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Wednesday, December 26,2012

And we're off

Who's in to challenge Lansing City Council incumbents in 2013? And who will preside over the Council next year?

by Andy Balaskovitz
The three Lansing City Council members seen as reliable support for Mayor Virg Bernero all have at least preliminary opposition to their re-election bids in 2013. Defeats could further endanger Bernero’s agenda.

“It could if any of us lost,” said At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who is seeking a third term. “I’m not anticipating that.”

Dunbar, 44, along with 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko, 33, and 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton, 44, are seen as the most loyal members to the administration, though each disputes the label. 

“I believe what he’s done is move the city forward. When we do have issues, we talk it through,” said Houghton, adding that she’s known Bernero for 17 to 18 years. “I’m not a rubber stamp for him.” Houghton works as a program adviser at Michigan State University’s Center for Service Learning and Civic Engagement.

Dunbar, executive director of the South Lansing Community Development Association, said it “irks” her that she’s expected to vote for administration-backed proposals. But Dunbar said she, Houghton and Yorko agree “with 95 percent of what the administration does.” 

Yorko, the environmental justice coordinator for Ingham County, pointed to her no-vote on bringing a casino downtown — primarily for employee health concerns — and last year’s budget process as times when she’s disagreed with the administration. 

Council members Derrick Quinney and A’Lynne Robinson, while not necessarily seen as oppositional as Carol Wood, Brian Jeffries and Jody Washington, are closer to wild cards for the administration. A few years ago, the administration could count on Quinney’s and Robinson’s support.

Meanwhile, the fourth expiring Council term is Jeffries’, who said he’s still weighing his options about running, though it looks like he will. Jeffries has served on the Council for 10 years. He was elected in 2002 to fill out the last two years of former Councilman Lou Adado’s term, who left after a sexual harassment scandal.

“I don’t know at this point, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason I would not,” he said. “I don’t see myself dropping out or not running.”

Another option is challenging Bernero in the mayoral contest, which Jeffries, 57, gets asked about “a lot,” he said. However, that’d involve much more “time and resources” and commitments at his job as an attorney at ASMSU Legal Services at MSU, which he’d have to leave.

Challengers

At least four people are lined up to take on these incumbents, though none of them have formally filed as candidates with the City Clerk’s Office. The filing deadline is 4 p.m. May 14. 

The first is Judi Brown Clarke, diversity director for the Bio-Computational Evolution in Action Consortium Center at MSU. Clarke, 51, is an East Lansing High School graduate and wife of District Judge Hugh Clarke Jr.

Clarke is undecided whether she will challenge Yorko or go for an at-large seat, citing outside advice and time and financial commitments. Clarke, an Olympic hurdler and distance runner in the 1980s, said she’s been “politically active” serving on several committees for the U.S. Olympic Committee and for the Children’s Defense Fund. She sees herself as a neutral party and a new voice to the Council’s notorious disagreements.

Ted O’Dell plans to run for an at-large seat. O’Dell, 46, led a petition drive encouraging the Council to pursue a tribally owned casino separate from— but closely timed to — Bernero’s deal brokered with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. O’Dell, a former supervisor in London Township in Monroe County, worked for the Michigan Education Association and lobbies for the Michigan Library Association. He identifies as a Bernero ally, but he’s not targeting Jeffries — who has publicly battled with the administration — in particular: “I’m just going to run a positive campaign based on my strengths. I have a world of respect for Brian Jeffries,” he said.

In the 2nd Ward, which generally covers the city south of the Red Cedar River and east of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Frank Ferro is seriously considering a run at Houghton’s seat. Ferro, 54, a state employee for 19 years and most recently with the Michigan Economic Development Corp., also serves on the city’s Board of Fire Commissioners. Ferro doesn’t have anything negative to say about Houghton. “I really want to get in and work with both sides,” he said.

Sources say that Chong-Anna Canfora is challenging Yorko in the 4th Ward. Canfora is the Michigan summit director at Progress Michigan, a liberal political organization. Canfora has also worked on Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s staff and for the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. She could not be reached for comment.

Who leads in 2013?

Some of the criticism directed at Dunbar is over her attendance record at Council and committee meetings. Indeed, it may be what costs her the presidency in 2013, despite an agreement from a year ago that would have given her the job in exchange for supporting Jeffries as president this year.

The Council’s first order of business at the start of a new year is voting for a president and vice president. The president runs meetings, assigns members to committees and is first in line for the mayor’s job if the mayor leaves office. To say last year’s nominating process was contentious is an understatement: It spanned two committee meetings and 13 separate 4-4 stalemate votes as members nominated Dunbar, Jeffries and Robinson. It was late into a Monday night when a deal was reached making Jeffries president this year and Dunbar president in 2013. Jeffries told City Pulse afterward that he would honor the deal; Quinney — who supported Jeffries — said then he’d be “sticking to his word.”

But did we really think the deal would hold up? It’s not looking good for Dunbar, who needs five votes to become president. She’s been vice president for the past three years. 

Jeffries and Quinney say they want to discuss the situation with Dunbar over the holiday break, signaling they’re not ready to back her at this point; Wood offered a flat “no” when asked if she’d support Dunbar; Washington said she “refused” to take part in last year’s agreement (she supported Jeffries); Robinson also said she didn’t take part in last year’s agreement. As for her thoughts on Dunbar: “From the last three years as vice president, the attendance, timeliness — or the lack thereof — is pretty evident.”

Numbers provided by the Council staff show that Dunbar missed 10 Committee of the Whole meetings and six regular Council meetings this year. That was the most for Committee of the Whole, while Yorko had seven Council meeting absences. 

Dunbar says she dealt with personal issues throughout the year. When she missed budget hearings in the spring, she said she watched them online while her father was in the hospital.

Dunbar wants the presidency and has the support of Houghton and Yorko for the nomination. But that’s two votes shy of what’s needed. The rest of the Council isn’t saying whom they plan to nominate. Dunbar may depend on the support of Quinney and Jeffries, which they agreed to last year.

Jeffries said he wants to meet with Dunbar over the break to address some “concerns” he has, which he wouldn’t detail. Same goes for Quinney, who pointed to “punctuality and the commitment to working with everybody on Council” as reasons he’s hesitant. He called the Jeffries/Dunbar deal “somewhat of a commitment, I don’t think it was set in stone.”

Houghton, Dunbar’s supporter, referred to her father’s advice: “If you don’t live by your word, you have nothing.”

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