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The first time Jeremy Garza voted in a Lansing City Council race — despite being registered since 2002 — was this August. That was to vote for himself in his first campaign for office.
Yet, with the General Election less than a month away, the union plumber and political neophyte stands a strong chance of beating two-term incumbent Tina Houghton in the 2nd Ward.
The issue that is undermining Houghton’s bid is constituent services. Fairly or not, her opponents have painted her as falling far short with some success.
“Tina may mean well, but doesn’t follow through,” said one neighborhood activist from Forest View Neighborhood Association. She wished to remain anonymous because she has to continue to try to work with Houghton regardless of the outcome of the election. “That is not acceptable.”
For her part, Houghton called the concerns about her responsiveness to constituents is a “politically motivated story.”
“I’ve been a fierce advocate for my ward, even before I was on Council. I have and will continue to respond to constituents in a timely manner,” she said Tuesday by email.
Despite eight years on the Council, Houghton barely squeaked through the primary, besting neighborhood activist Julee Rodocker by just 35 votes, 660 to 625.
Garza easily topped her, garnering 1,190 votes, or slightly over 41 percent of the total 3,030 votes cast in the contest. The Second Ward encompasses southeast Lansing.
According to data provided by Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum, Garza, 35, hadn’t voted until 2012, when he cast his first ballot in the November state elections. Since then he has voted in three November elections and the presidential primary. But he didn’t vote in local races.
“It’s true, I have not been involved in local politics, and I’m certainly not a political insider like Ms. Houghton,” he said. “After seeing what’s been happening to my side of town, I decided this year to get involved and try to make a difference in the lives of my neighbors in South Lansing. We shouldn’t fault people for getting more involved in their community — we should encourage it.”
His opponent, however, is not buying it. “I would say when it comes to our commitment to the community, actions speak louder than words,” Houghton wrote in an email. “In addition to my many years serving on various community boards and organizations, I understand that the most important voice anyone can have in their community is their vote. If my opponent waited until 2012 to exercise that right and even then never voted in a city election that speaks volumes about his interest and commitment to our community. I’ll leave it to voters to decide how they feel about that.”
While not a political insider, Garza did well attracting funds for the primary, raising $30,305 to Houghton’s $25,945. Now, though, Garza is facing a serious financial deficit with only $1,859 on hand, according to his Sept. 7 post primary election campaign finance report. Houghton had $15,945.
She is raking in cash from the city’s developers and has been endorsed by the Lansing Chamber of Commerce as well as the UAW. Garza is being financed in large part by plumbers unions across the state and has garnered the endorsements of the Lansing firefighters’ union as well as former rival Rodocker.
Over and over again, voters and Council colleagues interviewed in the last week said Houghton failed to respond to constituents’ calls and emails — though few would go on the record. That’s resulted in complaints to the Council as well as grumbling in the neighborhoods.
Council President Patricia Spitzley isn’t endorsing, but she did say, “I am aware of some complaints that she is not responding to constituents.”
Houghton accused Spitzley of promoting a “story being told by my opponent.”
“When asked if she heard that ‘folks are complaining,’ she responded, ‘Yes, we all have’ because that’s the story being told by my opponent,” she claimed in an email. “President Spitzley then explained her policy that staff address constituent issues whenever possible, and Council members are only involved when specifically needed or requested.”
Another of Houghton’s primary rivals, former City Council auditor Jim DeLine, said he hears from others in the Scott Woods Neighborhood Association he helped form in December that Houghton is not responsive.
But he noted that she has attended about half of the neighborhood group’s meetings and “I often leave before Tina does. She’s there talking to people.”