"We have to find new ways to deal with human needs"
Carol Ernst Focuses Campaign on Rent Control, Daycare
Carol Ernst, a 31-year-old dispatcher and union steward for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, is running on the Human Rights Party for mayor. Ernst, a radical feminist and lesbian, will be facing Democrat Al Wheeler and current Republican mayor James Stephenson in the April election.
During the SUN's interview with her, Ernst backed up an expressed long term interest in Ann Arbor with a series of innovative programs and restructuring for City Hall. With preferential voting operating for the first time in April, voters could now express preference for a radical alternative without fear of vote-splitting. But, if they accept Ernst 's analysis of not casting a second choice vote for a Democrat, the problems of a Republican minority controlling Council could again become a reality. However. preferential may give HRP a sense of its real strength in the city, as Ernst 's votes can show where support really is.
SUN: What made you decide to run for mayor?
ERNST: It's one thing for a radical activist to say the kind of things that are true, but it's very different when a worker starts saying those things. You have all the credentials and credibility behind you. We thought it was important for the kind of person I am-a blue collar worker, a feminist, a lesbian-to stand up and say what needs to be said about all kinds of issues, particularly labor issues with the economic situation. We're in a grave economic crisis and this American, multinational, capitalist system has got to change.
Remote as it is, there is an extremely slim possibility that I could be elected. I would like to see the kinds of changes that would happen if there were an HRP mayor. At the very least, I want to make people start thinking about what it would mean to have a radical mayor.
SUN: One of the issues in this year's election is preferential voting, which will be used for the fïrst time in the mayoral election. How are you dealing with that in your campaign?
ERNST: We would like to explain to people what preferential voting is, that is making a first choice for the person you most desire by placing the number one in that candidate's box. If you want to vote for a second choice, you can put a number two in that person's box. It isn't necessary to make a second choice. Every individual has to make up her own mind whether she wants a second choice or not.
There are different views within the party now. Most HRP activists believe there is no difference between voting for a Democrat or Republican. So most HRP workers will not be making a second choice, or will be making an alternative second choice- a write-in of some kind. The party probably won't recommend to its constituency that it not vote a second choice, although that's a possibility. The HRP recognizes most of its constituency will make a second choice.
SUN: What's your position?
ERNST: I don't know yet, I'm still thinking. Personally, I think writing in an alternative second choice is perhaps a good idea.
SUN: You don't think the party will recommend voting for Al Wheeler, but may suggest considering a second choice?
ERNST: That decision has not been made, but I can tell you they won't recommend that people vote for the Democrat. This is kind of basic for a lot of things. There are different functions for different kinds of individuals and different kinds of groups in any political process. You have the radical fringe-the avant garde, the people who are making a pure, extreme statement. Then you have the other people who are making more pragmatic, more compromised, more realistic stands. You can use any set of words you want, depending on how you want to color it. All I'm trying to say is that's the kind of process that goes on, and all those functions are necessary.
It is necessary for some people to say, "OK, we think it would be good to vote for Al Wheeler as a second choice." It is also necessary, and perhaps more important for a radical statement to be made for that other viewpoint, for that leading edge to make it's extreme statement: there is no difference between voting for a Democrat or Republican. In many ways, that's absolutely true.
SUN: But in many ways that's not true in Ann Arbor. There are realistic differences between having Al Wheeler as mayor James Stevenson as Mayor. People are going to be deeply affected by the government that has influence over their lives. Wasn't there a difference when Democrats were in office with HRP two years ago?
ERNST: First of all, that's a set of beliefs that's somewhere in the spectrum of what's going on. But there is certainly just as much validity to the other statement, that there is no difference. Secondly, the difference wasn't that there were Democrats on Council. The difference was that HRP had the swing vote, and there was not a majority of either Democrats or Republicans. So, it was necessary for there to be a coalition of HRP with one or the other for anything much to happen. With HRP pushing the Democrats, that is the reason you saw such a difference between the Republicans now and the Democrats back then. If the HRP had not been there, don't kid yourself, the record would not have been what it was.
SUN: So you will only be talking about the way preferential works and not deal with the effects of what happens if people don't make a second choice?
ERNST: The statement has already been made that the people don't have to worry about vote-splitting anymore. If you really feel that the most valid and honest choice to make is to vote for me first, but you still want to exercise your second choice vote for Al Wheeler, that option is open to you. The Democrats can no longer say you're splitting the vote, you're destroying this town.
Now I personally don't think that the fact HRP split the vote was such a horrible thing. It was necessary. You have to make a choice, either you have a third alternative and those things are going to happen, or you say we don't want a radical third alternative. If one doesn't feel that there's such a major difference between Republicans and Democrats, then why should I feel it was so horrible the Republicans got elected? What the Democrats would have done if they were in power would have been slightly different, but not extremely different.
SUN: So you don't think it's so necessary for the Republicans to lose their majority this April?
ERNST: Oh, it's important that they lose their majority. But what is absolutely necessary is that HRP have the swing vote in this political situation.
SUN: What other issues have you been raising in your campaign?
ERNST: Much of what l'm doing is talking about the ballot issues. You have to understand that the mayor's race is somewhat different from the ward races in that there is a lot of potential media, a lot of interest and a lot of potential for talking to people.
On the day care charter amendment, charges have been made by Democrats and Republicans the 1.7 percent of the the city budget was improperly calculated by HRP. It wouldn't work out to somewhere around $300,000 as we have been saying, but it would actually work out to a around $700,000 or $800,000. There's an argument about the interpretation of a clause in the proposed charter amendment which refers to all city revenues.
The city attorney and others have been consulted about it, and at the furthest stretch of the imagination, up to $400,000 to $450,000 could be calculated to be included as a day care percentage.
SUN: What about the rent control proposal?
ERNST: Everybody, I think, is aware of the rental situation in Ann Arbor. Washtenaw County is a metropolitan area as defined by the Federal Census Bureau. That metropolitan area has the second highest rents in the country.
Second, as a national average, about 20-25 percent of a person's income would go to rent. In Ann Arbor, it runs 30-35 percent overall, and in the downtown area, it runs 40-45 percent. Now those are considered crisis situations by federal standards. Also, by federal standards, less than five to ten percent of the available housing market open at one time is a crisis situation and you have a closed market. We have only 2-1 percent, essentially a closed market. It's a landlord's market, so they can do whatever they want.
Add to that facts about speculation; we're in a capitalistic game. If you make $50,000 or $75,000 as a lawyer or doctor, you normally would pay a lot of tax on it. Instead, you find loopholes, tax shelters. So you buy rental property and you depreciate it. That's just an arbitrary game the federal government allows where if you buy something for a certain amount, over a period of years you depreciate the cost-you write that off, deduct it from anything you have to pay taxes on. You protect your income and you end up not having to pay taxes. Then you sell the property at a higher cost. So it's an escalating market, constantly inflating, and the renter pays for it all.
The cash flow, the profit on top of all the expenses is very small. That's not where landlords make their profit. They make their profit by using property as a tax shelter and by reselling it at continually inflating costs.
SUN: How does the proposal work? What will prevent landlords from this kind of speculation?
ERNST: If you're doing' that, it's not in your interest to make a lot of long term improvements or to keep the property up, because you're going to keep it for a relatively short period of time. The rent control proposal makes all kinds of provisions about allowing rental increases only for certain things, like capital improvements, like keeping the housing up to code. If the landlord is in violation of any code ordinance, then they can not raise rents. What it would do is put teeth into housing code enforcement, which has none right now.
Another thing landlords do it they don't pay their taxes. In terms of delinquent taxes, the two largest landlords owe over $60,000 as of last year.
Interest on delinquent taxes is never more than five percent, and you have three years before the city can touch your property. If you have money available to you and put it in the market, you can get anywhere up to fifteen percent a year. So people are not paying their taxes and are investing this money which should be used for tax purposes. They are using the taxpayers money to make a personal profit. Under the proposal, if there are any delinquent taxes, landlords don't get a raise in rent.
The proposal is different from last year in that it is shorter and much less specific. It allows the Rent Control Board which is to be set up much broader discretionary powers. What the charter amendment does in effect is to make the Board a new political arena in which we can all participate.
One more thing, this year more exceptions are made for small landowners. If it's owner-occupied, it's up to three rental units, it will be exempt from the Board. Those aren't the landlords we're interested in as a community. The violators are the big people.
SUN: One of the major charges has been against the idea of putting either rent control or day care into the city charter. The Democrats claim it would be better to do it through Council.
ERNST: Both Democrats and Republicans are going around and charging that this is a charter amendment, and what they 're implying by what they say is that this is a mysterious process, too complicated for you poor voters to understand.
I just want to state that a charter amendment means that everybody votes directly on the issue, and the majority decides yes or no on the proposal. It is quite true it cannot be changed unless you go through that whole process again, that is by having a ballot proposal.
That's exactly why we want it to be a charter amendment. We feel it's good, it will be there and it can't be changed by eleven politicians, or six politicians, which is a majority of council.
The more issues people can vote on, and the more involved they become, the better. In this country, we have a very strange attitude towards elections and the electoral process. We try to keep it simple and as simple-minded as we can. I think that politicians and the ruling peopie have really done a trip on us. In Europe, the ballots are incredibly complicated, but people are much more active and close to the whole process. They want to be able to consider things in detail; they want to be involved. Here, we simply rely on headlines and media flashes. We are taught from the beginning that we're not supposed to get involved. That's got to change.
SUN: The Republicans have centered this campaign on city finance, charging HRP and Democrats with irresponsibility in driving the city deep into debt.
ERNST: I think deficits of budget are not the responsibility of individual Council people or parties. They're a fact that we're in a shitty system and we have to find other ways of dealing with human needs. The solution obviously isn't more taxes. The ultímate solution is a new system.
SUN: Of course, but what about more immediately?
ERNST: We can deal with what we've got now, but let me point out that these are short term, bandage kinds of solutions.
For one, lobbying for money, not only federal and state money but foundation money, all kinds of sources. Ann Arbor is incredibly wealthy in terms of skills, resources of people and incredibly backward in city hall administration.
For example, what are they doing about garbage, refuse and sewage? They're not doing anyrhing innovative. They're not even dealing with the basic problem- the flush system of our society. You can't continue to live in a place and flush waste away;you have to compost it and return it to the soil. The problem isn't high density population. China was much more dense, but didn't have the problems we do. It's because they dealt with waste in a way that worked with the environment. But with all the resources of the University and the academie elite, we're flushing it away. Ann Arbor is talking about super sewer, or a new, improved sewage plant for Ann Arbor and a few neighboring townships. That's full of shit!
Another thing is cutting administrative salaries, and making operations of city hall more efficient overall. The main way of doing this is to get worker control. People sitting behind desks usually make the wrong decisions because they're not out there doing the work.
SUN: How did you get involved with the Human Rights Party?
ERNST: In terms of experience with HRP, I'm not one of the party regulars. I've worked on and off with HRP, mostly in terms of coalitions. As an AATA employee who had input to give when HRP was working on transportation issues. Probably the major involvement with HRP was a group of us a couple of years ago were involved in getting adopted a more radical, more definitive sexism and ageism plank. I think it's something we can be proud of as a group. It did a lot not only for HRP, but for the community in terms of sexism and ageism issues.
SUN: What kinds of things are included in those planks?
ERNST: The sexism plank dealt for the first time in a strong way with the issue of gayness, and in a way gay people
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"We thought it was important for the kind of person I am - a blue collar worker , a feminist, a lesbian- to stand up and say what needs to be said. We're in a grave economic crisis and this American, multinational, capitalist system has got to change."