Slide to the left: Shifting dynamics on Lansing City Council

Conservatives take a hit, but no revolution in sight as Betz replaces Washington


As incoming Lansing City Councilman Brandon Betz prepares to replace Jody Washington in the First Ward seat, his views could shift the city toward a more progressive agenda — ultimately changing the dynamic of how elected leaders conduct business in the capital city.

“I’m looking to help constituents rather than do political favors,” Betz said. “I care about public services and our economic future, but just not on the backs of our residents. I want to transform this city into the future. I’m a new face with fresh ideas, and that puts me in a position to think about things from a different perspective.”

Betz, a 28-year-old economist with the Michigan League for Public Policy, beat Washington, 62, by 10 points in November. The outcome showcased diminishing support for Washington’s conservative tactics over the last eight years and highlighted a desire (largely from younger voters) for a left-facing future.

Betz takes office in January. Voters will soon learn whether his campaign promises — like fewer tax incentives for downtown developers and a more conducive market for marijuana — will match his performance as a City Councilman.

“He’ll bring up some issues that perhaps Councilwoman Washington wouldn’t bring up,” Council Vice President Peter Spadafore foresaw. “One person isn’t going to change the entire direction of the city, but it might change our focus to different issues that might’ve just been non-starters with the old group dynamic.”

That “old group dynamic” refers to a conservative-leaning four-person bloc of Washington, her son, Adam Hussain, Patricia Spitzley and Council President Carol Wood — with their views bolstered by supposedly moderate support from Jeremy Garza.

Spadafore, Brian Jackson and Kathie Dunbar represent the more liberal end of Lansing’s leadership spectrum. Betz’ addition splits the Council 4-4 with the more conservative wing.

The outgoing Washington predicted a big change.

“You should see a major shift in the way this city does business and the way the Council does its business,” Washington said. “It’s OK if that’s the agenda, but I’m not sure what they mean when they say ‘progressive.’ I think these are going to be interesting times. I fear for my city. I love this city with all my heart, but I’m worried.”

Progressivism to Betz means fewer tax incentives for downtown development, a renewed focus on the environment and another look at the city’s marijuana ordinances. He also wants to revisit Lansing’s rescinded status as a sanctuary city for immigrants.

Washington, Wood, Spitzley and Hussain voted to overturn that symbolic protection in 2017. Dunbar — without Spadafore and Jackson, who were elected later in the year, to lend their support — was the only one who still remains on the City Council to have voted to keep the designation. Progressive Councilwoman Tina Houghton, who strongly supported sanctuary city status, lost her seat to Garza.

Subsequent turnover could allow the City Council to take an altogether different stance on the issue, Betz contended.

“Jody really dug in her heels and made a lot of enemies on the City Council,” Betz explained. “I’m not building a coalition with any particular people, but I do think that with Jody gone, we’re going to have a more progressive city that represents the actual views of its people. She was just overly conservative. That’s the reason I won.”

Betz, for instance, said he would have also joined Spadafore’s lone rejection of a redevelopment plan at the former Red Cedar Golf Course. He contends that developers — for $2.2 million — paid the city far too little for the property and are reaping too many rewards with a $54 million tax reimbursement for over 30 years.

He plans to provide a more judicious review on the amount of tax incentives flowing to future projects that would have otherwise continued seamlessly without decades of financial commitments from Lansing taxpayers.

Betz also differs from Washington in his support for Lansing’s marijuana industry. He said he’d soon like to revisit the city’s ordinance that restricts the number of dispensaries, while simultaneously ensuring more room for growers and processors to fuel an adequate supply to the medical and recreational market.

He’s also open to finding room in the budget for a sustainability manager to combat the effects of climate change and reduce the city’s dependence on fossil fuels. That conversation — spurred largely by continued support from Jackson — started and quickly died at the Lansing City Council dais during the last budget cycle.

“People vote on the winning side,” Betz said. “I’m not speaking badly about my fellow Councilmembers, but that’s what they’re expressing. Everyone has some interest, even the mayor, in changing the way we do business. I’d like to at least open the door to a longer and more robust conversation on some of these different topics.”

While the City Council in recent years has rarely split on the various issues facing Lansing, some suggested that Betz’ arrival at City Hall could encourage those with more moderate viewpoints to feel comfortable swinging more to the left. At the very least, Betz’ political ideals are likely to add another liberal voice to the dialogue.

Garza said he enjoyed working with Washington, but said he and Betz can also agree on a lot of different issues. “I like his fire and his drive, and I don’t think there’ll be any sort of problematic dynamic on the City Council.”

Despite the ambitious nature of Betz’ campaign, however, it’ll always take at least another four Councilmembers to climb on board with his progressive vision to find a majority and make any real changes. And Spadafore doesn’t expect any shift to be swift.

“One vote can change the dynamic on some issues, but certainly not every issue,” Spadafore added. “I don’t think we’re going to see a drastic swing to the left on the 10th floor. We still have to adopt a budget. Trash collection is nonpartisan. This isn’t Washington. We’re working on things that affect life on a day-to-day basis.”

Spitzley labeled Betz as a “good fit” to serve as Washington’s successor in a ward that is moving leftward.

“We have a lot more things in common than we thought,” she said of Betz. “Like anybody on the Council, there are going to be times where we disagree, but I only worry about my own vote. We’ve discovered some shared passions about the city, and I think we’ll work well together.”

“The reality is that everyone thinks the job is one thing and then they actually get into the position and the job is totally different,” Hussain added. “At the end of the day, people want better public services, cleaner neighborhoods and economic development. I don’t think we’ll see Council deviate much from those issues.”

Washington, however, contended that Betz ran an overly ambitious campaign and made far too many promises to prospective voters. She thinks his comparatively rigid stance against tax incentives will only work to slow economic growth in downtown Lansing and cautioned local residents about a “negative” shift looming ahead.

“He does have a lot to learn, and I think he’ll learn it. He doesn’t really know the city. He doesn’t really know city politics. He’s never been involved in a neighborhood group or anything like that,” Washington argued. “He made some really big promises and that’s OK, but now he has to find a way to actually keep those promises.”

Betz, for his part, doesn’t think he’ll have any issues staying true to his progressive ideals during the transition.

“The people of Lansing spoke. They wanted an ambitious agenda and they’re ready for some change,” he said. “The campaign is over.” Washington, he said, “has no say in what goes on in the city of Lansing anymore.”


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