ANALYSIS

Two ‘friends’ face off for Council in Lansing’s 4th Ward

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Brian Jackson isn’t just running for a second term on the Lansing City Council. He’s sprinting. 

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Jackson told this reporter on a cloudy Thursday this month while he literally ran between homes, knocking on doors and passing out campaign literature along Ionia, Bartlett and Carey streets. “That’s why it’s so important to stay out here talking with folks.”

With about two weeks left until Election Day, both Jackson and his challenger, Elvin Caldwell, allowed me to tag on the campaign trail this month while they canvassed across the 4th Ward.

Jackson, 37, hit the west side in gym shorts and a t-shirt, zigzagging back and forth across side streets, cutting across front lawns and knocking on more than two dozen doors in about an hour, even as a light drizzle turned to a steady downpour. I quickly realized what he meant when he told me I could come — as long as I could “keep up.” I could hardly match his pace in my Crocs.

Caldwell, 32, knocked doors on the north side, albeit at a bit of a slower pace than Jackson’s street campaign triathlon. He hardly knocked on a dozen doors in an hour as he strategically plucked addresses from a printed list of registered voters, always taking time for residents to slowly answer the door. Some conversations dragged on for as long as 10 minutes while Caldwell smiled and nodded politely, occasionally jotting notes in the margin of his voter lists.

He even stopped for a few minutes to talk with a pair of middle school students — who certainly weren’t old enough to vote — about how the city might be able to help reduce homicide rates. Both kids still walked away with a few Caldwell fliers, some for them and some for their parents.

My immediate takeaway: This race is playing out a bit like the tortoise and the hare. Jackson hardly waited for people to come to the porch before he dropped a flier and ran off to the next address. Caldwell, for better or worse, simply spent far more time covering much less ground.

Most people didn’t come out to chat. Others politely took a flier and quickly went back inside.

Voters who did answer their door brought up the same few issues to both candidates: Gun violence is spiraling out of control. Police officers need to be held accountable for misconduct. Reckless drivers are everywhere. There’s a massive pothole or two on Saginaw Highway.

Neither candidate offered local residents any immediate solutions at their doorsteps. Jackson often nodded on knowingly, telling some that he would try to learn more about the issues. Caldwell often did the same, emphasizing how he would “look into” their concerns if elected.

The 4th Ward encompasses an economically diverse swath of mostly northwest Lansing, including the Capital Region International Airport and much of the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor, including the Comstock Park, Old Oakland and Westside neighborhoods. 

It also dips south of I496 into northern portions of southwest Lansing, including the Moores Park neighborhood and the Country Club. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also lives in the 4th Ward. 

That ward — specifically the Westside neighborhood — also has a reputation for being a bit more politically active than other portions of the city. In 2017, the 4th Ward tracked a general election voter turnout rate of about 25.3% while the rest of the city tracked a rate of only 21.4%. Back then, Jackson also trampled his opponent, Jim McClurken, 3,366 to 1,600 votes, carrying about 68% of the 4th Ward vote.

After nearly four years on the Council, Jackson seemed to already know most of the people who stopped to chat. Several people greeted him enthusiastically at the doorway: “Brian! You already have my vote.” Other conversations focused mostly on complaints over speeding drivers and potholes. Jackson was polite but brief. He had some major ground to cover, he explained while he ticked off a virtual list of voters deemed “most likely” to come out to the polls in November. 

“It’s mostly things tied to public safety — sometimes just more speed bumps and sometimes police reform,” Jackson said while he picked out a home exclusively for its “Black Lives Matter” sign. “This house isn’t on the list but I do love the sign. We have to stop here for a minute.” 

No conversation lasted longer than a minute or two before Jackson ran on to knock on another door. Jackson told me that he felt confident ahead of next month’s matchup against Caldwell — someone he proudly declares a “friend,” even as the two go head to head in the Fourth Ward.

But Jackson also recognizes that he faces a bit of an uphill climb for a second term.

“It is what it is,” Jackson said. “I’m not totally surprised to see some of these endorsements. I’m not catering to any special interests on the Council. I’m just here to stand up for the residents.”

Caldwell, 32, is a Flint transplant who has lived in downtown Lansing for the last eight years. He’s a former school teacher and licensed real estate agent, as well as an outreach coordinator and legislative consultant at Fraser Consulting, a subsidiary of the law firm of Fraser Trebilcock.

And he has also collected endorsements from quite a few local political heavyweights, including political action committees representing the Greater Lansing Association of Realtors, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and labor unions for local electrical workers. Even the Ingham County Democratic Party opted to endorse Caldwell over Jackson this November.

“I didn’t expect to earn endorsements from the business and property owner elite class because my advocacy tends to lean toward the underrepresented and marginalized,” Jackson said. “I’m also not surprised about IBEW because of my strong opposition to BWL’s new gas plant.”

Jackson’s campaign is centered on two issues: criminal justice reform and environmental protection. He led the charge to repeal several ordinances — like a prohibition on drug paraphernalia — which can often carry a disproportionate impact on vulnerable residents. He also wants the city to explore new ways to reduce its carbon footprint to prevent climate change. 

“Science tells us that new gas plants are not what we need,” Jackson explained. “The irony is that (the local electrical workers’ union) thinks that I am trying to take their jobs and livelihoods, but the reality is that shifting toward renewable energy will help to create many new jobs.”

With two weeks to go before Election Day, Jackson isn’t letting every key endorsement go to his challenger this year. He said he has since secured support from the UAW, the Greater Lansing Labor Council, State Rep. Sarah Anthony and Ingham County Commissioner Victor Celentino. 

“I am proud to run a clean campaign based on my record, ideals and things that I still want to accomplish,” Jackson said, also noting that he has long considered Caldwell to be a “friend.”

Caldwell’s political platform includes several broad societal concepts like enhancing safety and economic development while promoting more vibrant neighborhoods, more regional collaboration and a higher quality of life for residents and employees. He didn’t take much of a personal stance on any key issues with voters at the doors. But that’s intentional, he explained. “Some people want more police and some people want more police accountability. Some people want both. Either way, I always take the time to hear them out. It’s definitely about striking a balance,” Caldwell explained. “I want to find some common ground that works for everyone.”

Caldwell’s biggest selling point, however, is that he thinks he can provide more “responsive representation” within the Fourth Ward. His mailers proudly list his phone number, noting that he is “just a phone call away.” Ironically, that number was not connecting Monday afternoon.

“I’m feeling good, but where I’m from, we don’t take anything for granted,” Caldwell said last Thursday while he strolled down Chicago Avenue toward the Comstock Park neighborhood. 

“I’m happy to have the support, but Brian Jackson also has some deep ties in this community.”

Caldwell’s door knocking may be slower, but it’s also more prolific. He said he has been knocking on doors every day since the summer, largely to introduce himself to Lansing.

“A lot of people might know me out here, but they don’t know me as a Council candidate. Even for the people who said they’re going to vote for me, I’ve been going back to be sure,” he said.

Like Jackson, Caldwell also proudly labeled his opponent as a personal friend. But that hasn’t stopped him from slamming Jackson for his shoddy attendance record from over the last year. Mailers set to be sent out this week criticize Jackson for missing 11 out of 12 meetings of the Ways and Means Committee in 2020 — in part because he said he “forgot” his assignments. Records also showed that Jackson missed five of nine Committee on Public Safety meetings, two Council meetings and all 12 Tri-County Regional Planning Commission meetings in 2020. 

“We’re friends, but I also have to take advantage of this situation,” Caldwell said. ‘It’s all fair game. I think there are two ways to evaluate a candidate, and that’s on whether they attended their meetings and whether they voted my way on issues. You can’t vote if you don’t attend.” 

Jackson, for his part, has repeatedly apologized. His attendance record has also improved. 

“I am embarrassed that I did not realize that I was missing meetings,” he said. “I am glad that my absence did not hold up any city business. For the other ones, I should have called in for an excused absence instead of waiting until the last minute to see if my work schedule cleared.” 

Since neither Jackson or Caldwell competed in the primary election like the other candidates listed on the ballot next month, neither of them has been required to file campaign finance reports that show how the splintered support in the city’s Fourth Ward may have also affected their pocketbooks. Each of them will be required to file those reports for the first time this week. 

Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage on election season in Lansing. 

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