One might look at the makeup of Ann Arbor’s city council, or candidates running for a ward seat, and think that the partisan battle has been decided: they’re all Democrats. But under the Democratic label, there are two dominant, warring factions in Ann Arbor politics. Together they occupy a share of local power and attention similar to that held by Democrats & Republicans on the national scale. That is to say, nearly all of it: votes, endorsements, donations, who runs for office, and which resolutions even come to the table. The last non-factional candidate to hold office, Sabra Briere, stepped down in 2016.
This dynamic is the driving force in all aspects of city politics. It’s invisible to those who aren’t active observers, yet it’s impossible to cast an informed vote without this knowledge. If you’re choosing which candidate to vote for, knowing which faction they align with tells you more about how they will caucus and vote than what’s on their website.
It’s trickier to explain than the well-understood labels of Democrats vs. Republicans, though. Other articles have acknowledged the factions, but not in a way that is both comprehensive and seeks to be objective. Here I attempt to describe this dynamic and its consequences.
The Main Takeaways:
- Ann Arbor politics are dominated by two camps, the Protectors and the Strivers.
- Factional alignment is the best indicator of how an elected official will caucus and vote, more so than what’s stated on their website.
- This dynamic is toxic and impedes good governance.
Background: why are they all Democrats?
Ann Arbor is a hugely Democratic-leaning city. It elects city councilmembers in even-numbered years. In even-yeared general elections, a sea of Democratic voters comes out to vote for governor or president and votes Democratic down the ticket, making it impossible for a Republican or Independent to win in the fall. So in practice, the decisive election happens when the Democratic nominee is chosen in the August primary. (These under-attended affairs conveniently exclude college students).
(Ann Arbor has debated the idea of non-partisan city council elections. It’s one of only three cities in Michigan that have partisan municipal elections. And one can argue that the labels of Republican and Democrat, as they are understood in a national context, don’t retain their understood meanings in a municipal context.)
Like most matters in city governance, our partisan elections were determined by the Protector vs. Striver factional war. In 2019, on a party-line vote, all seven Protectors voted in favor of putting nonpartisan elections on the ballot. All four Strivers voted against it, and Striver mayor Chris Taylor vetoed it. The proposed switch was seen as favorable for the Protectors; under partisan elections, Protector councilmember Jane Lumm, a long-time Republican who had switched her party identification to Independent, would not have a feasible path to another term. As a result of Taylor’s veto, she has switched her party affiliation to Democrat for her 2020 campaign, acquiescing to the Democrats-only reality of the current system (despite being a steadfast Republican donor to George W. Bush, Rick Snyder, Bill Schuette, etc. and having served as co-chair of W’s county-level re-election campaign in 2004*.
The Two Dominant Factions: The Protectors vs. The Strivers
There’s not a agreed-upon set of names for these factions, which makes it harder to talk about them. The existing labels are inadequate, skewing positive or negative depending on who is using them.
The group I call Protectors has called themselves, or been called: Townies, Neighborhoods, Our Town, Back-to-basics, Amber Freezers, Antis, NIMBYs, Eaton faction, Team Stasis
And for the Strivers: Council Party, Progressives, YIMBYs, Activists, Big City, Taylor faction, Hieftje-ites, Team Developer
These names and the discussion often revolve around the mayor, as the last two mayors have been electorally-dominant Strivers who have set the agenda for the city: John Hieftje from 2000-2014 and Christopher Taylor from 2014-present.
The biggest shortcoming with the above labels is that they’re uninformative. They sometimes capture the “who” of a faction, or one facet of its goals, but not the faction’s worldview. For this post, I tried describing them with terms and descriptions they might use for themselves. Here are the two dominant factions of Ann Arbor politics.
They love Ann Arbor, have deep roots in the community, and want to preserve its goodness. This means protecting it from forces that would change it, most of all real estate developers and those who would build taller buildings (whether that’s 413 Huron downtown, Core Spaces, or the Lockwood senior housing). They seek to protect Ann Arbor from the 1,4 Dioxane plume threatening its water supply. And they protect against changes that make it harder to use most people’s mode of transportation: cars. They are skeptical of road narrowing to add bike lanes, expanded transit service, and the city’s crosswalk ordinance.
They fight against what they see as frivolous millages (for public art, transit, a new library) that would increase the tax burden on homeowners. Filling sidewalk gaps is a concern for that same reason. They want the city’s resources to go toward shoring up basic services, like road repair and police/fire. This group skews** toward older residents, who have been here longer, and who are more likely to own their homes – but aren’t necessarily affluent. In terms of national political identification, they span a wide range from conservative (Ron Weiser and other Republicans backed Jack Eaton in 2018) to socialist (Alan Haber) but are predominantly mainstream Democrats.
There are currently 7 Protectors on council: Anne Bannister, Jeff Hayner, Kathy Griswold, Jane Lumm, Jack Eaton, Elizabeth Nelson, Ali Ramlawi.
They think Ann Arbor is great and they seek to make it even better. This group appreciates that Ann Arbor offers some big-city features – arts, restaurants, shops, transit – in a small package, without some of the challenges that big cities face. They want to keep growing the things that make it so special. They are also more likely to see the ways in which Ann Arbor can do better. The city is one of the most economically-segregated in the country. And with climate science making clear that America must reinvent itself to head off the sixth mass extinction, they think Ann Arbor should lead by example.
The Strivers welcome growth, both economic (to maintain the tax base) and physical (to meet the demand for housing, both market-rate and affordable). They see increasing density as a way to take action on both the environment (reducing sprawl and driving) and affordable housing. This group is more likely to introduce and support changes, resolutions, and millages, from public art to year-round compost pickup, from a new train station to protected bike lanes. This group is on average** younger, ranging from graduate students to parents of young children to professors, and may be newer to Ann Arbor. The national political identification of this group appears more tightly clustered around the archetypal “progressive.”
There are currently 4 Strivers on council: Zachary Ackerman, Julie Grand, Mayor Christopher Taylor, and Chip Smith.
The Factions’ 2020 Candidates
Both factions are fielding a candidate in every ward. The Striver candidates are Lisa Disch, Linh Song, Travis Radina, Jen Eyer, and Erica Briggs. There is even a t-shirt listing all five names as a slate.
The Protectors are running incumbents Bannister, Lumm, and Eaton, as well as returning candidate David Silkworth in Ward 5. In Ward 3, Tony Brown does not list any endorsements on his website and campaign finance reports have not yet been filed, so it’s too early to say. But it’s likely that either he has the direct backing of the Protector faction, or that if he is nominally running as an independent, that he would caucus with the Protectors once elected.
Is one side more liberal or conservative?
Because the national labels like “progressive” or Republican vs. Democrat are the most common lens through which Americans understand politics, it’s tempting to apply them here. With Ann Arbor being such a Democratic-leaning city, supporters of both sides have criticized the other side as being conservative, corporate, Republican, “Democrat in Name Only,” or “Tea Party.”
I’ll avoid falling into that framing here. It would be a distraction and I don’t think national labels are usually applicable in this context. Local Republicans have favored the Protectors, yes — but so have many Bernie supporters. But I will entertain the most direct proxy: which presidential candidates have the faction’s elected politicians supported?
In 2016, the most recent mayoral candidates from each faction, Jack Eaton and Chris Taylor, both supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, contrasting with their constituents – Ann Arbor went decisively for Sanders. Local officials’ stated 2020 presidential preferences are less useful in this exercise, largely because most councilmembers went on record as supporting Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out before the primary. Ann Arbor voters chose Sanders again in 2020, this time over Joe Biden.
These are crude proxies. But if we must squint through the national electoral lens, it seems that both factions on average may be to the right of Ann Arbor’s electorate, who went twice for democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. As to which of the factions is more progressive or conservative than the other? I don’t think there’s a clear answer, or that it’s a meaningful question. It’s the Protector vs. Striver ideologies, not the traditional set of national issues, that coherently differentiates these factions.
How defined are these two factions?
Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson wrote a 2019 blog post decrying the idea of two opposing factions. Her argument is: “there is one faction, not two.” She notes that the Mayor’s faction organized joint campaign operations in 2018, and that his side votes together, but dismisses the claims of a second faction – her faction – as “conspiracy theories.”
No one disputes that the Strivers are a faction. Let’s then look at the three Protectors up for reelection in 2020 and see if there’s a pattern of endorsement that would indicate a faction:
Ward 1: Anne Bannister is endorsed by Griswold, Eaton, Lumm, and her website includes a photo of Hayner.
Ward 2: Jane Lumm is endorsed by Hayner, Bannister, Griswold, Eaton, Nelson.
Ward 4: Jack Eaton is endorsed by Nelson, Bannister, Hayner, Lumm, Griswold. Nelson, his Ward 4 ally, is listed first, and the website features a photo of him and Nelson, noting that together they’ve been “biking around Ward 4 talking to residents.”
Campaign finance forms provide another way to discern factions. Do common donors support multiple candidates within a faction? Do candidates donate to each other? The next filing deadline isn’t until July, so that’s outside the scope of this post, but past races have shown clear intra-factional patterns of campaign contributions.
What about voting as a faction? There, Nelson points us to Dave Askins’ 2019 post analyzing recent council votes, in which he uses councilmembers’ voting records to plot them based on how often each pair votes together. I agree with the conclusion that during the current term, the Strivers are the more tightly-clustered faction, compared to the Protectors. (It still depicts a Protector faction: all are closer to their center, near Eaton & Griswold, than to the opposing faction). And I agree that in fact, the distance between Protectors like Jeff Hayner and Jane Lumm on the chart reflects real-world differences in their thinking and priorities.
One shortcoming of Askins’ approach is that it fails to account for the magnitude of each vote. Some votes are trivial, others historic. And on the highest-stakes, most-partisan votes, the Protectors vote together. The biggest votes of the current session have all been decided by a 7-4 split, Protectors vs. Strivers: firing city administrator Howard Lazarus, retaliating against Striver-aligned board commissioners by blocking their reappointments, moving to nonpartisan elections, the bitter fight over the 40/40/20 use of mental health millage rebate funds [the reappointments were 7-3 as Chip Smith was absent].
The Protectors are clearly a faction: they vote as a bloc, have allied their campaigns via endorsements, and have shared common donors for years.
The good-faith interpretation of Nelson’s piece is that it’s itself indicative of the problem of factions. Nelson didn’t see herself as a part of a faction, at least not in 2018 when she ran or in 2019 when she wrote that. But because there’s no room in the Ann Arbor political dynamic for the unaligned, she fell into an alliance with the Protectors. Now she snarks on Facebook with her allies, a part of the club.
Nelson is right, however, about the negative effects on the city of factions (she would say of the myth of factions). She writes, “This view of local government is unhelpful for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it simplifies complex decision making as right/wrong, good/bad, and (most destructively) ‘us versus them.’ … It is an insult to our community when policy debate is treated like a high school sport: ‘teams’ with cheerleaders and booing sections.”
Indeed, the stranglehold of the two factions has deeply impaired the political discourse in Ann Arbor. And while my post focuses on the 2018-2020 council, the poisonous factionalism goes way back. An interviewee in a 2014 Observer article laments, “It’s a shame to see such polarization on city council. You’re either pro- or anti-mayor, and there’s no middle ground. I foresee a glum future.”
The factionalism has constipated and poisoned Ann Arbor politics
Mary Morgan knows the political landscape in Ann Arbor better than anyone else without a personal stake in it. She was a long-time reporter at the Ann Arbor News before she and her husband Dave Askins founded a local newspaper, the Ann Arbor Chronicle, where they exhaustively reported on local government. She then launched the nonprofit CivCity and spent several years trying to increase civic involvement in Ann Arbor. When she left Ann Arbor, she gave an exit interview to Concentrate Media, where she was asked what she saw as the greatest challenge facing Ann Arbor. She replied:
“There’s tension or outright hostility between people with different visions of what Ann Arbor should be. Those divisions are becoming fossilized. So now, rather than responding to proposals that should be debated on their merits, people are reacting to the individual who proposed the idea – trying to suss out whether someone is “with us or against us,” and then arguing based on those assumptions. It’s toxic. (If anyone is reading this and thinking, “You’re right – those folks are awful!” then you’re proving my point.) And this affects the community’s ability to seriously address entrenched problems, like economic/educational inequities and racial injustice.”Concentrate, Sept. 2018
Indeed, things appear even worse now than when she left. The two factions even have parallel Facebook groups for talking local politics, Ann Arbor Politics and Ann Arbor Townies – Politics, where the most ardent partisans – and sometimes elected officials – share articles and petty memes and moan about the other side.
The biggest problem is, as Mary notes, that the us-vs-them framing subsumes everything else. For instance, Dave Askins’ voting chart, above, shows a large distance between Jane Lumm and Jeff Hayner. Lumm and Hayner seem to have major differences, politically and personally. Hayner seeks to advocate for working-class residents while Lumm lives in a million-dollar mansion and represents a neighborhood full of them. Hayner supported Bernie in 2020, Lumm is a long-time GOP politician and donor. Without the distorting effect of the factions, Hayner and Lumm might be freer to separate from each other electorally and to lean into their own priorities and visions for the city. Instead, they endorse each other and ally to fight the Strivers.
Our city has serious problems and needs all the civic engagement we can muster. But Ann Arbor’s political brainpower has been sucked into the trap of factional conflict. The closest observers of council, and even councilmembers themselves, spend their mental energy discussing petty grievances on social media. Instead of debating new strategies for addressing climate change*** and the skyrocketing cost of housing, council is mired in tedious conflicts. Issues are re-litigated ad nauseum.
For instance, the city’s water rate tiering structure has been the subject of two consultant studies and multiple votes over several years, as the Protectors seek to defend single-family homeowners from higher rates and the Strivers push for a rate structure that they see as more equitable.
The city’s crosswalk ordinance is also a culture-war quagmire. A 2014 local NPR story began, “Ann Arbor City Council soon may be once more looking at revisions to the city’s crosswalk ordinance.” They haven’t stopped fighting about this ordinance in the six years since. Other evergreen topics for factional fights have been the proposed new train station and the rebate funds from the mental health millage.
As the climate burns and inequality festers, the factions fiddle about water rates and how to apportion the $880k millage rebate. I expect not all councilmembers are innately invested in these petty fights, but the issues have become partisan footballs.
Where do we go from here?
It’s not a good situation. Active observers of city politics – those who donate to campaigns and volunteer for them – are mired in factions. This leads to candidates either being recruited to run by factions or falling in with them later out of pressure exerted by the factional power dynamic (as may have happened to Elizabeth Nelson). And it’s harder to get informed or raise money or volunteers from outside of those groups.
The problem isn’t that everyone should all get along, that politicians should compromise more, or that centrism is good. The problem is, as Mary Morgan points out, that the ruts of these two factions are so deep that most local civic energy is channeled into stupid ends.
I don’t have a cure-all. But I do see a few ways to start breaking the dysfunctional factionalism.
Sabra Briere, the most recent non-aligned councilmember, is the obvious model. She didn’t endorse or accept endorsements in council races, she voted independently, she had a good grasp of the policy landscape, and she was respected by both factions.
The emergence of left organizations
The phenomenon of Ann Arbor voters supporting Bernie Sanders, while their elected officials mostly haven’t, suggests that these factions may not address the priorities of the Ann Arbor left. Local politics in general caters to the needs of the privileged: more informed and educated voters, property owners, etc. In the absence of a left option on the ballot, Ann Arbor’s Bernie supporters split between two ill-fitting factions – each of whom casts itself as the more progressive.
In addition to the factional candidates running in every ward this year, three ward races also feature a third, non-aligned candidate. All are to the left of the factional candidates, with two – Evan Redmond and Dan Michniewicz – being members of and endorsed by the Huron Valley Democratic Socialists of America (HVDSA). An organized left in a solidly-Bernie city that lacks such representation on council could potentially peel off progressives from both current factions. The emergence of an organized left in Ann Arbor might be analogous to how members of “The Squad” – congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib – have introduced proposals and taken actions toward a distinctly different vision than that of the Democratic party as a whole.
The city recently adopted a plan for achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, “A2Zero.” That both factions ultimately supported the plan is a credit to organizers outside of the factions, who brought multiple organizations together under the banner of the A2 Climate Partnership. Similarly, a group of citizens gathered signatures and ran a winning ballot initiative in 2018 to stop the sale of a downtown parking lot and retain it as public land in perpetuity.
Each of those efforts leaned toward a different faction (A2CP toward the Strivers, the Center of the City group toward the Protectors) but they were not homogeneous in their factional makeups and importantly, they seemed to activate people outside of the cores of the factions. Individual issues offer a chance to organize and make change outside of the factional dynamic. In the current moment, forces outside the factions could likely have a major impact on policing in Ann Arbor. Councilmembers reported being swamped by demands from constituents prior to a recent meeting that addressed policing.
A national analogue to this would be how the Sunrise Movement has pushed the issue of climate action, raising the issue’s profile and causing all Democratic presidential candidates to improve their plans and pay more attention. (Sunrise has adopted the principle of “No permanent friends, no permanent enemies” to stay focused on their priorities and avoid being bogged down by factionalism).
This might be hopelessly naive and optimistic. But the only barriers to this are the faction members themselves. Elected officials, and partisans who closely observe council, could do the self-work to be less partisan. They could avoid social media echo chambers and find the courage to be themselves when voting or discussing – even when that means bucking the trend. Consider Mary Morgan’s quote above. Ask, where is there an issue you agree with someone on “the other side”? For instance, a Community Land Trust has been discussed for several years and could meet the Protectors’ desire for stability while providing affordable workforce housing to satisfy the Strivers’ fight for equity.
None of these are a panacea. Perhaps insights can be drawn from cities where the local politics are less factional or less petty. Whatever the solutions, though, the first step is naming the factions at work and reckoning with the damage that this dynamic wreaks on the city. The factionalism impairs our ability to make progress at a moment when we have historical challenges to address.
Additional Primary Sources for Understanding the Factions
Most of what’s been written in-depth about the factions has come from partisan sources. The partisan slant makes them poor basic educational resources for voters, but they are valuable for exploring the history of the conflict and what makes each faction tick.
In particular, read Vivienne Armentrout and Brian Cook’s competing analyses and endorsements ahead of the 2018 primary as each tells their audiences what is at stake. Both warn that if the other side wins, Ann Arbor will suffer the fate of San Francisco (for different reasons, of course – the embrace of tech sector growth or not building new housing).
And if you want a visceral, real-time look into factional echo chambers, visit the Facebook groups linked above. (I recommend this only as a sociological study, not a pastime).
Vivienne Armentrout’s blog, Local in Ann Arbor. It is a rich historical resource chronicling this conflict and some of its major battles, from a Protector viewpoint. The factional conflict appears in at least these posts:
- Partisan Labels and Ann Arbor Politics
- The Council Party vs. the Ann Arbor Townies
- Recounting the Impact on Ann Arbor Politics
- The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor (the counterpoint to Brian Cook’s 2018 endorsements, linked below)
- What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie?
The Neighborhood Alliance. This group embodies the Protector worldview. It was co-founded by Jack Eaton in 2008 to oppose two developments on South Maple Road and continues as a group of Protector-aligned neighborhood activists. The A2NA website has much history from the Protector point of view; to get a feel for the Protector vision for Ann Arbor, see their rebuttal to being called “Antis”.
(The Localwiki article on the Neighborhood Alliance has an outsider’s perspective on the group, writing: “In practice, this appears to take the form of coordinating opposition to various development projects around town, rather than serving as the neutral forum for discussion that the above would imply.”)
I might be missing something, but there aren’t as many dedicated blogs or websites associated with the Striver faction. Here are few resources.
The #a2council hashtag on Twitter is mostly Striver-faction commentary on meetings and votes. Increasingly the hashtag is polluted by spiteful anonymous troll accounts — a symptom of how factionalism has poisoned the discourse. Maybe that will die down after the primaries, as we are currently in the most heated time of the year for local politics.
MGoBlog’s Brian Cook wrote endorsements for the 2017 city primaries and the 2018 primaries that include political analysis from the Striver side. In the 2017 post he engages directly with Vivienne Armentrout’s Protector-perspective analysis. And the 2018 post makes a nice pairing with Armentrout’s analysis of the same primary.
Blogger Chris Dzombak wrote a critique of Ali Ramlawi’s 2017 campaign platform, making Striver arguments against common Protector phrases.
* In Lumm’s defense, she has demonstrated her popularity with voters in her ward. That a multiple-term incumbent is effectively forced to adopt a party label she opposes is less an indictment of her and more an example of the shortcomings of partisan municipal elections.
** These generalizations are anecdotal, based on years of observation. I’m not sure there’s any data to quantify my assertions, and perhaps the picture painted by campaign finance forms and online posters is incomplete. Certainly, neither group is homogeneous.
*** In 2020 there has finally been movement on climate action, with the adoption of the A2Zero plan for climate action. That said, given how much action is needed – “rapid, far- reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” – and how little has been done over the years, I’m sticking with this critique. I applaud the specific proposals in the plan and will be curious to see who supports which aspects down the road. It’s one thing to vote for the plan and acknowledge the climate crisis, it’s another to do anything substantial.