I Remember When: City Politics

Media Player



File NameSizeType
irw-city_politics-480.mp4165.9 MB480p video
irw-city_politics-audio.mp343.7 MBAudio

This episode includes interviews with local politician, Neil Staebler, whose father was mayor of Ann Arbor during the Depression years; Fred Looker, city clerk from 1951-1965; A. D. Moore, City Councilman for 17 years; and County Commissioner candidate, Letty Wickliffe.

Produced and directed by Chris LaBeau
Exec producer: Catherine Andersen
Graphic Artist: Eric Anderson

Special thanks to Mr. Fred Looker, Mrs. Nan Sparrow, Mr. A. D. Moore, Mr. Neil Staebler, Miss Letty Wickliffe
Sponsored by the Ann Arbor Public Library, with help from the Ann Arbor Sesquicentennial Commission and the University of Michigan Speech Department.

Length: 00:30:58
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Repository Information: Ann Arbor District Library Archives


  • [00:00:00.00] [MUSIC PLAYING]
  • [00:00:34.62] [CLAPPING]
  • [00:00:39.12] SPEAKER 1: It looks like we've won a late victory in Washtenaw county as well. [CLAPPING]
  • [00:00:51.39] SPEAKER 2: Politics, perhaps the stuff that Americans love and hate the most at the same time. To the many politicians and workers involved, election night can truly mean the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. Politics means people, the people who are elected to serve and the people who are served. It means hundreds of campaign hours put in by candidates and campaign workers every day in every city of this country. It can mean the kiss on the baby's cheek or the cynical backroom politics of a big city boss.
  • [00:01:25.59] Politics is just that, politics. But politics is alive. And in today's program we look at a portrait of people who have lived and are living active lives in this profession. We will see politics grow up in Ann Arbor through the eyes of those who have grown with it. From the days of Kingsley and Maynard to our politicians and parties of today.
  • [00:01:48.43] Let's start at the beginning. What makes a boy and then a man interested in politics? We talked to Mr. Neil Staebler, a former congressman and state democratic chairman, about his memories of politics and growing up in Ann Arbor.
  • [00:02:04.08] NEIL STAEBLER: But it really goes back beyond that. My grandfather was in politics, was a township-- he was a supervisor, member of the County Board Of Supervisors. But after he moved to Ann Arbor and was a local resident here, he was [INAUDIBLE] Commissioner.
  • [00:02:23.82] And I can remember that some of my early experiences was quite harrowing for me. When he was away, and we lived right next door, he gave me the responsibility of responding to appeals for help. So vagrants would come and ask for a meal and I had his book of tabs which entitle people to a meal. And you know it's quite a harrowing experience to decide whether you're going to be the answer to somebody's hunger. And so I'm afraid I erred a little more on the side of falling generosity than maybe wisdom warranted.
  • [00:03:22.60] So I had some political connections. My mother was a co-chairman of the County Committee back, I must say, in some of its weaker days. But she was a vehement person. And after Roosevelt came in, and we had more to work with, she became a very active person getting women organized. I've been subject to women's lib influences for a long, long time.
  • [00:03:59.55] SPEAKER 2: Mr. Staebler, a native son of Ann Arbor, has played a dominant part in establishing the Democratic Party in Michigan and in the nation. He still serves as a Democratic National Committeeman. He remembered an early encounter with William Jennings Bryan.
  • [00:04:14.37] NEIL STAEBLER: I can remember as a boy, one of Bryan's visits, maybe his only visit to Ann Arbor, and standing on Main Street while the parade went by. And I think he ended up at the Whitney Theater and talked then.
  • [00:04:31.39] Of course politics in those days, remember, was mostly personal. There's not much mechanical about it, no radio, no TV. So if you wanted to influence people, you had to talk to them directly. And politics consequently had a scarcity value it doesn't have now. If you wanted to hear a good oratory, you very likely had to listen to a politician, and Bryan was one of those.
  • [00:05:03.34] My early years, the order of the country was [INAUDIBLE] who had been, I think, Governor of Indiana and came to Ann Arbor a number of times. I took time out to hear him and I was impressed as everybody else. Also the small meeting was much more important than it is now. I think one of the sources of the malaise in politics is that the human flavor has gone out of politics and that we need to reintroduce or increase in utility again the small meeting. The face-to-face encounter, there is nothing like it really in politics, being talked at by a machine is not the same as having a chance to get face-to-face with somebody in politics.
  • [00:06:04.99] SPEAKER 2: Ann Arbor was a predominantly Republican town in the early 1900s. There still was a German faction, however, who were loyal to the Democratic Party which Mr. Staebler supported. He remembered his early attempts to increase his party's following.
  • [00:06:20.10] NEIL STAEBLER: The first time of the-- the only time I guess, that Van Wagoner ran for governor, and he had been a State Highway Commissioner, very popular Highway Commissioner. His local representative, Oswald Koch, K-o-c-h, enlisted me to help in the Van Wagoner campaign. And we decided-- he decided, and I tagged along-- that it would be good to conduct a model campaign out in the old German area, which was then the Second Ward, the southwest quadrant of Ann Arbor.
  • [00:07:11.38] And we staged a really classic campaign. We went to every house several times, and we distributed literature, and we really saturated the area. And figured that we would get back that old German Democratic vote. But we doubled the Democratic vote in the area, but we also doubled the Republican vote. So the margin was greater than ever but it was one of the early lessons I picked up in politics.
  • [00:07:50.47] SPEAKER 2: That lesson was to be repeated often and then talk to younger men during Mr. Staebler's successful career. I asked him about his early political experience with his father, a mayor of Ann Arbor during the Depression years.
  • [00:08:06.30] NEIL STAEBLER: During his term of office the Depression occurred. And that was a very trying time for everybody in public office because no level government was really prepared for handling welfare and relief on the scale that immediately became necessary. I remember that the city's total welfare appropriation was gone in maybe two months. And so the city was then concerned and what to do.
  • [00:08:43.46] All of us reached out in a lot of different directions and I got my father's consent to convene a study group on unemployment compensation. And we searched around to find people who knew something about it, got the two people in the country who were authorities. One was the treasurer of Eastman Kodak company. And another was a man by the name of Haber who was then at MSC in those days, who subsequently became professor and then Dean Haber here at the university.
  • [00:09:30.40] And we quickly discovered that unemployment compensation had to be operated on a much wider scale than simply a municipality. But people were thinking very fast in those days trying desperately to find answers to the economic problems that confronted the country.
  • [00:09:54.38] My father then ran at the end of his two terms for State Representative in the Democratic ticket. I was campaign manager. And I think I was responsible for his defeat. Almost every Democrat was winning those days so in Ann Arbor this was not necessarily the case. This remained rather staunchly Republican.
  • [00:10:21.97] But I developed a very elaborate campaign booklet in which we put in his ideas, and I'm afraid too many of mine, about what all would be done at the state level. And I probably had in it all the reforms and changes that were made in the next 20 years. But anyway, it was-- it frightened people in the community and he lost by several hundred votes. I always thought that if we'd done nothing at all he'd probably have been swept in. This was overkill in my youthful enthusiasm.
  • [00:11:05.91] But the university remained rather staunchly Republican for quite awhile. I remember that when I was a student, 22 to 26, there were only a few Democrats in the faculty. In fact the Democrat on the faculty was something of an anomaly. They weren't quite regarded as solemn people and in fact it was the state of mind of the whole state.
  • [00:11:44.89] If you were proper thinking and responsible you were Republican. Only Democrats were vagrants, and bartenders, and ne'er-do-wells, or freaks. And there were a few of these freaks in the faculty. But all the right thinking people knew that they had to tolerate them, but you didn't really take them very seriously.
  • [00:12:13.39] SPEAKER 2: Portrait of the Growth and Experience of Mr. Neil Staebler, a politician important in Ann Arbor's state and civic history. Ann Arbor itself grew dynamically in the 20th century. Specifically a new City Hall, new election laws, and a new city charter were needed to make the city government more alive and responsive to the people, making participatory government more of a reality. In Portrait of the Political Growth of Ann Arbor, we will talk to three citizens representing different aspects of the city's development during this time. First, Mr. Fred Looker, involved in the city government since the 1920s. Mr. Looker was City Clerk from 1951 through 1965. He reminisced about Ann Arbor's first electric voting machines.
  • [00:13:05.21] FRED LOOKER: I remember the first time the voting machines were used. I went down to the polling place at the Armory, the Fourth Ward, and I could see a pair of feet under the curtains there. And I could hear a machine being rung, and I said what goes on there? And I won't mention the name, oh, he says, Mr. So and So was just seeing how the machines run. I said, well what are you going to do with all those votes he's cast on there? Oh, we never thought of that. So we had to void the votes that were on that one machine for that day, but he got his practice in any way.
  • [00:13:54.40] SPEAKER 2: Mr. A.D. Moore was a councilman for the longest continuous time of any councilmen, 17 years, from 1942 to 1957. I asked him what politics was like when he first came to Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, due to technical problems, you will only hear the audio portion of this interview.
  • [00:14:14.85] A.D. MOORE: Well it was pretty tame, you might say old fashioned. The city was small, the university had about 10,000 people-- 10,000 enrolled as I remember it. And the butcher, and the baker, and the harness maker, any one could be elected mayor. Things ran along, they ran along all right I guess.
  • [00:14:38.41] I don't think there ever was a major scandal in this government. Never in my 17 years was there ever any hint of a council member being approached in a shoddy way, and I have no reason think that anyone ever was. But on back of that I can't say was not in the government. But I read the papers and I can't remember any scandal. It's been a good town.
  • [00:15:06.34] SPEAKER 2: Highly involved in both council and police activities, I asked Mr. Moore whether today's popular criticisms of government bothered him, especially the trend of many young people to avoid politics altogether.
  • [00:15:21.38] A.D. MOORE: If you turn off politics, well in essence you are resigning from the human race. What could replace it?
  • [00:15:30.42] SPEAKER 2: And you feel-- that's right. But you feel that the systems can be corrected so that--
  • [00:15:36.26] A.D. MOORE: It has to be. Yes, yes indeed.
  • [00:15:38.61] SPEAKER 2: And that calls for some very bright and committed leadership.
  • [00:15:41.60] A.D. MOORE: It calls for yielding, it calls for compromise.
  • [00:15:46.76] SPEAKER 2: Well we began by talking about what got you interested in the field of politics along with your engineering and teaching vocation. May I ask, as you look back what genuine personal satisfactions you have derived from your experience in city government?
  • [00:16:03.68] A.D. MOORE: Oh, a very great deal. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. And it means of course living two lives at once and doing two jobs at once, full time at the university and it should be full time downtown. And yet you simply have to do the best you can on both sides of the fence there.
  • [00:16:26.63] So I had a very, very rewarding experience. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. I had the opportunity to bring voting machines to Ann Arbor. I'm the one who led that parade after staying up till seven o'clock in the morning one night counting ballots, paper ballots, I decided that this wouldn't happen anymore.
  • [00:16:50.26] And I was the main influential in bringing parking meters here over some dead bodies.
  • [00:16:55.68] SPEAKER 2: What was the objection to parking meters?
  • [00:16:57.38] A.D. MOORE: There's always objection to parking meter. Merchants sale, Main Street, or whatnot think that it'll drive people away and it doesn't work that way. But they try them and they are convinced. And let me say this, without parking meters there would have been no parking structures. Because it's a little bit like a dare between two boys, and let's say I'm the bigger boy, and when I say you get a reputation before you come around challenge me, you know? Well the city has to get a reputation in order to get a parking structure.
  • [00:17:30.32] And by putting in parking meters and getting an income that's established on a certain level, then you go to your bonding people and say, here will you sell our bonds? And they did. And then that means more income, and that means another parking structure. That's how we got so well off.
  • [00:17:46.86] The outstanding thing that happened during my years on the council was adopting a new city charter. Oh yeah. And new city charters often do not get passed the first time they are presented to the electorate. But we had a good Charter Commission, they brought in a good new charter, there were good arguments for it. Even that isn't enough often.
  • [00:18:12.53] But I might say that I'm a Republican, but the Democrats also trusted me. And I stood back of the new charter, and I think that was a major influence on getting it through on the first vote.
  • [00:18:29.63] SPEAKER 2: Ms. Nan Spero was an active member of the City Charter Commission of the new charter adopted in 1955. She first discussed the problems of city government before the new charter and then her efforts at organizing for charter revision.
  • [00:18:43.75] NAN SPERO: The main point was that the charter was all right for the 19th century and early 20th century but it was not usable really, not as usable for the mid '20s-- I mean the mid 20th century. And particularly for the burgeoning community here. Ann Arbor was expanding at a great rate.
  • [00:19:17.17] They had an old idea, old system, of running the city by volunteer boards and commissions which was fine, it involved a number of fine citizens. But at the same time it divided the authority. Some of those commissions, for instance, would have charged the business of certain departments. And this was time consuming because, actually it wasn't centralized. There was no centralized purchasing, no centralized budgeting, no centralized system hiring personnel at the time, each department did their own. It was a much more efficient city government.
  • [00:20:03.56] In 1940 two attempts had been made, actually the revised charter had been submitted to the electorate and they had been turned down. So by 1940 the League of Women Voters nationally became very much interested in improved local government. And particularly in studying the manager, city manager form of government. It seemed to be better adapted to modern times. And the local unit here went right along with it.
  • [00:20:39.82] And so we got busy on it and had a committee to study the needs. We got together with other groups in town, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Democratic Party, some very fine liberal Republicans, and other concerned citizens. We got started studying and we even got as far as putting out petitions for charter change. When all of a sudden it came to us that the city wasn't ready for it.
  • [00:21:21.97] We kept hearing grumbles from the conservative business group downtown that this was radical and we didn't need it, and that sort of thing. And then we took a poll of the members of council at the time and found that the majority of the council members were against it, including the mayor. So we did a quick retake and said, perhaps this is not the time.
  • [00:21:53.72] And we had a committee, it was called the Charter Revision Citizens, wait a minute, let me get it, it's the Citizen's Committee For Charter Revision. So we said, well we won't do it right now, but we'll go underground. And we'll try to get a majority on the council and let the council take the responsibility for studying the new charter and putting it on the ballot. So we persuaded all four or five of our own members to run for the council. And we were successful, and before you know it we had a majority on the council.
  • [00:22:37.64] SPEAKER 2: Portrait of the Growth of Ann Arbor through the eyes of three active citizens. Finally we must look at the profile of politics and government in the city today. When I asked Ms. Letty Wickliffe about the history of Ann Arbor politics, she simply replied she was too busy making history in the present. A candidate for County Commissioner in the past year, Ms. Wickliffe speaks as a black and as a woman, but most importantly she speaks of the unity and strength needed in dealing with the problems of city government.
  • [00:23:11.70] LETTY WICKLIFFE: So that would be a form of discrimination, certainly. It has just been recently that a great, a large number of blacks hold offices on all levels, city and state and national. And they're just getting more and more involved in politics. Which they should, because that's the only way that one can really know what's going on.
  • [00:23:43.19] If you're not involved, you don't know what's going on and that's true of all people. There are many whites who are not involved in politics. And they don't know the issues, and they're not particularly interested because they are getting along all right. It's only when people who are not getting along, who have a problem, that they really want to become involved and try to change things.
  • [00:24:14.57] As I was talking about the young people-- young people want to be involved but my experience with them is that they don't have the background. It's not that they can't get the background but they're so sure that their youth and their native intelligence will carry them through, and it takes more than that. And you find the statesman who were really outstanding and who contributed to the development of any country, not only ours, where people who not only had intelligence but they had experience with it. And that's what I feel that young people need.
  • [00:25:06.08] And we do need young people. We need young blacks, and we need young whites, and we need the other races too, involved. As long as we concentrate on race we're not going to get very far because then what you do is divide people. Divide people because of race, , or divide people because of religion, anything like that. And people who want to divide people do it because of the power that they have or control.
  • [00:25:48.98] And poor people, I've always been handled that way. They're handled that way now. If you can put one person against the other person then they don't have the strength of unity. This is one of the problems.
  • [00:26:11.22] And the minority groups, regardless of what group it is, they're waking up now and they're beginning to realize this thing. And it's going to have to be a change. Somebody thinks, many people think, well, we'll just live along and get along all right with what has happened in the past. But they should see now that that's not true. We're not going to do that, there has to be a change.
  • [00:26:47.39] SPEAKER 2: On the night of November 5th this year, Republican Marvin Esch was reelected to the United States Congress. Election night is something which belongs to the victor. Just as hope for the next campaign belongs to the candidates who will run again. So it is the full circle. Portrait of the Growth of a Politician, the growth of the city government, and the active growth of citizen participation in the present and the future.
  • [00:27:13.16] Politics is politics. As Americans we will probably always hate and love politics at the same time. I guess I remember when being a politician was something to be proud of. And the people we talked to today are people we can be proud of. We can be proud of our government in the future if we take it in our hands.
  • [00:27:34.34] SPEAKER 1: For us, the family, and for all of you who worked so hard. We've been very proud to our family to represent you in Washington during the past eight years. And we look forward to that challenge in the next two. But the mood of the country is different this year. It's different, I think, because of the tragedy that all of us have had in the past two years.
  • [00:28:01.46] And that's why we wanted to go out in a people-to-people campaign to reach out to the voters and to tell them that our system still works, and that we should have faith in our system. And the hundreds of volunteers that we've had this year, and the great work that I've had from my family, even to the point where my wife wore out her shoes, she's got her bare feet on her. The great support that we've had from my family and from you testifies to the fact that we still believe this system of government that we have. [CHEERING]
  • [00:28:39.72] [MUSIC PLAYING]

| Report Problem