Will the Washtenaw Democratic Party Endorsements Impact the Saline Mayor, City Council Races?
City of Saline voters have often been a bellwether for Michigan. When Saline went for Jennifer Granholm, so did Michigan. When Saline went Rick Snyder, so, too, did Michigan.
In recent years, however, the city has been shading blue. In 2016, when Donald Trump carried Michigan, 60 percent of Saline voters chose Hillary Clinton. In 2018, when Gretchen Whitmer earned 53 percent of Michigan’s votes, about 63 percent of Saline’s voters chose Whitmer. Another interesting thing happened in 2018.
Susan Estep easily outpaced a large field in the Saline Board of Education election, winning 24.5 percent of the votes (second place earned 22.1 percent) to win one of two available seats on the board.
Estep’s success was a headscratcher for people who didn’t know her. She wasn’t an incumbent. She hadn’t been a fixture at board meetings and didn’t have a long history of work with the organizations that often produce board members, like the Foundation for Saline Area Schools.
Lisa Slawson, former Board of Education President, said she worked with Estep on her 2018 campaign. Slawson said Estep “worked her butt off, day-in and day-out.”
“I’ve watched a lot of folks campaign in my life, and she worked the hardest. In schools, at meetings, constant social media all the time, she’s a human dynamo,” Slawson said.
Estep also had something no other candidate in that 2018 election possessed: The endorsement of the Washtenaw Democratic Party.
In a conversation on Twitter, Slawson downplayed the importance of the endorsement, calling it “the cherry on top” of a great campaign.
But as one of the losing candidates in 2018 told The Saline Post, having your name on the “greeter card” handed out by Democrats at the polls during a “Blue Wave” election obviously helped Estep.
Clearly, the 2020 crop of Saline municipal candidates have taken notice.
Four candidates in the City of Saline municipal election sought the endorsement of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. Dean Girbach and Dawn Krause were endorsed in the six-person race for three city council positions.
In the mayoral race, both Incumbent Brian Marl and challenger Christen Mitchell sought the endorsement. The Democrats voted to award the endorsement to Mitchell. It was a surprising snub of Marl, the four-term mayor who’s worked as a legislative aide for prominent Washtenaw County Democrats like Sen. Jeff Irwin and former Rep. Adam Zemke.
Voters on the Zoom call chose Mitchell by a 78-39 margin.
Mayor Marl admitted to being surprised and disappointed by the decision, but did not express anything resembling alarm.
“I would have liked to have received the endorsement. But I am not deterred in any way. I am the only candidate with a clear and consistent vision and the proven ability to bring together diverse groups of people to get things done,” Marl said.
On Facebook post, Christen Mitchell called the endorsement a game-changer. Answering a question from The Saline Post, however, Mitchell was much more cautious.
“I am pleased to have the endorsement of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. While this does reflect my overall leanings, I believe that I always have and always will represent the best interests of Saline’s residents fairly, consistently and with transparency,” Mitchell said.
So, how did it happen?
Nobody who sought the endorsement mentioned the Democratic Party’s endorsement of Estep in 2018. But The Saline Post has had conversations with both mayoral candidates about the impact of Estep's endorsement in the weeks leading up to party vote. Neither Mitchell, Girbach or Marl sought the Washtenaw Democratic Party’s endorsement in 2018, the last time they ran.
For Mitchell, a two-term member of council, she sought the endorsement because she was seeking higher office.
“I had not previously sought endorsements when running for council. I felt that, in running for mayor, it was best to connect with more organizations both in the county and the state,” Mitchell said.
Marl, who at 17 started the Young Democrats Club at Saline High School, had never sought party endorsement because they weren’ previously offering it.
“Their decision to endorse candidates is a relatively new decision,” Marl said.
And so both candidates sought the endorsement.
Chris Savage, chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, said the local bylaws allow the party to endorse in partisan races after the primary and in non-partisan races. He said there were 287 Democrats who registered for the Zoom call. He verified their credentials approved 222. About 190 people participated in the Zoom call.
One of the people Savage reached out to was Marl.
“I had to reach out to Mr. Marl to join the Michigan Democratic Party the day before the event because our bylaws require that. He finally sent me proof of his joining less than seven hours before the meeting at which point I approved his credentials,” Savage said.
When the Zoom call began, Marl was not on the call. Mitchell was. Mitchell addressed the voters for two minutes.
Marl said he had a previous engagement with other constituents. When the engagement was over, he tried to log into the call but couldn’t connect, he said.
Savage said if Marl would have contacted him, he would have sent log-in information.
Marl said he did not wish to belabor the issue.
“I won’t disparage the party I’ve spent my entire life working for,” Marl said. “I sent two communiques to the board chair indicating that I would be unlikely to attend. That was not shared with the voters and I believe it gave the impression that I didn’t care to show up, which is obviously not the case.”
Meanwhile, some of the Democrats on the call attempted to hit the brakes on the process.
“It blew up into a fight. Some said it wasn’t fair to pit one Democrat against another,” a source who was on the call said.
There was a motion made that would have prevented the group from endorsing Marl or Mitchell. But that motion failed and the group endorsed Mitchell.
Girbach, who’s become one of Marl’s allies on council, said Marl’s inability to address the body hurt his chances.
“If Brian had spoken, the results would likely not be the same,” Girbach said.
Savage said he’s not sure if Marl’s presence would have changed endorsement vote.
“It's worth noting that Christen Mitchell received 78 votes and Brian Marl received just 39. It seems highly unlikely to me that him making a two-minute pitch to the people voting would have changed the outcome,” Savage said.
So what does it mean? How does the endorsement help? Savage explained what the party does with its endorsements.
“Endorsed candidates will appear in our Voter Guide that we mail and hand-deliver to voters in the county. They will also be on our poll greeter card that will be handed out at the polls on election day. Endorsed candidates will be announced once via our newsletter and on social media and there will be a posting and a digital version of our Voter Guide on our website,” Savage said. “They are also able to have their literature, yard signs, and other campaign materials in our office if they choose to.”
Does that endorsement give Mitchell the bump she needs to compete with Marl? The four-term mayor surely must have been viewed as the favorite. Marl was first elected mayor in 2012 when he defeated Glenn Law with 60 percent of the votes. In 2014 he thrashed opponent Lee Bourgoin by winning 68 percent of the vote - the most lopsided victory in the history of Saline mayoral elections.
Marl admitted the endorsement wouldn’t hurt Mitchell’s chances in the race.
The endorsements could also impact the race for city council, potentially giving Girbach, council’s longest-serving member, some insurance, and giving a boost to Krause, the newcomer running an aggressive and energetic campaign.
When asked what the endorsement meant to her campaign, Krause steered away from the horserace debate.
“For me, the endorsement clarifies my political alignment which I feel is important for transparency,” Krause said.
At the same time, she also doesn’t want people to read too much into her being endorsed by the Democratic Party.
“It’s also one of several endorsements I am working on and the others are non-partisan. This endorsement is not a predictor of how I will handle city business or how and with whom I will vote,” Krause said, who emphasized her experience in working in bipartisan fashion to get things done.
Where does that leave the other candidates? Janet Dillon was elected to council in 2014. Only Girbach and Marl have served on council longer. Like some of the other candidates, she offered a careful answer when questioned about the value of the endorsement.
“Throughout my candidacy and tenure on council I have never sought nor been endorsed by a political party,” Dillon said. “I believe there is a value to endorsements, both political party and individual. I also feel comfortable putting the section process in the hands of the voters. I work hard to represent my community. Having support and confidence in me based on a voter’s individual understanding of who I am, what I stand for, and how that aligns with their priorities is pivotal to me.”
Fellow council candidates Heidi McClelland, who previously served on council, and Brian Cassise, making his second run for council, said they weren’t interested in political party endorsements.
“I am not interested at all in having party politics or affiliations in city business. It’s not valuable in my opinion and not something I want,” McClelland said. “If they think it’s a good strategy, then more power to them. I don’t. But we shall see, I guess.”
“It’s a non-partisan race, so I don’t see it as necessary to seek a party endorsement. I don’t want to choose from either side. If you look at the national politics, they both look crazy,” Cassise said. “Why narrow your appeal. I’m just going to be fiscally conservative and try to do what’s best for the community and give the constituents a voice.”
While the party endorsements have impacted the city race, so far, at least, they haven’t touched the Saline Board of Education election. Savage said last week no board candidates sought the endorsement. However, The Saline Post has learned that at least one candidate has applied to the party for an endorsement.