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Polished in a shirt and tie, Brandon Betz has spent months knocking the doors of the First Ward in northeast Lansing, vying for a spot on the City Council.
He doesn’t always get great results for his efforts. On a recent walk up and down Fairview and Magnolia avenues, he got only six voters from his list.
His brother was a Mormon missionary, so he is well aware of the risk he poses being mistaken for a religious proselytizer. “Politics is one thing, but I bet religion is even harder. People have some strong feelings.”
At each house, he’s consistent with his elevator speech, repeating the same lines to anyone who’ll answer the door, with echoes of Bernie Sanders.
“Hi, my name is Brandon Betz. I’m an economist by trade and I’m running to represent you in the City Council. This city has been peddling to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, and I want to give it back to the people. They’ve been giving tax breaks to big developers and that’s not the way to do things.”
Most of the people who do listen to him are receptive. “I don’t want to see Lansing become a homogenous city like Grand Rapids,” said Michael Tosto. He also wanted to see improvements south of Kalamazoo Street. “Everyone needs to come up if we’re going to come up.”
Betz, 28, is counting on a changing of the generational guard to propel him to city office. He’s not from here, having moved to Lansing for a job in 2017 after finishing graduate school at Syracuse University. He grew up in Alaska.
But he has a small band of millennials knocking doors for him in Lansing — many of whom also chose to plop down in the east side of Lansing in recent years and have become more politically active, spurred both by Sanders and President Trump.
Betz is making opposition to the taxpayer-supported Red Cedar Golf Course redevelopment and the city’s restrictive approach to marijuana sales two key planks of his platform, along with civic-pride ideas such as more trees and bike lanes.
He’s up against two-term incumbent Jody Washington, 62, a lifelong resident of Lansing with the backing of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and most labor unions. Washington first made her name in city government as an opponent of former Mayor Virg Bernero, and has continued as a critic of the marijuana industry.
In the Aug. 6 primary, Washington was held to 40 percent against four opponents. Betz, the second-voter getter, survived to face her in the general election on Nov. 5. Incumbents come with name recognition, but that’s no guarantee of being returned to office: Jeremy Garza defeated two-term incumbent Tina Houghton for the Second Ward seat in 2017 and in 2015 Adam Hussain, Washington’s son, knocked off two-term incumbent A’Lynne Boles in the Third Ward.
Washington also got her start as an outside neighborhood activist, knocking off the favorite, former Rep. Lynne Martinez, in 2011. She did so with a groundswell of union support. Washington, who has been a member of three unions, credits organized labor with helping her to raise two children on her own while working her way out of public housing.
She quickly became a close ally of Council President Carol Wood and thorn in the side of Bernero, who infamously referred to her as “Eric Hewitt in drag” — referencing her predecessor in the 1st Ward, another Bernero foe. When Bernero wanted the city to consider privatizing the Board of Water & Light, Washington joined Wood in quick opposition.
From her perch at the City Council, Washington has helped incubate something of a political dynasty. Her son, Adam Hussain, who was elected to the 3rd Ward seat in 2015, is unopposed this year. In 2018, her son-in-law, Thomas Morgan, was elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners, representing most of Lansing’s first ward, along with slivers of Lansing Township and East Lansing.
Over the years, Washington — as well as Hussain — lost battles against Bernero to give part of a park to BWL for a new substation and transfer ownership of the Groesbeck Golf Course to the Lansing Entertainment and Public Facilities Authority as well as build an access road to the golf course through a park.
The two of them also opposed Bernero’s compromise marijuana ordinance that culled the city’s dispensaries from as many as 80 to 25 because they thought it was too liberal and wanted fewer. They supported a new compromise with current Mayor Andy Schor that increases the number slightly to 28, while reducing the number of marijuana grow operations over time from 75 to 55, while further restricting the area of the city that provisioning centers can operate.
While standing up to Bernero, Washington has also pushed back at her perceived adversaries — publicly cutting off communication with City Pulse after it considered endorsing Houghton in 2017, and just recently getting a personal protection order against local homeless rights activist Martin Mashon, who’d allegedly called her a bitch and threatened a “war” against her.
Washington has seemingly likened pot shops to another pet peeve — liquor stores, which she wants to reduce in the city, with help from local state legislators. “You’ve got these predatory businesses, liquor stores in the middle of a poor neighborhood. Why would you put that there?”
Betz acknowledged the potential for blight, but he wondered if Washington’s approach to liquor and marijuana just leave a lot of empty storefronts in Lansing. He champions the pot industry and says the city should lift caps. He also wishes Lansing had a social equity program that provided entrepreneurial opportunities to people harmed by marijuana prohibition, and he would have supported city preferences for local small business owners, a policy Washington has opposed.
Betz thinks the city gave away the store when it approved a 30-year tax abatement on the Red Cedar property. “The tax breaks are just sweetheart deals. There’s no evidence that they need to be there,” he said. “Our city hands out brownfield abatements liberally. We hand them out for every single project.”
He said developers make their plans years in advance and then go to municipalities seeking sweeteners, after they’ve already decided to build. And without big developers paying their share of the tax burden, the city is chipping away at its ability to pay for critical needs like police, fire and infrastructure.
Ironically, Washington was once the one at odds over giving tax breaks to developers when it was Bernero advocating for development. Continental Ferguson, the Red Cedar developers, had originally come to town with a worse deal — a request for public bonding to help it develop land along the Red Cedar floodplain that had been contaminated by golf course fertilizers.
Washington demanded guarantees to pay a prevailing wage for local labor and agreements not to build small studio apartments that would be geared solely for students.
“This was vetted for a number of years with a lot of community input. We didn’t bond for anything,” Washington said, expressing her change of heart on the development. “We got local labor. They will keep up the new park, lots of construction jobs, new housing, hotels, and positive energy in the avenue.”
“I know the new people are complaining, but you can’t make everybody happy. On top of that, we will coordinate the drainage effort and clean our river and have very cool public art and place-making.”
Betz said he supports strong labor provisions but the point is moot, since he believes the developers would have gone forward with the construction anyway, and those supports for labor could have remained. “I’m very proud to have union support from a lot of rank-and-file members who did not like their union’s endorsement.”