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Four challengers are hoping that seeking three terms will not be the charm for Councilwoman Jody Washington.
Washington’s primary election opponents are running against her record and to some extent her persona as they seek to break her hold on the eastside district.
Washington’s “proven track record of hard work” — as she described it this month — includes voting in 2017 to rescind a resolution that declared Lansing a sanctuary city for immigrants and refugees. It passed 5-3. She also tried (and failed) to vote down an ordinance that eventually allowed medical marijuana dispensaries in the city.
Washington has been labeled as an obstructionist. Under former Mayor Virg Bernero, she repeatedly found herself at odds within a Democratic administration. That factional tension, which closely aligned her with Councilwoman Carol Wood, has waned under more soft-spoken leadership in the Mayor's Office, but Washington’s critics still suggested local residents are ready for more progressive representation.
And challengers in this year’s election aren’t holding back any punches as they look to become her replacement. The two biggest vote-getters at the Aug. 6 nonpartisan primary election will face off in a November general election.
“It’s time to stand up to the establishment,” said challenger and economic policy analyst Brandon Betz, 28.
Betz offered one of a few scathing reviews of Washington. The city — with her support — has repeatedly squandered opportunities for economic development by giving “massive tax breaks” to corporate developers, he contended. And a recent vote on the Red Cedar project is an example, he said.
The redevelopment was approved earlier this year with Washington’s support. It included a Brownfield tax increment financing plan that will reimburse developers with up to $54 million in property taxes over 30 years. Betz said he would have fought for more concessions and voted against the project without them.
Washington “has forgotten about us, the people who live here,” Betz said. “She’s forgotten about our needs and our struggles. Instead, she again gave massive tax breaks to a large corporate developer with no stake in this city. She didn’t ask for enough in return. She listened to the ‘experts’ while ignoring the will of the people.”
Challenger and local Realtor James Pyle, 41 — who served on Mayor Andy Schor’s transition team — said he has long been concerned with both the “physical and financial” developmental direction of the city and wants to give many “forgotten” city neighborhoods the “love and attention that they haven’t seen in decades.”
“Washington is really great about going to meetings and voting. However, the 1st Ward is lacking true representation,” Pyle added. “The 1st Ward deserves to have someone representing us and being part of our community every year, and who spends time in every single neighborhood outside campaign season.”
Washington, 62, said she is heavily engaged with her ward. That, in turn, has lent to a “proven record of hard work, transparency, accessibility, being a voice for my constituents and getting the job done with good results,” she said. She also touted the “collaborative” relationships she maintains with community leaders.
“I don’t just talk about it, I do it and I have done it for a very long time,” Washington added.
But while Washington is quick to paint herself with a more leftward-leaning brush, it’s hard to miss the conservative outcomes that end up baked into the results — particularly with immigration and marijuana issues.
Washington, for example, voted to kill a city ordinance that allows for up to 25 medical pot shops in Lansing. But she said it wasn’t based on a disdain for marijuana. Washington, at the time, said her opposition was instead rooted in other factors like the lack of regulatory funding and the reduced buffer zone between shops and local schools.
Washington also joined four other Council members in voting to rescind Lansing’s status as a sanctuary city. Bernero, at the time, had already made the decision through executive order. Washington didn’t think the Council resolution carried much weight. Besides, she didn’t seem to care much about the issue regardless.
“I don’t care if we’re a sanctuary city or not,” Washington had then explained to the Detroit Free Press.
But the ambivalence behind Washington’s opposition was enough to cause damage. And with near-constant, anti-immigratory vitriol spewing from the Oval Office, the optics to Washington’s vote didn’t do her any favors among her remaining liberal base. Challenger Farhan Sheik-Omar said it’s time for a “fresh perspective.”
“I can do a better job because I will unite instead of divide,” Sheik-Omar, 24, told City Pulse. “Unlike Jody Washington, I will listen to all sides of an issue and be able to communicate with supporters, opponents and colleagues — We need to listen to residents and provide an opportunity for community dialogue.”
Challenger Scott Hughes would like to again name Lansing as a sanctuary city. Hughes, the juvenile justice and community outreach coordinator at the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, has repeatedly tried to paint Washington with the viewpoints of President Donald Trump — a claim that Washington has roundly denied. (She told City Pulse that she voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016.)
There is so much interest in the 1st Ward race because Washington “is more conservative than the residents of this district,” Hughes, 49, said. “Higher turnout means a more progressive electorate, which in turn can protect civil and human rights, address environmental destruction and guarantee universal access to the basics of life.”
Hughes also took issue with Washington’s recent suggestion to divert cash in this year’s budget away from investments in renewable energy. Whereas Washington would rather use surplus cash to pay to fix local roads, Hughes insists a recent proposal to bolster renewable energy would have been a better investment for Lansing.
Washington also faced criticism after she attempted to blackball City Pulse under the impression that its publisher intended to endorse the incumbent Councilwoman Tina Houghton for re-election in 2017. And she once labeled Vice President Peter Spadafore as “unfit” for a leadership position over repeated squabbles to elect a president to the City Council
“The primary role for any City Council member is to be an advocate for the people of their ward,” Sheik-Omar said. “Moreover, I believe that we must have the full confidence and support of the people who live and work in the 1st Ward to productively tackle the issues facing our communities.”
Still, Washington has solidified herself as a contender amid the growing criticism. Her endorsements already include the Greater Lansing Labor Council and unions representing electricians, firefighters and plumbers.
Washington said Lansing has come a long way but still has quite a way to go. She’s driven, she said, by a love for the city and its residents and wishes to continue her role as a “positive part of the forward movement” on the Council. She wouldn’t speak about her challengers — only her “proven track record of hard work” over recent years.
“I only know what I bring to the table. I have a proven record of hard work. transparency, accessibility, being a voice for my constituents, and getting the job done with good results. I don’t just talk about it, I do it, and I have done it for a very long time,” she said, touting her “collaborative” relationships with local community leaders.”
“The city, the school district, the business and labor communities must collaborate to ensure we are providing the correct type of programming and preparation for our next generation of workers,” she added. “We also need to continue to move forward to make our city a desirable place for individuals to take up residence and stay.”