running for a second term against political newcomers Oprah Revish and Nicklas Zande. Only two candidates will advance to November.

Two at-large seats on the Council are at stake, and with Council President Peter Spadafore the only incumbent seeking reelection, at least one fresh face is guaranteed to join the Council when Dunbar, the other at-large incumbent, leaves the job. Only four of the eight at-large Council candidates will face off for those two seats in the general election.

Several weeks of conversations — mostly on background — with political insiders, community activists and everyday citizens has enabled this writer to make the following election analysis: Incumbents have this primary locked down. Even among candidates, nobody expects Schor, Garza or Spadafore to be knocked out of the running before the general election in November.

Instead, this election is about the challengers and deciding which candidates will have a chance to battle it out against the incumbents later this year for a four-year term in the city of Lansing.

 

Here are the races to watch:

 

Dunbar vs. Spitzley

In recent months, Schor has accumulated scores of endorsements from labor unions, neighborhood leaders, local business owners, current and former politicians and more. His door-knocking team has been out in full force. Schor’s yard signs are just about everywhere. 

The mayor is also staring down a six-way race with nearly $200,000 in the bank, having outraised (and outspent) all of his challengers by a combined margin of about 100 to 1. The real matchup in the August primary, instead, is between Dunbar and Spitzley — the two candidates with the most name recognition, political clout and real experience driving change in Lansing. 

Spitzley could make history as Lansing’s first Black person and first woman elected to the office. 

But for now, she is maintaining a relatively low campaign profile. Elected to Council in 2015 and again two years ago, Spitzley has helped push the city’s new Advance Peace initiative to curb gun violence, voted in favor of key development projects and supported the city’s booming cannabis market.

She said she played an “instrumental role” in enacting guidelines for developers that focus on local hiring preferences and work to ensure tax incentives are used only as they were intended. 

Her platform also includes a “transformation” (rather than divestment) at the Police Department, additional financial oversight and more regional and neighborhood engagement — all phrases straight out of Schor’s mayoral playbook for the last three years. Where she differentiates herself from the current mayor, she said, is a desire for more transparency and accountability.

What exactly that would mean, however, is yet to be seen. Spitzley has spoken out on “reckless spending and unchecked discrimination” that has drained city resources in recent years, but she hasn’t offered much of a practical blueprint for how her administration would tackle those issues.

Leaders of the local Black Lives Matter movement have also been reluctant to back Spitzley.

“Lansing can no longer afford business as usual,” Spitzley said at her sparsely attended campaign announcement in April. “People are tired of the same litany of bad decisions and empty promises that misguide us about city funds and spend our money on political paybacks that have nothing to do with our neighborhoods and the daily lives of people who live here.”

Both Spitzley and Dunbar told City Pulse they’re not letting Schor’s war chest of political cash deter them from running “grassroots” campaigns. Still, we have yet to spot a single political mailer, door knocker or yard sign for Spitzley as absentee ballots hit mailboxes this week. 

Unlike all of the other candidates, she also declined to submit a column to City Pulse to outline her platform, but she responded to a survey about racial equity and public safety reforms.

Spitzley’s largest campaign events to date, instead, appear to be a series of thinly veiled anti-Dunbar rallies hosted by local newspaper publisher Rina Risper outside City Pulse’s office this summer. Spitzley (and former Councilwoman Jody Washington) stood watch, at some points even cheering, while Dunbar was labeled a predator and compared to convicted rapist Larry Nassar.

Dunbar appears to be running on a more traditionally progressive and much more aggressive campaign. This reporter counted at least three Dunbar political mailers in recent weeks.Volunteers have also reportedly been making plenty of fundraising phone calls on her behalf. 

Unlike Spitzley, Dunbar has been a much more vocal critic of the Schor administration and has slammed the mayor for a lack of financial oversight and meaningful progress in bridging a racial divide. She has also been a stalwart advocate for police divestment as a City Council member.

Dunbar’s left-leaning platform includes a focus on safe and affordable housing, reining in unfunded pension liabilities, reinvesting in social services and boosting small business support.

As director of the South Lansing Community Development Association, she labels herself as a “trained facilitator” in working alongside local residents to craft “collaborative solutions.” And although she is serving her fourth term on the Council, she still leans heavily into the whole “I’m not a politician” schtick on her website. Her campaign signs fit a similar mantra: “She’s the real deal.”

“I’m known for being funny, outspoken, sometimes brash, unconventional,” Dunbar  — an occasional standup comic who works blue — wrote on her campaign website. “Also honest, hard-working, extremely knowledgeable and very effective.”

Dunbar led the way on amending the city’s human rights ordinance to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community. She worked for easier access to marijuana when the city was establishing regulations. And she fought to declare Lansing a sanctuary city — one of the clearest differences between her and Spitzley: They initially both voted for sanctuary city status, which passed,6-0. But under pressure generated by the Trump Justice Department, Spitzley joined a majority in reversing that decision, while Dunbar stuck to her guns. The reversal made national news.

Dunbar has repeatedly denied allegations that she sexually harassed Risper, the publisher of the New Citizens Press. She also denied claims from two women — including Risper — that she used to frequently use the N-word in conversation with her friends about 15 years ago.

“I may not remember saying something, or I may remember it differently, but my recollection doesn’t matter. What matters is that 15 years ago, regardless of my intent, my words and actions landed in a way that caused harm,” Dunbar said. “I take responsibility for my words and actions, not just from 15 years ago, but any time before now. In advocacy, we strive to do better than we’ve done, and when we know better, we do better. I’m still striving. I hope we all are.”

 

Revish vs. Zande

Surprise: Second Ward Councilman Jeremy Garza also isn’t a politician. According to his website, he’s just a plumber looking for a second term representing the city of Lansing. He’s also an opponent of police divestment — setting course for a polarizing matchup in November.

Oprah Revish, 34, is an LGBTQ activist who works for the Salus Center in Lansing. Her arguably radical platform includes the complete dissolution of the Police Department and a laser focus on the Second Ward, ensuring streets, sidewalks and parks are “uplifted and upgraded.”

“It’s hard for me to envision a future where police still exist,” Revish said at a recent candidate forum. “We should invest in our communities and divest from the police. How do you reform something that, at its root, is antagonistic to Black people? There is no way to do that.”

Revish’s campaign website mirrors those same few talking points — and not much else. 

Zande, 19, is a community college student with a knack for local politics. He also expressed a desire to reduce policing funding and cut back on neighborhood patrols.

His campaign website also outlines the other key components of his platform: He wants to end “sister city” relationships with Chinese cities, advocates ranked choice voting in Lansing and favors converting the Lansing Board of Water & Light into the in-house “Lansing Department of Energy.”

All in for At-Large

With Dunbar’s At-Large term on the Council ending this year, her decision to run for mayor clears room for at least one new candidate to join the Council next year. Like Schor and Garza, Council President Spadafore is presumably already locked into the general election. 

And the rest of the race is truly a tossup — though the loudest primary campaigns in the city appear to be run by Claretta Duckett-Freeman, Jeffrey Brown and Rachel Willis. Five of the candidates are people of color.

As for other races: City Clerk Chris Swope is running unopposed and gets a pass on the primary. Fourth Ward Councilman Brian Jackson will face off against his only challenger, Elvin Caldwell, in the November General Election. Expect more detailed coverage from a narrower field of city election candidates after the Primary Election.

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