Getting to know Ann Arbor City Council candidate Lisa Disch

Lisa Disch is running for the Ward 1 city council seat. (Lisa Disch)

ANN ARBOR – Lisa Disch (D) is running for the Ward 1 city council seat.

Disch has been a resident in Ward 1 of Ann Arbor since 2008. She is a professor of political science and women’s studies at the University of Michigan.

She holds degrees from Rutgers University and Kenyon College and has published two books among numerous other written works.

The following interview was conducted via email.

In your opinion, what are the main issues in your ward? How do you propose to solve them?

I’ve spoken to hundreds of voters throughout the Ward over these past months, by phone and in person, and they identify a host of issues ranging from roads, traffic, and the double-edged popularity of the Argo Cascades, to affordability, equity, and racial justice.

The take-away from this list is simple. Ann Arbor is growing and Ward One residents feel that they are bearing the brunt of the growing pains. They’re seeing increased traffic and traffic congestion, deteriorating roads, and skyrocketing housing prices that mean intensified economic stratification and racial segregation.

I will be a strong advocate for Ward One getting its fair share of the city’s basic services. I will work for improving the quality of our roads and for better traffic management on the residential streets that have become major commuter throughways. I think the best way to approach this is by road redesign to reduce traffic speeds. I will work with the city’s traffic engineering staff to persuade them that hawk lights or traffic signals really are needed on Pontiac Trail. I also believe that part of being a strong advocate is being a strong communicator--both with fellow Council Members and with residents. People deserve a representative who is transparent and takes time to communicate rather than simply “message.” Ann Arbor residents are capable of understanding the complex trade-offs that structure policy decision-making at the local level. A good representative can convey that complexity without speaking down to constituents or putting a spin on the information. That’s how communication can foster problem-solving and build bridges rather than walls.

What do you feel are the biggest issues in Ann Arbor?

Ann Arbor has been working its way through a transition from college town to small city for some time now. How we, as a community, can manage this transition so that Ann Arbor continues to maintain our commitments to excellent basic services, equity, diversity, and justice strikes me as the biggest issue we face.

I’m hearing from a lot of people who live in Ward One now that they are on the edge of leaving. For some, that edge looks like their next rent hike. For others, it looks like their first house. They’re renting here now, but they cannot afford to buy. For others, it looks like retirement. They have lived here decades but cannot afford to downsize or cannot find a house that will support them as they age.

I take these stories to heart as a person. As a political scientist, my professional training teaches to examine the structural trends that drive them and ask that all-important political question: do we like where these trends are taking our city? I’m worried that our housing market has too little to offer people in their mid-twenties and early thirties who are just starting out. I’m worried about black people being priced out of Ann Arbor and about the deadly consequences of economic stratification as revealed to us by COVID-19. I’m also worried about people over sixty-five, who are the fastest-growing population group in Washtenaw County—actually slated to double between now and 2040.

I would like to see the City alter our zoning laws to encourage the market to open up new housing opportunities. One way to do this is to legalize mixed-use development on well-served bus routes. I would like to see more people living near (or within a bus ride) of their work and being able to walk to get a bag of groceries, a haircut, or a burger and a beer. The market can only do so much, however. For that reason, I strongly support using the public money we have to fund affordable housing projects and the social supports that need to go along with them.

Why did you decide to run for City Council?

I experienced the 2016 election through the eyes and hearts of the students in my 300-person introductory course. They were angry, surprised, and sad—and so was I. Their reactions and the tremendous upsurge of grassroots protest swept me and so many others into political activism. Becoming more active turned so many things around. I was inspired, surprised, and thrilled by volunteering for the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative, which succeeded in establishing an independent citizens’ redistricting commission for Michigan—one of the most gerrymandered states in the US. I knew that there were things in my community that needed to change, but it wasn’t until I was talking with folks at their doors that I realized I could be the face of that change. It turns out I was right. Meeting and listening to voters has been the gift of this campaign--I learn from every door that opens to me and every person I meet. Campaigning in the middle of a pandemic was not at all what I was expecting, but the support I have had from community members has been overwhelming. I have been able to enact changes in my community before even being elected to Council, one of which being the newsletter I started to keep people informed on what was going on at Council meetings.

What could Ann Arbor do better?

We are a town of educated, curious people without a daily newspaper. So, improved communication about local politics is one of the biggest things that I’m hearing people say they need. I’m maintaining a newsletter with updates about City Council now, as a candidate, and plan to continue that if I’m elected—maybe even if I’m not!

What do you love about Ann Arbor?

There are so many things to love about Ann Arbor: the trees, the Huron River, the walk around Argo Pond. More importantly, however, it isn’t just the scenery that makes Ann Arbor great, but the people. When I go to the Saturday farmers market I get to meet the many people who make it possible by investing time, heart, and sheer physical fortitude into growing food instead of turning their fields over to fodder. Every day at my job at the University I interact with bright young minds who bring cultural and intellectual riches to our community. And, most recently I have had a deep appreciation for the fact that this is the kind of place where strangers will chat with you about politics when you show up on their doorstep uninvited on a summer evening.

For more information on Disch, visit her website.

All About Ann Arbor reached out to all of the city council candidates for interviews.

For more information about the Aug. 4 primary, read:

Aug. 4 primary: Who’s running in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.