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Posted on Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 12:11 p.m.

Ann Arbor mayoral candidate Steve Bean says his quiet campaign is not merely symbolic

By Ryan J. Stanton


Ann Arbor mayoral candidate Steve Bean rides an AATA bus on Wednesday as part of an experimental onboard "office hours" event put on by the transit agency. Bean has run a quiet campaign for mayor, but says his candidacy is serious.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Ann Arbor mayoral candidate Steve Bean fielded a question recently that most candidates for public office aren't usually asked: Is your candidacy serious or merely symbolic?

"It's a serious campaign, and I intend to serve as mayor if I'm elected," Bean said he told the person. "Certainly, that's why I ran. I wanted to offer an alternative to people."

Bean will offer just that on Tuesday when his name appears on the ballot as an independent candidate for mayor. He's the only one challenging Democratic incumbent John Hieftje, who has been Ann Arbor's mayor since 2000.

Whether Bean has a shot at winning remains to be seen.

Bean, head of the city's Environmental Commission, has run a deafeningly quiet campaign. And some might argue he hasn't waged the kind of aggressive battle it takes for an independent to upset a popular Democratic incumbent in a left-leaning town like Ann Arbor.

The lack of a D next to his name is an immediate disadvantage. The lack of name recognition among voters is another. And Bean shows little sign of trying to overcome those hurdles.

In an interview this week, Bean readily admitted he hasn't put up any yard signs, he hasn't knocked on any doors, and he hasn't raised or spent any money. Meanwhile, his campaign website is a no-frills Wordpress blog that he admits has garnered a paltry number of hits — a far cry from the type of online presence some candidates spend thousands on.

"If you see it as being an underdog candidacy, that's the way you see it," Bean said. "I'm on the ballot, he's on the ballot. People can choose who they want to vote for. I'm qualified, he's qualified. It's a question of — what do they want? Are they pleased with what they have? Are they looking for something different? And do they see me as someone who can deliver?"


Bean stands outside the Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor after riding the bus, something he says he's accustomed to doing.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Bean has lived in Ann Arbor for 28 years, since coming to the University of Michigan to study physics, ecology and environmental policy. He's been actively involved in city issues surrounding recycling and has served more than 20 years on city commissions.

In addition to his work on the Environmental Commission since 2000, Bean served on the city's Energy Commission from 1992 to 2000. He is a board member for Think Local First of Washtenaw County and has volunteered his time for several groups, including Food Gatherers, the Huron River Watershed Council and the city's Natural Area Preservation program.

A database consultant for Berg & Associates Inc., Bean previously worked for Recycle Ann Arbor, the Ecology Center, Michigan SANE/FREEZE and Resource Recycling Systems Inc.

Bean took his campaign on the road Wednesday, participating in the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority's experimental onboard "office hours" event. For about an hour, he rode around town on AATA buses and chatted with riders about mostly transit-related issues.

"What's your last name again?" Ann Arbor resident James Luerich asked Bean halfway into their conversation on a bus headed for downtown.

"Bean, just like the vegetable," the candidate replied.

"I'm going to give you my vote," Luerich responded. "You're taking time out to do this. You must care about us."

"I'm glad to see there's going to be a choice for mayor this year," Ann Arbor resident Cindy Overmyer also told Bean before getting off at her stop.

Overmyer expressed to Bean her hesitations about the city's push for developing new railroad infrastructure while, she believes, local bus service is lacking.

Bean agreed the city should be more closely examining all of its options for transit before rushing into some of the projects it has taken on in recent times. In fact, one of the main distinctions between him and the current mayor is that Bean thinks taking on new debt and investing money in new parking structures downtown and along Fuller Road might not be good long-term investments right now, given the city's financial situation.

"You're correct in identifying it as one of the main differences between my perspective and John's," Bean said. "I think we have to make choices, and it doesn't seem like City Council's been making those choices or even considering those choices. There seems to be a real interest in adding parking downtown for a variety of reasons, and it's been hard to pin down what those uses are going to be. And I don't think there's been consideration of our long-term prospects, given peak oil and climate change as considerations."


Bean chats with an AATA bus rider on Wednesday. He found himself in agreement with riders who advocated for improved bus transit services, including higher frequency of trips and better weekend services.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Hieftje is a supporter of both the underground parking structure being built on Fifth Avenue and the parking structure proposed for Fuller Road, next to the U-M hospital. The Fuller Road structure is part of the Phase I plan for a future transit station city officials hope will become a hub of activity for buses and trains coming and going along the Detroit-to-Chicago corridor.

"What I would do is have a community-wide discussion about our choices on investments," Bean said of transit, adding it seems the city's current leadership spends more time "talking to" — rather than "listening to" — residents who have concerns.

"If we're investing in parking structures like the one here next to the library, and the structure that the city will be building for the university at Fuller Road Station," he said, "we may not be able to afford to invest in transit and other alternatives — bicycle infrastructure and pedestrian infrastructure — the way we need to for those to be utilized enough that we can maintain that kind of comprehensive service, high frequency and extended hours."

Bean said he would try to lead that conversation as mayor and make it clear to the public what the community's choices are. "We have to really look at how much and what resources we have available, and can we do both?" he said. "If we can't do both, let's be intelligent about the decision in our long-term investments in the community."

Hieftje took exception to Bean's views on the subject at a candidate forum Thursday night, saying the Fifth Avenue parking structure is expected to pay for itself from parking revenues.

"If you read the reports that come from the debt-rating agencies, we have one of the very best bond ratings in the state and a very moderate debt load," Hieftje added. "Things like the Fuller Transit Station will not involve any of our general fund money other than to pay the environmental assessment. Actually, the University of Michigan's funding is going to be used as the entire match for federal funding that we're seeking."

But the city's costs already are adding up for the project, which critics argue amounts to little more than a parking structure for the university at this point. In August 2009, the City Council approved a $541,717 professional services agreement with JJR LLC for Phase I engineering services for the project, followed by an additional $111,228 approved in November 2009 for developing a master concept plan. In June 2009, the City Council also approved $80,000 for a transit feasibility study related to the project, while other entities like the Downtown Development Authority, AATA and U-M also have chipped in money.


Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje appeared with his challenger at a candidate forum at Bach Elementary School Thursday night.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Bean said he strongly supports transit, and if Fuller Road Station can result in increased train service or commuter rail with a demonstrated demand, he's in favor of it.

"But building a parking structure is counterproductive to the long-term investment we've made in AATA as a community," he said, criticizing the Phase I plan. "We've paid this millage for a long time, and if we want to make further investments in transportation, I don't think it's appropriate to do that without having an open conversation with the community about the choices — especially if we have limited resources, and it certainly seems like we have limited resources when we're cutting services like we are now and continuing to reduce staff."

Bean, who sold his only car about a year ago because he decided he didn't need it anymore, lives about two miles from downtown and mostly walks and bikes to get around.

"There are more people who don't own cars than I think most of us are aware," he said. "When you add up the costs of maintaining it and paying the insurance and so on, it becomes expensive. If we had the conversation and some people believed that we weren't just paying lip service to a commitment to transit, and that we were going to talk about it and fully commit, they could make the commitment to having one less car in their family."

Bean, who recently moved in with his girlfriend, further explained his reasons for running such a quiet campaign by saying he's enjoying his life right now and keeping busy.

"If I had the time, I might do that. I don't have the time really," he said of knocking on doors and actively campaigning. "So I've put the time into what I can do. I've gone to the events. I've put out the information, answered the questions, provided what I can, put up a website with additional information. And I think there's adequate information out there. If people have questions, they can go to my website and send questions."

Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum said he can't recall the last time an independent won an election in Ann Arbor, but he points to Ypsilanti as proof that it can be done.

Independent mayoral candidate Cheryl Farmer successfully took down Democratic incumbent Michael Homel in 1995 and served as Ypsilanti's mayor from 1995 to 2006, fending off other Democratic challengers during that time.

"It can be done," Kestenbaum said. "And I would have thought, on paper, Ypsilanti would have been a harder place to do it than Ann Arbor because Ypsilanti is more working class and more straight party, I would think, than Ann Arbor."


Even in Ann Arbor, taking down a Democratic mayor isn't an impossible feat.

It last happened in 1993 when Republican Ingrid Sheldon defeated Liz Brater. Sheldon served as mayor until she stepped down in 2000, the year Hieftje was elected over then-Republican Stephen Rapundalo with about 68 percent of the vote. Hieftje was reelected in 2002 with 75 percent of the vote.

In November 2004, Hieftje pulled 69 percent of the vote. And in November 2006, he pulled 79 percent when he defeated independent Tom Wall by 30,929 to 8,283 votes.

In November 2008, Hieftje's most recent reelection, he pulled 85 percent when he defeated University of Michigan student Eric Plourde, a Libertarian, by 46,811 to 8,001 votes.

Hieftje is running a quieter campaign now than he ran in the primary against formidable rival Patricia Lesko. But he's still sharing much the same message, stressing that Ann Arbor continues to do well compared to other cities in Michigan during hard economic times.

"We finished the last budget year with a modest surplus, as we do most years, so we don't have any deficit in the current year," Hieftje said. "And going into next year, I think we're looking at an easier task than we faced with the budget this year."

Even if he's not elected on Tuesday, Bean said he'll have accomplished his goal of offering the citizens of Ann Arbor an alternative candidate for mayor, and democracy is enough for him.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.


Tim Darton

Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 9:43 a.m.

So, yes the city has been doing a fantastic job on energy conservation. This is a very good thing.


Mon, Nov 1, 2010 : 1:08 a.m.

Having a "D" next to her name did not help Pat Lesko. Support Steve Bean on Tuesday. He is a true advocate for citizens of A2!

Steve Bean

Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 4:28 p.m.

As shown on the city's web site ( the renewable energy is comprised mostly of electricity generated by the two dams and landfill gas capture. The latter will continue to decline as the organic matter in the landfill decays. All of this capacity was in place long before the mayor announced the Energy Challenge and council adopted the goals. The way the city has reached (temporarily?) the level of 20% renewables use has been by lowering overall energy use through conservation and improved efficiency. Which is a good thing, it's just not an increase in renewables capacity to the extent intended.

Tim Darton

Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 3:16 p.m.

Seems like Ann Arbor is doing well on all fronts compared to anywhere else. The city government hit 20% renewable energy this year. Very, very few cities are doing that well on energy conservation. A2 is one of the most environmental cities in the US. A2 is very successful on an environmental/renewable energy basis and fiscally stable in the worst economy in 80 years, without a tax increase.


Sun, Oct 31, 2010 : 2:20 p.m.

Does anyone else get nauseated when people trot out the "We're doing better than other cities in Michigan" crapola? Doesn't that translate as, "We're at the top of the bottom of the barrel!"? Don't we wish we were just competing against Grand Rapids and Traverse City for talent and investment! I hope that -- whatever the outcome of this election -- we'll look at some of the larger long-term issues that Steve is highlighting and aggressively do what we can on the local level while the country sleepwalks into financial and energy-reliant ruin.

Steve Bean

Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 11:25 p.m.

A few clarifications: - I knocked on hundreds of doors and talked with hundreds of residents, both at their homes and around the downtown farmers market, in early July while collecting signatures to get on the ballot. - I've served about 19 years (not more than 20) on city commissions. I think I misspoke when talking with Ryan. I have worked on city policy for more than 20 years (beginning with a subcommittee of the city's Solid Waste Task Force in the late '80s.) - The more immediate challenge we face at the same global level as peak oil (though its implications are right around the corner as well) and climate change is our nation's unprecedented debt bubble. (Global because it has implications for the economy's of all other countries.) It was within that context that I referred to the city taking on debt. The "we" I referred to is our community, of which the university is a part. Our situation doesn't exist in a vacuum. Government debt at any level at this point will likely only exacerbate the problem and set us up for more challenging circumstances when the bubble ultimately bursts. The university's and federal government's funds for the FRS project are partially our tax dollars, so we have reason to consider how we spend them. What isn't our (or others') tax dollars is money added to the economy through the creation of yet more debt. Floating debt, at any level of government, in the current economic environment, in order to finance the construction of more storage for cars, doesn't demonstrate an awareness of this broader context. - The city--both council and staff--spend A LOT of time listening to residents' concerns. Clearly a poor choice of words on my part to imply otherwise. What I was referring to is the impression that I've gotten personally and what I've heard from others that council, once they've chosen a path, are not very receptive to considering an alternative or contradictory information. - Ryan uses a certain (fairly common) lexicon when writing about electoral contests (aka, political races). I see things differently. I'm not interested in "winning". The purpose of my candidacy ("campaign") is to serve the community interest, not my personal interest (though I clearly have an interest in public policy and enjoy working on it.) I don't see any value to our community in "aggressive battle" for office. It's also not about "taking down" the current mayor. Let's elect the best person for the job for the next two years.


Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 7:53 p.m.

Thanks for nothing Mr. Bean. Ann Arbor is a one party town. Your candidacy such as it is reminds me of the way East Germany used to have an "official opposition party" on the ballot just to preserve the illusion.


Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 4:32 p.m.

Kudos to for committing such a long article to this gentleman. Mr.Bean lost my interest in even trying to figure out if he is qualified to run with this: "...and the structure that the city will be building for the university at Fuller Road Station," he said..." This is the first time I have heard the city is going to build anything for the UM. I am quite sure the U will pony up some cash, if not well more than half if anything is done to enhance the parking lot.

Tim Darton

Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 1:51 p.m.

Steve is a good guy but so is the mayor. He has run the city very well in the worst 10 years for cities since the 1930's, without a tax increase. He has way more experience plus the connections to our state and federal representatives needed to make things happen. (see Stadium Bridges, rail funding) etc. As for being in tune, the mayor is everywhere all the time, taking to people, Rotary, neighborhood groups, downtown discussions, enviro groups, public meetings, the arts alliance, raising money for Top of the Park, the skateboard auction and even the downtown kickball tournament finals (Fleetwood VS 8-Ball). What I might respect the most is that he grew up in A2, was active in the 70's, 80's and 90's and he's held true to his activist and townie roots.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 1:05 p.m.

anti-thug, many different candidates have been riding AATA buses - it has been a regular program this season. Thanks for this interview, which helps to clarify the candidates' positions. Readers might also find his interview on my blog of interest.


Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 12:42 p.m.

Steve got my vote by absentee ballot. Win or lose, Steve's a good guy and much more in tune with Ann Arbor that Hieftje's been for the last several years.


Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 11:39 a.m.

"look people I'm poor like you riding public transportation and I dont have 'towny" - phobia or homeless phobia". lol


Sat, Oct 30, 2010 : 11:37 a.m.

Ok? so....he trying to look like a "real" person by riding the bus? lol I say he's trying to hard lol