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With the Lansing City Council primary election less than a week away, the four challengers to 1st Ward incumbent Jody Washington have united on one point: They are true progressives and she’s a “conservative.”
Scott Hughes has led the way in casting Washington as a “conservative” —fighting words in a district and city so heavily Democratic.
“I understand she is a conservative,” Hughes said at a candidate forum at Central United Methodist Church, in downtown Lansing, last week. “We see Jody Washington use process objections to stand in for philosophical objections.”
The conventional wisdom is that voters pass the two-term incumbent onto the second round of voting on Nov. 5; her four less known if fiery challengers are competing for the second spot in this fall’s two-person contest.
Hughes hit her for seeking to curtail access to medical marijuana dispensaries and repeal the city’s status as a sanctuary for immigrants. He contrasted that record with his own as the juvenile justice coordinator for Ingham County as incarceration rates have fallen and diversion rates have climbed, without an increase in crime.
Hughes, 49, a juvenile justice coordinator in the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office. was joined on the stage by Brandon Betz, 28, an economist; James Pyle, 41, a real estate agent; and Farhan Sheikh-Omar, 24, an African immigrant. Washington, 62, skipped the forum.
At one point at their debate last week, Hughes seemed to insinuate that Washington was a Trump supporter: “I’m looking for an alternative to the conservative incumbent. I supported the Democratic ticket. Jody Washington did not.”
Asked to explain, Hughes pointed to a radio interview Washington gave in 2016 in which she criticized the theatrics of the Democratic National Convention. She accused the Clinton campaign of using the victims of tragic events as props for emotional appeal rather than focusing on the issues and the economy.
Washington, however, said in an interview she did support the Democratic ticket, after voting for Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the Michigan primary.
“I never heard of Scott Hughes before this campaign, and I have never seen him or had a conversation with him. I’m not sure how he knows so much about my voting record,” Washington said. “I will state that I am a strong Democrat, but it is my job to represent all residents in the 1st Ward regardless of their political party. The other candidates seem to be spending a lot of time trying to disparage me in public and on social media, and that’s OK.”
Hughes has outraised Washington, collecting $10,175 to her $7,500, according to filings with the Ingham County Clerk. She’s received big checks from unions, including $5,000 from the Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 333.
Scott’s biggest contribution, $1,200, comes from an executive with the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, Ryan Basore, its business development director. He also received $500 from Michael Doherty, owner of a marijuana production facility on Kalamazoo Street.
Washington fought the proliferation of dispensaries in the city. In a compromise, the city allowed 25 dispensaries through a regulatory process that forced many to close.
Scott also received money from his boss, Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon, Ingham County Commissioner Mark Bregner and state Rep. Julie Brixie.
Washington says she does not oppose recreational marijuana coming to the city and expects the medical dispensaries that are coming online will also be set up to sell recreational pot.
Betz said the current ordinance works against local entrepreneurs and benefits “Big Cannabis” companies from out of state that have the resources to get through bureaucratic obstacles.
Betz also lashed out at Mayor Andy Schor, who announced this month the city would discontinue the use of blue bags for trash pickup, a low-cost alternative for people who don’t produce much garbage. “It hurts the poorest among us and the working class and that’s ridiculous,” he said.
Lansing trash collection is launching a biweekly trash cart pickup service that will cost $8 a month. Each blue bag costs $2.25.
Betz, who cut his political teeth managing the campaign of progressive Democrat Kelly Collison for the state Legislature, has pitched himself as a challenger for the common people against developers and special interests. “We live in a critical time,” he said. “I’m part of a movement of people in this city who think the person on the Council in this ward doesn’t represent us.”
Pyle, who grew up in Lansing, cited “neighborhoods that lack hope” while new developments appeared geared to millennial yuppies with no attachment to Lansing.
“We’re building a city specifically for young professionals to come for a few years, have fun and leave,” Pyle said. “Lansing needs more than bars and apartments if it’s really going to thrive.”
Hughes said he wanted the city to encourage development that will increase its population density and help discourage urban sprawl into outlying townships.
Betz has raised $4,750, about half from himself and family members, while real estate agent Pyle reported just under $2,500 in small individual donations. Farhan Sheikh-Omar did not report any contributions, but the candidate reported spending about $1,500 on signs and fliers The candidate received a warning from the county clerk last month after he distributed fliers that did not say who paid for them, some of which were put in mailboxes, which is also against the law.
More than the others, Sheikh-Omar, who moved here from Kenya, cast the city as an antagonist of the people of Lansing, with a garbage service designed to fleece the residents and a street repair cycle skewed toward more affluent neighborhoods like Groesbeck.
“I haven’t seen a single candidate come to my neighborhood in Hildebrandt Park,” he said, referring to the Lansing Housing Commission project on Turner Road.