Conan Smith

Conan Smith
Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners; Executive Director, Michigan Suburbs Alliance

Tottered on: 26 December 2005
Temperature: 34 F
Ceiling: misty
Ground: slushy snow
Wind: WNW at 12 mph

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TT with HD: Conan Smith

HD: Totter end choice is yours ...

CS: I'm sticking with this side.

HD: You're the first one to choose that end, so I'm a little discombobulated. You're bucking the trend.

CS: Actually I would have expected all others to choose this end as well ...

HD: I think it's something about the natural resting position of the totter. Try as I might to have it perfectly balanced ... you're looking at the bearing unit?

CS: Yeah I am.

HD: Well, there's a sleeve and then there's a pipe that goes inside the sleeve. So the sleeve is bolted to the underside of the board, and then there's a pipe that goes through the two rigid supports.

CS: Well, I mentioned to you that the totter had a formative impact ...

HD: ... YES! You mentioned that in one of your emails ...

CS: When I was in elementary school, like a lot of boys, I played a ton of baseball, and you know I loved the playground. It was the place to be and we had a lot of fun on the teeter totters, too, obviously. You don't see teeter totters on playgrounds anymore, which blows ...

HD: ... yeah I mean I checked with the school system and the parks and recreation department just to confirm that they really don't have any teeter totters. I didn't want to manually go around and inspect. So yeah, they removed them due to safety concerns years ago. So I believe I have kind of a totter-opoly going here ...

CS: Excellent. The reason I was checking out the mechanism ... at the school they had a moveable fulcrum ... half-pipe things that you can ... if you're the big kid you can teeter totter with the little kid, which I always thought was fun, because that also brought an element of math and science into the playground ... "You gotta move it over here because I'm bigger than you are!" And one day when we were tottering, I don't know what I was doing, but I was too close and people were doing wild things on the totter ...

HD: ... like standing up and what not?

CS: Oh yeah, but when you would jump off the teeter totter with a fulcrum ...

HD: ... wait a second, we stopped tottering. Why is that?

CS: Because I was about to jump off?

HD: Okay.

CS: So if I'm up here and you jump off, the totter slams down, if you're on one of those fulcrum things, ... it jumps, and my finger was in there!

HD: Holy cow. Do you still have that finger?

CS: I do. It hurt a lot and it bled a lot. And it was my right hand

HD: So you're exactly the reason they yanked all the teeter totters off the school playgrounds!

CS: I don't want to take credit for that because I insisted that ...

HD: Conan, it's not credit, it's blame ...

CS: I don't want the blame, either.

HD: So did a teacher come and scoop you up and take you to an emergency room?

CS: Acutally, I hid my injury until a teacher saw me with towels from the bathroom wrapped around my bloody finger and sent me to the nurse and she patched it up. But the injury was bad enough that I couldn't play baseball right-handed anymore. So I switched to left. And from then on I've done everything sports-oriented lefty ... I bat left ... I kick left when I play soccer ...

HD: Do you write left?

CS: No I write right.

HD: So you mentioned those multi-purpose fulcrums with the different slots. I built this teeter totter with that in mind but opted against. The tradeoff was I didn't put handles. If you put handles on it, that basically says everybody has to sit at exactly the same place. If you have to sit at the same place, you're committed to making the pivot moveable. So I said, I'm not going to create flexibility at the fulcrum. I'll create the flexibility you need by not having a handle. That's my explanation for why there's no handles. It is the day after Christmas. Did you get anything good for Christmas?

CS: Dave, it's about giving!

HD: Okay, is there anything you're especially proud of that you gave this year?

CS: I am and that's why I wanted to say it!

HD: Okay.

CS: I'm an executive director of a non-profit called the Michigan Suburbs Alliance ... all these communities that got together to try and sort of quell urban sprawl and refocus on urban development ... this is my first time being an executive director ... and in May we hired several people, ..., so I have staff now. I bought Christmas presents for them and it was a lot of fun ... I'm just getting to know them ... to figure out what their personalities are. We've got a guy who lives in Ypsilanti and gave him for Christmas a Mug Club Membership at the Corner Brewery. So he'll have one of their personalized steins and he'll drink beer there every day probably ...

HD: ... okay ...

CS: I gave a pasta maker to my chief of staff and my homemade pesto recipe, which caused a lot of stir in the office because it has no garlic in it.

HD: Huh. So what led you to believe that this person would enjoy a pasta maker?

CS: Well she's marrying a guy who's last name is 'Pianno' so that was it.

HD: Okay, how's that spelled?

CS: Like 'piano' with two N's and an A.

HD: Okay, so we got the membership in Corner Brewery and a pasta maker and ...

CS: ... and I have a mathematician on my staff and I gave her some drawing paper and a Bach CD and a book that was a textbook when I was in the Residential College here in a course called 'Math for Poets' called Goedel, Escher, Bach. Goedel's the mathematician, Escher being the artist and Bach being the composer. In hopes that she'll thrill to the mathematical implementations in all sorts of art and she'll enjoy them.

HD: So what's the drawing paper component for?

CS: Escher.

HD: Oh, I thought that was maybe so that she could show all of her work ... "that's a great report, but I'd like you to show your work" ... where did you find the drawing paper?

CS: It's actually just a sketch book that I got from Nicola's. And we have an Arizonan on our staff, new to Michigan and experiencing our winter. So I went to REI and got her some cold weather gear and an ice cream maker.

HD: Oh really!

CS: It's a ball that you put all your ingredients in and you pack ice and salt around it and play with it. And fifteen minutes later when you're done playing there's ice cream!

HD: You know, I have to say, I'm a bit of an ice cream making snob. I'm dedicated to the old-fashioned wooden bucket container where you add the salt and you take turns cranking. So I'm not sure if I can really give that gift my full and complete endorsement.

CS: The reason I liked it is that it reminded me of camp. Have you ever made ice-cream at camp?

HD: Well, when we make it here in the back yard it's kind of like camp.

CS: What we did, we'd get a big coffee can from the commissary ... and a small one and you put your milk and cream and whatnot in the small one and then put the cap on. And then put salt and ice in the big one around the little one, put the cap on and then roll it back and forth at camp. And the can gets filthy dirty but inside there's great ice cream.

HD: Do you have a favorite vanilla ice cream recipe or any kind of ice cream recipe?

CS: Oh I just like cream, sugar, and vanilla beans ...

HD: ... so real vanilla beans?

CS: Yeah.

HD: You know, I'll give you a good recipe ... I'll either email it to you or ... it involves putting in a couple of tablespoons of peach preserves even though it's vanilla ice cream and you cook it and it extracts whatever the ... the preserves' contribution is not really for flavor ... it's for the gelatin stuff and so it makes it a lot smoother ...

CS: Creamy?

HD: Yeah, it really creams up as opposed to ... you know, my childhood association with homemade ice cream has always been it's a little bit icy ...

CS: ... yeah, yeah.

HD: So ice cream makes me think of all-the-ice-cream-you-can-eat, which makes me think of tonsils. You're getting your tonsils out tomorrow or the next day?

CS: Wednesday. Bright and early Wednesday morning.

HD: So do they do that on an outpatient basis nowadays?

CS: Yeah it's apparently one hour of laser surgery and three hours of coming out of the anesthesia

HD: You know I went online and looked up the latest information on tonsillectomies and they have this thing called an intracapsular tonsillectomy. Is that the kind you're getting?

CS: I never even asked.

HD: It leaves the bottom layer of tonsils intact and that apparently protects the throat muscles from needless exposure and aids in recovery time.

CS: Intra- what?

HD: Intracapsular.

CS: Intracapsular. I'm gonna ask them about that.

HD: Yeah, ask them if that's what you're getting. So what's the projected recovery time?

CS: I'm going to U of M and the doctor, Dr. Kim, was walking me through the procedures and all the timing, so I asked her that question. I said what's the recovery time, and she said well, the normal recovery time is about four to five days but at your advanced age ... which took me for a loop, being thirty-three! I'm not advanced! So I laughed at that, but she said normally we do this on six-year-olds, so she said anywhere from a week to two weeks.

HD: And is it, in fact, true that you get all the ice cream you can eat?

CS: Yes, although someone's got to buy it for you nowadays. The way I understood it from Bill Cosby when I was growing up, that just came with the hospital room.

HD: But you said it was an outpatient basis ...

CS: ... yeah that's the big change, lots of savings in ice cream.

HD: So you mentioned making ice cream at camp. Are we talking about Boy Scout camp here?

CS: Yeah I was a Boy Scout.

HD: You still know the Scout Law? Trustworthy, loyal ...

CS: helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent!

HD: That's pretty good. Okay how about the Scout Oath?

CS: Oh boy.

HD: On my honor ... I'll get you started ...

CS: ... I will do my best to do my duty to God and country ... uh no ...

HD: ... to obey ...

CS: ... to keep myself physically fit, mentally awake and morally straight.

HD: Yeah that's roughly it. 'Obey the Scout Law' is in there, too. So did you earn the canoeing merit badge? And the reason I ask this is: on the web there's a note from 1999 posted in the spring by an outfit called the Michigan Land Use Institute that announced your appointment as a land use policy specialist. And it gives a little description of you and it says, and I'm quoting now, "enjoys drifting in a canoe with his girlfriend and 'writing bad poetry'"

CS: Absolutely.

HD: Let's focus on the canoe first and then we'll get to the bad poetry. So did you earn canoeing merit badge?

CS: I sure did. But was a breeze, because I sort of grew up canoeing. I have a picture of my mom and my dad on the Black River in Canada going under a bridge and she is wide- mouthed screaming as they go through this rapids and she is very pregnant with me. I was 'born to it' you might say.

HD: Where do you canoe around here?

CS: I love the Huron ... the upper stretches.

HD: So where do you put in?

CS: I think as far up as I'd go for fun is Milford, below the dam there. I really like the stretch up above Delhi. I used to work at Skip's Huron River Canoe Livery.

HD: Is that still in business?

CS: Yeah. It's run by his son now. Skip ... I don't know if he retired or if he just moved on. He opened up a toy train or model train shop on the river further upstream.

HD: So what do you think about Argo Pond? Do you agree with the assessment that it's 'not a high quality body of water'?

CS: Yes.

HD: So you'd just as soon see that dam disappear?

CS: I would. I'd like to see that dam go. I don't know anything about the hydrology of the area or the implications on downstream, but I think it would be awesome to let the river go back to be as natural as it could be.

HD: But that would mean getting rid of all the dams, though, right?

CS: Here! Here!

HD: But Gallop Park would disappear as we currently know it, and that's one of the most popular and well-loved parks ...

CS: ... there's huge acreage there we'd have lots of land for picnicking if we did that!

HD: Well that's true. What I've read and I find a little hard to believe, but not being a hydrologist or a geologist or having any deeper understanding of it ... but I mean the idea that it would turn into white water seems a little ludicrous to me.

CS: Well there's probably a lot of garbage down there right now that would provide for excellent rapids!

HD: Well I mean maybe when they say 'white water' ... they mean ... well, to me, 'white water' conjures up a notion of kayakers in helmets and ...

CS: ... yeah I can't imagine it being REALLY whitewatery. I mean the flow's controlled but river's pretty benign. There's a few places that are rapid-like. I think there's a Class II rapid somewhere in there, but by and large it's just an easy float. So I can't imagine it changing that dramatically. Although I could be totally wrong. I mean if you let all those dams go and the water just free-flowed down ...

HD: So do you have any inside information on whether the Argo Dam really is going to disappear?

CS: I don't know. I haven't followed it at all, other than to say, "Wow that would be cool." It'd be bad for the kids who jump over there though.

HD: The kids who jump?

CS: Off the trestle. The train trestle. Have you ever seen that or done that?

HD: No I've not seen it. I've also certainly not done it. That's a standard thing to do?

CS: Oh yeah.

HD: Did you do that when you were a kid?

CS: Yeah.

HD: Are you still doing it nowadays?

CS: No I have a fear of heights, so I could get dared into doing it, but once I've done it, I can just say I've done that.

HD: Okay, so the other part of that equation was writing bad poetry. Are you still writing poetry?

CS: Yes.

HD: Has it gotten any better in the last six years?

CS: Noooo. I don't write as frequently as I used to, which probably accounts for the lack of improvement.

HD: How do you go about writing poetry? Do you have a poetry logbook where you jot things down?

CS: I have a couple of journals that I keep going in various forms. I lose things a lot or temporarily misplace them, so I've got multiple journals.

HD: You back this stuff up digitally?

CS: No, I probably should.

HD: Could be an idea.

CS: That's an interesting thought. I'm going to consider that ...

HD: ... you have staff now. That could be an afternoon project to assign.

CS: "Guys, could you type all my poetry up, thanks! If I hear any laughing, someone's losing their job!" But I really enjoy it, because you think about things in a different way. Being in the political world and being in sort of the non-profit world, your life gets fairly regimented and being able to take time out for poetry and language to think about things in relationship with each other in a different way, and then articulate them using a new set of words ... it's always fun.

HD: So what kind of poetry is it? Does it rhyme? Are we talking iambic pentameter?

CS: I've tried a little bit of everything. I really like haiku, mostly because I really like doing it with my friends and we'll sit around at a dinner table and write haiku together. Rebekah and four of our friends went out for sushi one night and composed a haiku over the course of dinner. It took the entire dinner to write three lines of poetry.

HD: What is that five-seven-five or seven-five-seven?

CS: Five-seven-five. And apparently there are a lot of rules to haiku, which, when I first started writing them, I didn't know. I sent off maybe a dozen haiku that I'd written to a haiku magazine ...

HD: ... and they sent them back and said sorry, Conan, but this ain't haiku?

CS: Exactly. They said, "You should probably learn more about haiku before you make your next submission."

HD: Really? So what kind of rules are we talking about?

CS: Well, as with a lot of poetry, I think it's supposed to be more the essence of things rather than describing things. That's really important in a short form. Also haiku is supposed to have seasonal indicators ... so if you talk about a frog or something along those lines, then you're sort of indicating spring or summer.

HD: If you talk about snow you're indicating winter ...

CS: Yeah, yeah. And you're supposed to put that in there somehow without simultaneously being descriptive.

HD: What do you say we come up with a winter teeter totter haiku?

CS: Oh, that's a great idea!

HD: So it's five-seven-five, right?

CS: Yes.

HD: Okay 'snowy ... teeter' ... well, okay, see 'teeter totter' takes up a lot of syllables ... 'teeter ... totter ... snow teeter totter' ...

CS: ... 'snow teeter totter' ... well, the essence of the moment is the conversation right? And being in the backyard, I would say, has to be an element of it. Obviously the season is winter, so we've got to capture that in there somewhere. And we could do that with a lot of things. We could talk about, rather than snow, perhaps like, being able to see your breath ...

HD: I want to do it with snow, Conan.

CS: Okay, so snow it is. It's easy to be decisive.

HD: It's gotta be snow.

CS: And what would you say the message is that you'd like to get across with the haiku?

HD: There's nuthin more fun than riding a teeter totter in the snow.

CS: Alright.

HD: ... Maybe this is something I can think about later. Or maybe you can think about later. Here's a question I have about when you do the poetry writing. I was looking at the agenda for the last County Commissioners meeting and I thought to myself, "Wow, I'd be looking for anything to do besides slog through all these resolutions appointing this that and the other person to some committee or board." There's about thirty different resolutions that do nothing but that and I thought, "I just betcha that Conan's writing poetry!"

CS: Oh, I can't admit to that!

HD: Well, I know you can't, but let's just use that as a stepping stone to the County Board of Commissioner meetings ...

CS: Let me backtrack one meeting before that, when I got yelled at by the citizens who were attending the meeting, because they thought I was asleep for most of the meeting ...

HD: Did they actually 'yell' at you?

CS: "If Commissioner Smith had been awake for more than nine minutes he'd know what we were talking about ..."

HD: Oh, so they opened up a can of sarcasm on your ...

CS: ... yeah, exactly. So I will admit that I take copious notes that sometimes run into my personal reflections on the items on the agenda, which may turn into poetry. Honestly they haven't yet. And I don't find very much poetic about those meetings.

HD: When it's so many people that you can't you can't possibly personally find out who these people are ... whether they're really qualified to serve on this or that board, whether they might have some ulterior motive for wanting to be in that position ... so is there somebody who works for the commission a staff member that you can rely on to qualify these people?

CS: Nope. We actually have on the commission an excellent team of commissioners ... all eleven of us Republicans and Democrats together. We work very well together ...

HD: ... so you're like rowing in the same canoe ...

CS: ... and amongst the eleven of us, I think we probably did know virtually everybody who applied for a position there. The packet that we got for just the appointments was about five hundred pages long and I went through all of those resumes and I picked out the people I thought were, by their resumes, most qualified. I approached it the way I would a hire for a job: these people have the right skill sets, have expressed in their letter the right kind of interest and whatnot. And then we sit down together as a Commission and talk about each one of the appointments one-by-one.

HD: So this marks the one-year point in a two-year term? Everybody has a two-year term and it starts and ends the same time, right?

CS: Yes.

HD: So it's possible that we could just clean house and get rid of all you guys in one year and have a whole new set?

CS: Yep. And it's beginning to be likely, considering the ire that we've raised over this police services issue out in the townships. Have you read about this at all?

HD: I have read that it's an issue out in the townships, so correct me if I'm wrong, but as a resident of Ann Arbor, it doesn't affect me, right?

CS: Well. Just that you're paying for it.

HD: Oh. Well. But in terms of our police protection it's not affected.

CS: By and large. The County Sheriff does provide some service to the City and the University ... it might be just the University ... will contract with the Sheriff's Department for football Saturdays ... Art Fairs ... but by and large it's not going to impact the police service here. We have an excellent police force that's well-taken-care-of I think.

HD: So has that occupied a lot of your time this past year?

CS: Yeah, in the last few months, it's taken up more of some other commissioners' time than mine. Back in March-April when the issue first started to arise because of the jail millage failed in February, Mark Ouimet, a Republican representing Scio Township, Dexter, Chelsea, that area, ..., he and I proposed that we do a series of public meetings with the citizens to find out, "What do you want to see happen with public safety and justice in the County given that we have a need at the jail and we don't have any money." And those meetings, I thought, started out very well. We did the first one at Forsythe School and we got a lot of great input from the citizens of Ann Arbor ... how they want a holistic approach to public safety and justice ... that involves early childhood stuff, so that we're making sure kids are aware of the dangers that they could get into with drugs and crime ... that takes into account in the incarceration system we have a lot of people who are mentally ill or who have additions that need treatment or else they can't break the cycle. You know, I felt that out of that meeting we got a very clear sense of what the citizens of Ann Arbor wanted. At the next public hearing it started to get co-opted by the Sheriff's Department folks. The Sheriff came. A lot of his employees came. And they just started to scream about really losing service out in the townships. You know by and large that's their jobs [in jeopardy], so I understand there's a lot of concern and fear about that. So it just, from my standpoint, broke down from there. It stopped being a dialogue about what the potentials were and what our community values were and where we ought to be going and it became a fight over ...

HD: ... "you're talking about my job," which is in some senses understandable ...

CS: Yeah it is. And being from Ann Arbor and wanting to do what I can to end the process of subsidizing urban sprawl, I'm not in favor of continuing to support, with my tax dollars and with my neighbors' tax dollars, police services that I feel the townships should be paying for themselves. And I'm pretty firm about that. Over the past six months we've debated and compromised on a lot of different issues, but that's been sort of the core thing for me and it's easy for me to make the votes I needed to make.

HD: I think it's interesting the connection between township police services and urban sprawl. I mean, if you'd asked me, "Are these two things related, Dave?" I would say, "Well, no, they're not." [Conan attempts to block a piece of black plastic blowing across the yard] Oh, don't worry about that.

CS: I guess there is a fence.

HD: And if it blows over to the neighbor's yard, you know, they won't yell at me. They'll just say, "Dave was teeter tottering again." Our next-door neighbor is actually president of the Old West Side Association.

CS: I love the Old West Size Magazine. I think it's great.

HD: You guys get that?

CS: Yeah.

HD: So you're officially in the Old West Side?!

CS: Yeah, I guess, I mean we're right there.

HD: I thought maybe Seventh was the boundary ...

CS: No, well I don't know what the boundary is ...

HD: ... are you sure you're one of us?!

CS: ... well, I feel old and western ...

HD: Anyway, you've had a year as a County Commissioner and since it's only a two-year term, I guess if you want to do this for another two years, now would be about the time when you've got to gear up the campaign machinery again.

CS: Yeah, my political mentors, who are my mom and Lana Pollack, who was a former state senator here, have both suggested that I give it another term ... that it's always hard to move from being an advocate to being on the other side of the table. And government moves painfully slow. I get frustrated with it sometimes They said, "You need to take at least another term, if you feel like you're doing good work," and I think I really am. I think there's some really good things that I've been involved in.

HD: Besides the police protection issue in the outlying townships, what are some other things where you think, "You know, I really kicked ass, there."

CS: One of the things that is really exciting to me is something that we just wrapped up last week. Back in May or June there was a Muslim girl, a seventh-grader, who was pulled out of one of the county pools for wearing 'street clothes' She was wearing traditional Muslim clothes, ..., or at least a covering that would suit her religious obligation. And the state law around pools is pretty straightforward. It says you can't wear 'street clothes' in the pool and you have to take a shower before you go in. And so where do they draw the line? I think they've always wanted to maximize access for the public to the water facilities, but out at Rolling Hills, which is in Ypsi township, the water park is really active. It's got a wave pool ... it's got a water slide, and it gets hundreds if not thousands of visitors at a time and they have to be particularly sensitive to drowning potential. So they tend to be a little more conservative in the interpretation of the law just from a safety perspective ...

HD: ... so, the idea being that street clothes are more difficult to remain buoyant in ...?

CS: ... yeah and because on a water slide, if you have something that's long and flowing, it can easily get caught up on something and pose a strangulation risk. And we also have these intake valves that the bottom for filtration and if you cover it up, if your clothing is loose enough, you can create suction down there and get stuck. So at the request of the ACLU we put together a work group to talk about that issue and designed a new policy for religious accommodation for all the water facilities in Washtenaw County. It basically says your clothing can't be too loose and it has to be made out of lightweight material. Other than that, you're good to go.

HD: It sounds like it gives people who operate the facilities the latitude to make sort of a judgment call on a case by case basis.

CS: When the rule was written, it was designed, I think, predominantly to make sure that people weren't coming in their work jeans straight from the field, mucking up the pool. Times have changed and there are a lot of different people who are using the pools now. I'm really proud of that. I think the staff and the community really got together around that issue and we got what I think ... and I'm not sure but the ACLU has done their background research, and we did ours ... none of us could find a written policy about religious accommodation anywhere in the country ... so we may have written the first one.

HD: Huh! Alright, so you've actually made a firm decision that you're going to run for County Commissioner again?

CS: I am. I'll run for re-election and if I win, great. You know, last year in my Commission race there was a guy, Al Connor, who ran against me ...

HD: ... was this a primary?

CS: Yeah, it was the primary. And Al is a fabulous guy ... Al believes the same things I believe, he's passionate about the same things that I'm passionate about, and he would be a superb Commissioner so ...

HD: ... but it wasn't even close. It was like 1200 to 300 or something ...

CS: ... but that's, ...., You know, I come from a political background. I have a political name in this community. I don't know how people make their decisions about who they vote for. I guess what I'm saying is that in this city and in this district, we're going to have awesome representation, no matter what. So they're great people who run, and if I get beaten, no problem.

HD: So the fact that you're going to run for Commissioner eliminates another question I had for you. And that's: how about that mayoral job? Hieftje has announced that he's going to seek re-election, again, and I'm just wondering, ... since you're already on record as saying that you're going to run for re-election as a County Commissioner, it's clear that this would be a truly hypothetical question ... so hypothetically, if you or if somebody like you, a well-behaved Democrat, said, "You know I really want to run for Mayor and I'm gonna challenge Mayor Hieftje in the primary," ... in the context of the local Democratic Party community, is it conceivable that that could happen? I mean what's the word on the street? Is there anybody out there who's gonna ...

CS: I haven't heard of anybody who's out there right now. But I don't think it's inconceivable at all. Especially because right now within the Democratic Party in the city there is starting to be a pretty significant split between, I think, folks who would consider themselves sort of traditional liberal Democrats and folks who are more Clintonesque New Democrats. And I think you'll see a lot more city council challenges in the coming cycles with people who are little frustrated with the way the city has been directed and managed. Frankly, I think it's a good thing. I really encourage people to run in primaries. I hope people run against me because in this city ALL the decisions are made in the primary. I mean the general election really makes little difference ... because we're so Democratic. My Commission district is 75-percent Democratic so a Republican doesn't stand really a chance of winning.

HD: So do the Republicans have anybody you can think of for the Mayor's race, that you think, "That's a person, who could actually give the Democratic candidate a run for their money?"

CS: You know, a lot of people, I don't know their partisan backgrounds. I think I kind of assume that if they're in Ann Arbor, they're Democrats. Although I'm learning more and more that's not the case ...

HD: Yeah, well, even on this block, a lot of people make that assumption. And let me just tell you, not everybody on this block is hard-core Democrat. And at block parties it's a little awkward sometimes when people say things like, "Well everybody thinks blah," and you sort of know the people who don't actually think that, and you check them out out of the corner of your eye, what their reaction is ...

CS: Oh yeah, that's totally true, I understand that ...

HD: ... so, you were about to produce a name of somebody ...

CS: I'm not sure I can name names, but I can think of people who I respect, who may be Republicans who could run and compete successfully ... well, Jane Lumm, who is a Republican, former city council member ... I think she's very bright and she's run against the Mayor before ... I don't think she could win. I don't honestly think that the Republican Party is in a place in this city where they could put up a strong candidate.

HD: What do you think about the idea of trying to eliminate the partisan aspect of local government? I mean there's no ordinance that says that candidates have to be identified on the ballot as Democrat or Republican, is there?

CS: No, and there are many cities that have non-partisan elections. To me, the partisan label is increasingly important the more complex our democracy gets, because people can identify with the central values of a party. I think the flaw is that we have what's become a two-party system. And we really need to have something that is more representative, so that minor parties or people with more extreme or more fringe views than traditional Democrats or traditional Republicans can also get a voice in our governance. Other countries do proportional representation and we had a similar thing back in my grandfather's day. In the city you could you could rank your votes as in, "I'm voting number one for Conan, but I know he's not going to win, so I'm voting number two for this other guy." And that's partly how my grandfather became Mayor.

HD: Huh. So he was everybody's second choice?

CS: I think that was it. He was a lot of people's second choice. He still had the Democratic label. People knew "Okay this guy's not a Republican ... I'm not voting for a Republican." That's important to some folks. I think that would do great things for the Green Party for example. If we had a proportional system I'd love to see a couple of Greens on the City Council. I'd love to see them in the legislature.

HD: But wouldn't that mean giving up the geographic way that City Council districts are determined ... ?

CS: Yep, and that'd be fine.

HD: It would be nice if every race were contested to some extent, because Wendy Woods was put in a position, where she wound up saying things like, "I'm not running unopposed: my opponent is apathy,"... that's a nice spin, but it's pitiful in some ways.

CS: Especially in this town where we have so many great great political thinkers and brilliant folks ... from the University ... we haven't seen a professor on City Council in quite a while ...

HD: When was the last one? Is that within your recent memory?

CS: I don't even know. I don't know. I know I'm going to miss someone. The last one I remember was my grandfather, but you know I'm sure in the twenty years, while I wasn't paying attention, someone was there.

HD: Among other things you serve on the Board of Directors of the Washtenaw Development Council?

CS: Yes, by virtue of being a Commissioner. We get appointments to other boards that are external to the Commission, and the Development Council is one of them. I'm actually an alternate appointment to that.

HD: So that's going to be merged with this entity called Ann Arbor Spark. Is it going to change names?

CS: Oh, I don't know. Actually at our last board meeting we had a brief discussion of the organization and I don't know what the end result will be.

HD: It seems kind of odd ... if the resulting entity is to include the goals of the existing Washtenaw Development Council, which is all of Washtenaw County not just Ann Arbor, ... there's more to Washtenaw County than just Ann Arbor ... so if you keep that name, Ann Arbor Spark, seems to me that greater Washtenaw gets left out in the cold.

CS: I think it would be fun to name it Spark: the Washtenaw Development Council or something like that as the sub-tag. I think the mission of Spark and why Spark is such a great moniker is that it's focusing on technology and bringing tech industries here. That's a really important part of this New Economy approach that Governor Granholm and others are looking at now. We've got to move away from traditional manufacturing because those jobs are going overseas more and more. So I think it's an important approach for the entire county. The Washtenaw Development Council does traditional development activities, like reaching out to any kind of major corporation like a Pfizer to try and bring them here, so it makes great sense the two should be integrated.

HD: Just my two cents on the name Spark?

CS: Yes?

HD: It's more of a word than it is a name and you could address that issue by making it 'spark' with a Q ... s-p-a-r-q. And that would make people say, "Heh? I wonder what that is!"

CS: I wonder what that is!

HD: Well, when people just see the word, 'spark', they say, "Yeah, well, okay, you mean as in plug?"

CS: I'm going to mention it to someone.

HD: 'spark' with a Q!

CS: Okay, I'll propose it. It'll probably get very few votes.

HD: Well, fold it into your proposal to make it Sparq: the Washtenaw Development Council.

CS: SPARK is all capitals, so it must stand for something but I don't know.

HD: No, it doesn't. And that's the other thing: it's true semantically that SPARK doesn't stand for anything ... and that sentence is ambiguous. The unintended meaning is pretty awful. Like KFC, they insist it doesn't stand for anything but it does for something. It's Kentucky Fried Chicken. That's what it stands for ... So have you met Michael Finney [newly hired CEO of Spark and WDC]?

CS: Yes. And he's great. He's a fabulous addition to the community.

HD: He's originally a Michigander, right? I mean most immediately he's coming from Rochester, New York, which is actually where my wife and I actually were, just prior to coming here ...

CS: Oh neat. I think he grew up in Saginaw or in the Saginaw area and he worked for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which, depending on your point of view is a tentative recommendation. It was a John-Engler-created entity to take tax-payer dollars and put it into private corporations. I'm not sure that's the best use of that money, but the overall mission of the organization is, I think, positive. A lot of good people have come out of that organization. The head of our Chamber, Sabrina Keeley, is a former MEDC person. Michael is very smart. Very measured. But also at the same time, I think, pretty aggressive. I've talked to him about one of my major concerns, which is the potential of the City of Ypsilanti, to tank within the next several years, if they don't get some immediate and specialized assistance. He's been really helpful in terms of thinking that through ... how we're going to reach out to different people who will help us ... so he's fabulous just to be around. And then just on a personal level, I love seeing a black guy in a position of power in the city and, obviously, the county. It's extraordinarily rare, so seeing him as the head of the development entity for the county says a lot to me personally as a guy with a mixed-race background. It makes me very happy.

HD: So this merger is supposed to happen over the course of this next year. I guess if the WDC has any New Year's Resolutions that's going to be on the list ... to get that merger done?

CS: Yes.

HD: Do you have any personal New Year's Resolutions or is that something you do at all?

CS: I don't have any. And not because we don't do them, but because I haven't gotten around to it.

HD: So you will, it's just that that you have another week, you feel?

CS: Exactly. I have sort of an ongoing set of resolutions. When I turned thirty I made a list of thirty things to do in my thirties ... which has sort of taken the place of New Year's Resolutions so ... it's kind of a long list ...

HD:... but it's finite, ..., it's only thirty. Is there anything on that list that you could tell us that you've already crossed off?

CS: Oh yeah! A lot of them are simple things that were easy to knock off right away like, I'd never been to Vegas and now my sister lives there, so now I've been to Vegas.

HD: Was 'Visit your sister' on the list, too?

CS: It was not.

HD: So it wasn't a two-for-one ...

CS: She moved after I turned thirty, so it was just a happy coincidence. And getting elected was on the list. I knew I wanted to try it ... I wanted to try this aspect of public service and see if it fit me ... still figuring that out, but I got the 'Get elected' part done.

HD: So on the list it said 'Get elected to something or other' ?

CS: 'Get elected.' The list was also not very verbose. Like 'Get spiritual' is on the list. I haven't done that yet. I'm going to probably wait until I'm thirty-eight thirty-nine.

HD: What's that mean, exactly, 'Get spiritual'?

CS: I don't know. I didn't really know what 'Get elected' meant either. You know, it might have been get elected to County Commission', or get elected to anything.

HD: But I think that has an objectively measurable outcome. So you could objectively measure whether you satisfied that. 'Get spiritual', on the other hand ... you could say well, I'll join a church or I'll go to church service, ..., people might quarrel with you about whether that really counts as getting spiritual.

CS: That's true and I guess, tough luck for them! Being that it's my list, I get to decide whether it's achieved or not. I'm not really worried about it. I figure I read so much interesting stuff, a lot of poetry and philosophy. And about how people think about how they care about other people. That's where I guess I'm going. You know, where do I fit into all of that? It'll be fun.

HD: So is there anything I've missed?

CS: I'm getting married.

HD: Are you really?

CS: Yes, to Rebekah Warren ...

HD: Is it scheduled?

CS: August 2007, so it's a ways off.

HD: That is a ways off.

CS: We've got election year in between, so we're going to be busy next year, unfortunately. And I think that's probably the biggest thing going in my life.

HD: Well, congratulations!

CS: Thanks, it's fun.

HD: Do you have a proposal story you'd be willing to share?

CS: Yes I do. We've been engaged for a long time so ...

HD: ... was it in a canoe?

CS: No, it was in December. It was in a park a couple of years ago and I took her back out to the park where we had our first date, and I'd written her a poem and I proposed to her with a poem and a ring ...

HD: ... did you have the poem memorized?

CS: No, I tried to memorize it and I got so nervous that I had to get it and read it ... but I'd made a little book, ..., I'd sewn the binding and everything as a keepsake memento for her, so it wasn't like me pulling out my yellow pad of paper and reading ... so I proposed. I told her at the time that she wasn't really allowed to say yes or no at the moment. She had to wait sixty days and think about it and decide whether this was really what she wanted to do or not. Because being political and she's also in politics and whatnot and she and I sort of met through politics as well ... and I decided to run a campaign for her hand.

HD: Jeezus!

CS: So, we had a website called the Commit-to-Smith Campaign.

HD: Is that still up out there somewhere?

CS: It's not. It's down now. But we had testimony on the website. My mom was in the legislature at the time and we got her to get a resolution urging us on towards marriage that was signed by two-thirds of the legislature. And we ended up with a traditional political victory party, which was our engagement party ...

HD: ... so the proposal was just the launching of this campaign, like a declaration of candidacy?

CS: Exactly.

HD: So really, the sixty days wasn't really, ..., you just wanted to run this campaign!

CS: I really did!

HD: So it didn't have anything to do with, "I want you to think about it ..." ?

CS: No, no and she may have totally misinterpreted and started thinking about it !! ... ... I brought you a poem to read ...

HD: Really?!

CS: I mentioned earlier that ...

HD: ... is it about teeter totters?!

CS: It's not, but it's about Ann Arbor. It's also about coffee. Do you drink coffee?

HD: Oh yeah.

CS: When I wrote this poem when I was a senior at Michigan so it had to be like '96 or '95 or '94 ...

HD: ... took you a while to finish, did it?

CS: ... it did, and at that time Ann Arbor was transforming into Coffee Central. I think when I started going to school we had maybe three or four coffee shops. And by the time I graduated it seemed like they were everywhere. This is called "Trapped in Ann Arbor. And I hate Coffee." Are you familiar with the South Main Market?

HD: Yeah, sure.

CS: I wrote this there.

my back to the front of the Back Alley Gourmet
dulcimers, violins starting to play
a 9am drizzle from clouds that are gray
I'm trapped in Ann Arbor. You know, I hate coffee.

miserable days I will drink it quite plain
no sugar no creamer to cover the pain
of burns on my tongue when I'm in from the rain
but trapped in Ann Arbor And drinking the coffee.

a man with a beard comes out from By the Pound

HD: ... that was me!

CS: ... excellent, a wonderful connection!

I see that he's laughing but don't make a sound
I walked into that store put my credit card down
I said I'll take two of everything, three if it's coffee!

I noticed the line that is starting to grow
and hear all the whispers I really don't know
that man at the register's moving quite slow
must I wait all day? I just want my coffee!

11am and it's packed door-to-wall
a Partner in Wine comes out from his quaint stall
above all the din he is trying to call
we've ice cream and liquors that both taste like coffee!

not to beaten at hawking her wares,
a Dough Boys proprietor jumps on some chairs
our bagels are fresh there are donuts to spare
and best of all, folks, we've got lots of fresh coffee!

streams of new customers suddenly fill
the Back Alley Gourmet where a new cashier shrills,
our brews are the best! and festively spills
ten bushels of beans on the floor to make coffee!

the noise and the clamor kill rational thought
I only know cheers to the ones who have fought
their way to the door with the fix that they've bought
I realize someone has stolen my coffee.

my desperate urge to get out of the place
fills my head with a panic and makes my heart race
when a soggy biscotti smacks into my face
a moustache of bread crumbs that taste like cold coffee.

I wield a baguette like a cop's billy club
and knock an old lady down into a tub
of stirrers and cups where she squirms like a grub
while I break for the door feeling bitter like coffee.

outside the air clears my head in a flash
away from the Market up Main Street I dash
as the windows explode with a thunderbolt's crash
the rain on the streets looks like rivers of coffee.

I end my addiction with sudden resolve
above every rioter I must evolve
identified problems are easy to solve:
get out of Ann Arbor and give up the coffee!

of civilization cuisine is a sign
but sometimes develops a problem like mine
necessity binds me down here for a time
I'm trapped in Ann Arbor. You know, I hate coffee.

HD: Well, that's excellent! Do you in fact hate coffee?

CS: Now I drink it a lot. After I graduated I got out of Ann Arbor and didn't drink coffee for a very long time.

HD: Okay well, I'm going to take your picture now. We have to stop tottering now ... the screen is showing me a red hand, which means I've got to hold it really still else it will be blurred.