How Zachary Ackerman beat the odds to become the first U-M student in decades to be elected to Ann Arbor’s City Council—and what he plans to do once he’s there.
Zachary Ackerman had already been attending Ann Arbor City Council meetings for seven years when he decided he would like to run. That doesn’t sound unusual until you realize that means he attended his first meeting when he was 15 years old.
“I was a nerdy kid at Pioneer [High School], and I realized that I had a passion for the city,” says Ackerman, now 22 and a political science major set to graduate in December. “This year, I saw an opportunity to get involved in local government, and I went for it.”
In his case, “going for it” meant running a door-to-door, boots-on-the-ground campaign for Ann Arbor’s City Council against a popular incumbent candidate—as an undergraduate student at U-M.
Well-spoken and passionate, Ackerman has an intensity and breadth of knowledge that belies his relative youth. Born in California but raised in Ann Arbor, he also boasts an impressive résumé, filled with experience at different levels of government. He served on local campaigns for City Council and mayor; spent several years spearheading grassroots organizing efforts for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.; and in 2014 took a semester off to serve as deputy field director and special assistant to Debbie Dingell’s successful U.S. Congress campaign.
Last February, when Ackerman decided to run in the primary as a Democrat against Stephen Kunselman in Ann Arbor’s 3rd Ward, he knew he faced an uphill battle. In Ann Arbor, where the candidates are almost always Democrats, the primary election is the real local election. The general election in November is typically a pro forma exercise that affirms the primary election’s outcome. The four-term Kunselman, who is also a lifelong Ann Arbor resident (and, at 52, an established adult), also had a solid support base. And a U-M student had not won a seat on City Council for more than 20 years.
But Ackerman was undaunted. His campaign got to work, knocking on 4,000 doors—and more than half of those were knocked by Ackerman himself. He spoke with hundreds of residents and neighbors, learning their thoughts and concerns about the community, and even secured an endorsement from Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor (A.B., B.M.A. '90, M.A. '94, J.D. '97).
“My campaign was personal and active,” says Ackerman. “I wanted to know what the people of Ann Arbor wanted and needed out of their city.”
And Ackerman was definitely listening. Throughout his campaign, he heard a common refrain from constituents: Ann Arborites love their city, but they need better infrastructure and improved public safety in order to take advantage of it all.
“First and foremost, we need to fix the roads, and ensure that we install traffic calming and pedestrian safety measures,” Ackerman says. “We have to make sure that when we’re planning our projects, we do so with safety in mind.”
Regional cooperation is also one of Ackerman’s key concerns. He stresses the importance of strengthening partnerships with surrounding cities like Ypsilanti in planning for Ann Arbor’s future. He also hopes to increase collaboration with U-M, one of the city’s most important economic engines, but also a large consumer of city resources.
“I think the partnership between the University and the city of Ann Arbor can be stronger,” says Ackerman. “There are ways for us to promote student safety and make it an enjoyable and safe place to live for everyone.”
As a councilmember, Ackerman will also work on keeping rental costs affordable for all city residents.
“Although an estimated 40-50% of Ann Arbor residents rent their home, I will be the sole renter on the City Council,” says Ackerman. He hopes to help by promoting density, encouraging mixed-income neighborhoods, and incentivizing landlords to invest in high efficiency heating and appliances, which is both eco- and wallet-friendly.
Olive Branches in Tree Town
Despite ambitious ideas and impressive drive, Ackerman stresses that he’s not interested in politics as usual.
“I want to emphasize civility and build consensus during my term,” says Ackerman. “Local government doesn’t need to be divisive. We don’t always have to agree, but we have to operate on the assumption that we’re all working toward a solution.”
Outside of his interest in city politics, Zach says he’s a normal 22-year-old—which may be why, on election night, he was waiting to hear the election returns at a bar with Chip Smith, a candidate from Ward 5.
“I was at Arbor Brewing Company when I found out that I’d won, so it also turned out to be my victory party,” laughs Ackerman. He was elated: He had eked out a victory against his incumbent opponent, beating him by a slim margin of 40 votes.
Today, Ackerman is finishing up his final semester at U-M, penning a column for the Michigan Daily, and getting ready to serve the city he loves. But when asked about the future, Ann Arbor’s newest councilman is careful not to get ahead of himself.
“I want to focus on these next two years and provide responsive leadership to my constituents,” he says. “And if the people of Ann Arbor want to rehire me in two years, that would be amazing.”
Photos courtesy of Zachary Ackerman