By Zach Robertson
Entirely East Lansing
It’s rare to see a candidate spend $50,000 for a City Council election. It’s even more rare to see one do that and lose. In many ways, this fall’s council election was anything but ordinary.
East Lansing Councilwoman Ruth Beier said she could not remember an election like it.
“This election was very unusual,” said Beier. “In the past, $10,000 was the high end of a candidate’s expenditure. Ten thousand dollars covers three to four mailers, signs, and campaign literature … Erik Altmann, Shanna Draheim, and Mark Meadows all followed this tradition. The amount of money raised and spent by the Triplett campaign, upwards of $50,000, was extreme and unusual.”
One thing missing from this fall’s election was the civility that many have come to expect. Council seat winner, Erik Altmann was the victim of attack ads — something Beier called unprecedented in East Lansing elections.
Two of the biggest oddities during this fall’s election stem from developer money in the community. Attack ads from the regional Chamber of Commerce were launched against Altmann because of his platform that prioritized ending tax giveaways for developers in East Lansing.
According to Mayor Mark Meadows, Triplett spent pushed a message that simply did not resonate in the community. If Triplett had acknowledged mistakes that were widely criticized, Meadows said he believes Triplett would have likely been reelected to the council.
Agreeing with Meadows, Beier dismissed the idea of money having power in East Lansing.
“The Democratic party ‘machine’ thought that big money and negative campaign tactics could sway voters. That might work in some places, but it doesn’t work here. Voters in East Lansing are smart, informed and involved. The way to reach them is to talk to them and to listen to them.”
East Lansing City Clerk Marie Wicks said the incivility stems from behavior of candidates at the national level.
“When you have a Donald Trump getting out there being bombastic and saying nasty things, the level of incivility just ramps up,” said Wicks. “If he were representing the party I affiliate myself with, I would be ashamed.”
Despite her frustration with the negativity surrounding this election cycle, Wicks was pleased with the number of East Lansing residents who engaged in campaign season events and who voted.
“One thing that was indicative of the level of intensity around this election was the ASMSU debate. In the past, people just haven’t even shown up. This year we had a strong showing. The community came out because they really wanted to hear the candidates.”
Meadows said this election was different from his council campaign nearly two decades ago.
“The debates were snotty but that was the extent of the negativity then,” said Meadows. “There were no mailers, no negative phone calls.”
The increasingly negative political culture in America may be seeping into local elections. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, the number of Americans who consider the party opposite their affiliation to be “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being” has doubled since 1994. With the political divide deepening, negative campaigning has become an increasingly viable option for candidates seeking office.
Reflecting on his time serving in Michigan’s House of Representatives, Meadows said seats were directly associated with national politics.
“We went from 52 members in 2004 to 57 members in 2006 because of George Bush. We went to 67 members in 2008,” said Meadows. “Then, in 2010, we lost 20 people and were in the minority again as a direct result of the president’s approval. If people are unhappy about what’s going on in Washington, they will react at the state level. That can bleed down to local elections, especially if they’re held during even numbered years.”
As the presidential election draws closer, tension and general nastiness on the political stage may increase. Meadows said he and the rest of council have already put the bumpy campaign season behind them as serving East Lansing becomes top priority.
“You win some, you lose some,” said Meadows. “That attitude on City Council is essential. If someone disagrees with me, we cast our votes and move on. It doesn’t mean I stop talking to them or stop working with them. We move on.”