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Posted on Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 5:56 a.m.

Q&A with Lou Belcher: Former mayor gets candid about current council, his career and the GOP's future in Ann Arbor

By Lucy Ann Lance


Former Ann Arbor Mayor Louis Belcher appeared on the Lucy Ann Lance radio show this past week.

Editor's note: Following the publication of this interview, a reader questioned some of the statements made about the 1977 court challenge discussed here. After reviewing the records of the case, a correction was published to set straight some of the facts involved. You can see that correction here.)

The election of Ann Arbor Mayor Louis Belcher in 1978 ranks as one of the oddest Ann Arbor has ever experienced. There wasn’t supposed to be a Mayoral election that year, but it was brought about by a 1977 challenge that Republican candidate Belcher made against Democratic incumbent Mayor Al Wheeler.

Belcher had lost that election by a single vote, but then it was discovered that 20 people had voted who unknowingly didn’t live in Ann Arbor. A judge ordered those voters to reveal the name of the candidate for whom they had voted.

In an interview on 1290 WLBY this past week, Belcher recalled the bizarre circumstances and the three terms he spent as mayor of Ann Arbor.

Lou Belcher: We had a visiting judge, no local judge would take this case, and that chap probably ranked in the far corner of idiots of the world. He subpoenaed all 20 non-residents and asked them how they voted. The first one got up and said, “Al Wheeler.” The judge then turned to the clerk who was keeping score and said, “Deduct one vote from Al Wheeler.” The next person said, “I voted for Lou Belcher.” The judge said, “Deduct one point from Lou Belcher.” Everyone was going nuts because we were giving those people two votes. And so the third, thank goodness, was a young freshman at U of M, had never voted before, and she said, “I am not going to tell you. This is a secret ballot.” The judge said, “You do not have that right in this court.” This went on for five minutes and finally she backed the judge in a corner and he said, “You must tell me or I’m going to hold you in contempt.” So, the bailiff came in and handcuffed her, and that was the image spread across the U.S. of her being led out of the courthouse, hands cuffed behind her, for upholding the U.S. Constitution. This created an uproar and everybody came into Ann Arbor - Time, Newsweek, every major news source, reporters everywhere. A third day went by and she still wouldn’t reveal. The judge called us into his office and said, “I don’t know how we are going to resolve this, so I suggest we call a new election.” Both Al and I wanted to do that from the beginning.

Lucy Ann: You didn’t want it to go that far.

Lou Belcher: Well, they let her out of jail, and the judge disappeared into oblivion, as he should have. What was so funny about that was I had employees who worked for me who said they didn’t vote that day - it was raining. I must have had a couple hundred people saying “I can’t believe I didn’t vote.” I think it was a great lesson in how every vote counts. There have been a ton of one-vote elections across the country in the past few years.

Lucy Ann: You served four years on City Council and, after winning that second mayoral election, you ultimately served seven years as mayor. What was the most defining moment in a decision made by you and City Council?

Belcher: I always like to go back and think of things, about decisions and if you made the right choice. I think the creation of the Downtown Development Authority. It’s raised so much money for the city. The Michigan Theater, of course, was a big one.

Lucy Ann: Ann Arbor’s 1928 movie palace almost had a date with the wrecking ball until you convinced City Council to buy it. You helped save the Michigan Theater!

Belcher: That was a big story. Ann Arbor came together to do some good. Also, the Pfizer vote turned out to be one of the more important votes we did. (When Pfizer subsidiary Parke-Davis threatened to leave Ann Arbor, Belcher corralled City Council to give the company a tax abatement.)

Belcher: From the tax break and the deal that (U-M President) Harold Shapiro and I put together with the president of Parke-Davis. They built their lab here, enlarged it, and council fought it, and we fought to get the votes we needed. It’s turned out big because it turned into a billion-dollar industry. But the big news to me is how the U of M was able to purchase the building recently for $108 million. I think that is going to be one of the biggest spin-offs for businesses in Michigan and Ann Arbor. Right now, they have incubator space in there and U of M has taken a very aggressive stand on tech transfer. They are actually starting to come up to other universities - Ohio State, Purdue, MIT - where the research developed is commercialized.

Lucy Ann: Even though that building is off the tax rolls now?

Belcher: This is the funny part about taxes. I think they are far overrated and do nothing but impede the private sector, and that is where the jobs are. The government can create jobs but that’s peanuts. As an American economy, as we go against the world, we are in competition with everybody. It is going to be our ability to create millions of jobs a year, not 200,000, and you get that from these spin-offs. I’ve been around Ann Arbor long enough and I’ve been a part of the business community and I’ve watched our biggest companies leave. We’ve always recovered and we’ve always had a great economy that’s spun out of that bigger than before.

Lucy Ann: What do you think about the direction that Ann Arbor City Council and Mayor John Hieftje are leading the city today?

Belcher: Well, I have to admit we had some great city councils, really good ones. I am not saying they are not good now, but they were really top flight.

Lucy Ann: When you look at issues like the downtown conference center and how that was handled, what is your impression?

Belcher: Let me tell you what I don’t like. Although it’s getting better, I don’t like rules being made and then not being followed. I don’t want people to spend money on things that are not going to go through. They should tell them right away it’s not going to fly instead of going through all of this bickering and then come back and say we are not going to do it. Someone has poured a couple of hundred thousand bucks into that and your reputation as a progressive city goes down the tubes.

Lucy Ann: Will the Republican Party ever return to the City of Ann Arbor?

Belcher: I think it already has. I think some of the representatives on City Council are actually kind of Republican.

Lucy Ann: Who?

Belcher: Well I don’t want to say and ruin their vote.

Lucy Ann: Are you talking about those who were Republican and then switched to Democrat?

Belcher: Well, everybody switched to being Democrat. When the students took control of the vote here everyone became Democrat, because when they go into the booth no one pulls the Republican handle. They all pull Democrat.

Lucy Ann: Will you ever run again?

Belcher: No. I was offered an opportunity to run for Congress. I only ran (for mayor) because I was really upset with City Council. It was silly season.

Lucy Ann: What have you been doing since your days as Ann Arbor Mayor?

Belcher: I’ve been in business. I sold my engineering company a couple of years ago. I thought I’d do more trout fishing, and then I got tangled up in a new business. Now we are ready to go on the market with Alternative Energy Engineering, which derives power out of waste water plants.

Lucy Ann Lance is co-owner of Lance & Erskine Communications, which produces “The Lucy Ann Lance Business Insider” (M-F, 8 a.m.-11 a.m.) and “The Lucy Ann Lance Show” (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-12 p.m.) on 1290 WLBY. The programs are live streamed at, and podcast on The complete audio interview with former Ann Arbor Mayor Lou Belcher is posted on her website.



Sat, Apr 23, 2011 : 7:36 p.m.

Great interview. Lucy Ann is most talented and I enjoy her much.. But when will we be hearing about an issue of importance and controversy? I would love to hear an interview about the recall effort....or how people in Benton Harbor feel about the new governance....or even how Ann Arbor feels about being on the list of "eligible distressed areas"...together with Benton Harbor.

Sue VanHattum

Sat, Apr 23, 2011 : 7:13 p.m.

Hmm, too bad the interviewer didn't know more of the history. Mr. Belcher should have been questioned about his odd take on the story of the election case. I was the one who came in on Tuesday and was the first one to be asked who I voted for. (I was the only voter in the courtroom at that time.) Tom Wieder just called me to confirm some of the details. His corrections of Belcher's story sound right to me, except for one part he wouldn't have known about. After I was held in contempt of court, I was led behind the courtroom. Two sheriffs came to take me to jail. (They didn't know what I'd done 'wrong'.) They pulled out the handcuffs. I said, "You don't need those!" One of them said, "Yes, we do." I held out my wrists, and was handcuffed. When I realized we'd be going outside, I asked to have them removed so I could put my sweater on. They took off the handcuffs, and before they could put them back on me, a clerk came and told them to just hold me there. They weren't happy about waiting with me while they could be out "catching criminals". I was not a freshman. Newsweek did not cover this story. (Time did. I still have my folder full of mementos of my two weeks of fame.) There's lots more that sounds wrong to me in Belcher's version. The true story is full of interesting details, perhaps Tom and I can write it up some day soon.

Tom Wieder

Mon, Apr 18, 2011 : 1:17 a.m.

Belcher also distorts what happened with the Michigan Theater. He convinced Council to buy it, but insisted that it wouldn't cost the city any money. He claimed that the revenues it generated would pay both its operating costs and pay back the city's purchase costs. Many of us didn't buy that, and we were right. A nonprofit was set up to run the theater, and it soon became obvious that it couldn't generate enough revenues. The city ended up using tax revenues to pay for purchasing the theater. I'm glad that the city owns the theater, but Belcher wasn't honest about the finances of the project. Belcher's statement that the DDA "has raised so much money for the city" is unsupported opinion, at best, or false, at worst. How much new tax revenue has been generated in the DDA area since it was formed, and how much is attributable to the DDA's activities? There's really no way to be sure. And most of the revenue doesn't go to "the city," it goes back to the DDA to spend on things like parking structures and fancy signage and the like.

Tom Wieder

Mon, Apr 18, 2011 : 1 a.m.

Interesting interview. Too bad so much of it isn't true, or is distorted. I personally witnessed the entire one-vote election case. The judge didn't "subpoena" the 20 non-resident voters to say how they voted; judges don't subpoena witnesses in a case. Belcher's attorneys did that, and they tricked the voters, as well. They were called to the stand and told they were only going to be asked IF they voted in the election, not how. They were informed that, since voting improperly in the city election might be a crime, they could exercise their 5th Amendment rights and refuse to answer. Only a couple refused. The rest said that they voted and were sent on their way. The next day, Belcher's lawyers came into court and told the judge that they just "discovered" an old Michigan Supreme Court case overnight that would allow the voters to be asked HOW they voted. The voters who had waived their 5th Amendment rights were brought back into court, and, relying on the case Belcher's lawyers cited to him, the judge ordered each of them to say how they voted. Only five voters were called to the stand. Two of them refused to say how they voted. The judge said they were in contempt, and they were held briefly behind the courtroom. Neither was handcuffed and neither ever went to jail. The trial was recessed, and the two voters went home. The case went to the Michigan Supreme Court, and the Court overturned the old decision. After that, Wheeler and Belcher agreed to a new, special election the following year. The whole mess was created by Belcher trying to win the case, not by the judge.


Sun, Apr 17, 2011 : 1:48 p.m.

He came, 'served' and walked away a happy capatilist.

David Cahill

Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 7:04 p.m.

Ah, yes, Lovable Lou and his Curious Crew, as we Dems used to call them. 8-)


Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 2:40 p.m.

Great interview. He has some good insights, but the idea that the students took control of the vote in Ann Arbor and forced candidates to become Democrats is laughable. Students don't vote. Turnout in student-heavy precincts is low during most city council elections. Most students at U-M aren't registered here.


Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 2:22 p.m.

The 1978 Ann Arbor mayoral election court case synopsis from the Time version: <a href=",9171,915674,00.html" rel='nofollow'>,9171,915674,00.html</a>


Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 12:55 p.m.

Lou apparently forgot one important part of the disputed election. The ruling of contempt was appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court. It ruled that in the absence of evidence of fraud, a voter could not be required to testify about how he or she voted.

5c0++ H4d13y

Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 1:55 p.m.

I think the fraud was that the voter was not a resident of ann arbor either by honest mistake or intent.

Dan Ezekiel

Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 12:30 p.m.

Good to hear that Mayor Belcher is still going strong. Besides the DDA, Michigan Theater, and Pfizer, I would add Recycle Ann Arbor to the groups he helped nurture and grow. Non-profit RAA began the first curbside recycling in the Midwest in 1978, one of the very first in the nation. The founders, Jonathan Dreyfuss and Rich Ruyle, were in their early twenties. Like the rest of us early volunteers, they had more enthusiasm than experience. We were fortunate that the mayor lived within the original pilot collection area, bounded by Main, Liberty, and Stadium. From the very beginning, Lou understood the idea and promise of curbside recycling and was very helpful. We privately called him &quot;Uncle Lou&quot;. The Democrats on council were also very supportive and helpful, as was former GOP council member Joyce Chesbrough.


Sat, Apr 16, 2011 : 12:29 p.m.

Thanks Lucy Ann Lance! Great interview!