Bliss certified as write-in winner for Madison Heights City Council

Runner-up shares thoughts on campaign

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published November 22, 2021

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Despite running as a write-in candidate where his name did not appear on the ballot, Madison Heights City Councilman Mark Bliss was able to retain his seat, according to results certified after the other results were reported from the Nov. 2 election.

The final count, certified by the bipartisan Oakland County Elections Canvassers, tallied up 1,767 write-in votes for Bliss, putting him ahead of challenger Quinn Wright’s 1,743 votes, and securing Bliss the third and final seat that was available. Each term is for four years. This will be Bliss’ third term since first joining the council in 2013.

Bliss explained that the write-in process takes into account the intent of the voter.

“The name doesn’t have to be 100% accurate — just enough to identify what the voter intended,” Bliss said in an email. “Some misspellings like ‘Mark Bless’ or ‘Mark Blitz’ were counted, but there were a couple dozen additional votes that appeared to be for me, like ‘Mike Bliss,’ or those for ‘Tony Bliss.’ Similar to the Mike Duggan write-in race in Detroit, those votes could have been challenged in court, but given the fact that we had already won the official count, it wasn’t necessary to pursue that.”

Bliss explained that he had intended to run for reelection on the ballot, but due to a $125 fine when he filed his petitions to run, the county removed his name from the ballot, even though his petitions were already certified in Madison Heights.

In the process, he unwittingly made the history books.

“This is the only time a write-in has won a council seat in the history of Madison Heights, and it’s very rare in Michigan,” Bliss said. “For every Mike Duggan, there’s hundreds of failed campaigns, so I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am to the voters for taking the extra time to write my name on the ballot, and make a little bit of history here.

“Honestly, the historical aspect of this is something that my dad (the late Tony Bliss) would have loved,” Bliss added. “He served on the city’s Historical Commission for years and loved unique firsts like this, which makes this victory even more special for my family.”

    
A challenging campaign
Bliss said that running as a write-in candidate was like operating two campaigns at once.

“The first is the traditional campaign to earn votes, and the second is an educational campaign on how to cast a ballot for a write-in,” Bliss said. “The latter is much more tricky because it’s more about the process, rather than how good of a job you’ve done or how well you’re known. I’d like to say that I had some sort of ‘hack’ or ‘secret sauce’ that won this race, but ultimately it was just about working hard enough to get both messages out to people enough times that they were both willing to write me in, and able to do it so that it counted.

“I knocked on more than a thousand doors, attended every ‘meet the candidates’ event, and sent more mailers and digital ads than I ever had,” Bliss said. “I’m glad that it was enough so that I can keep serving the city I love, and I’m deeply appreciative of every one of the nearly 1,800 people who cast one of those weird, and historic, write-in votes for me.”

Since he first joined the council, Bliss has had a hand in several major initiatives. He created the Information Technology Advisory Committee, or ITAC, which has helped modernize City Hall. Bliss also created the Arts Board, responsible for various programming and the outdoor murals, and he co-chaired the Trail Tunes strolling music festival this year and last, helping to bring together the community during the pandemic.

“Those are the fun things, and I’m proud to have gotten them going. But I’m equally as proud about the policy work I’ve been a part of that has helped make our city more attractive for economic development, with us generating the highest rate of economic investment since the 1990s,” he said. “That policy work is obviously a bit less fun than a music festival, but it’s incredibly impactful in the long term. Similarly, our city now has the highest investments in public safety and quality-of-life improvements since the Great Recession.”

He said that his council career has always been about the community for him.

“My kids are the fourth generation of my family to live in Madison Heights, so I generally approach every decision I make on council asking if that vote makes the city as good and safe for my kids as it was when I grew up here,” Bliss said. “This is the toughest campaign I’ve ever run, but also the most meaningful. When everything happened we had two options — sit this race out, or run an improbable write-in campaign. I knew that the odds weren’t going to be in my favor, but I also wanted to show the city, especially my kids, that while circumstances in life can knock you down, what matters most is how you respond to those setbacks.”

    
The runner-up
Wright, who the night of the election was unsure whether he had won, and who is now confirmed to be the runner-up, said he was proud of his first attempt running for the City Council, managing to come within striking distance of the three incumbents. He thanked all of his supporters.

“This year’s election was significant,” Wright said via email. “Although it was a slim vote difference, the citizens made it known that there is appetite for change. I’m honored that over 1,700 residents believed in me enough to make this historical run very close in the end.”

Wright’s candidacy was unique in that one of his goals was to help bridge divides between people at a time when sociopolitical differences run deep. It’s a topic he has discussed before while serving on the city’s Human Relations Equity Commission, and it’s one he will continue to explore.

“The division stems from us pulling away from each other, rather than pouring into each other. For example, we’ve seen this across the country as we dive deeper into political camps where we can no longer see the people behind their opposing views,” Wright said. “But you can’t address the problem until you’re willing to accept it’s real. Our goal was to bridge these complex divides by first acknowledging their existence. We want to first validate our neighbor’s story, and then assure them we have more in common than not. The path to unity is acknowledging each other’s experiences.”

Wright, who is Black, has also tried to raise awareness for the inequalities in society, encouraging people to reflect on those issues and any subconscious prejudices they may have, so that they can more consciously work toward a just society.

“Inequalities exist in not accepting other’s shared experience,” Wright said. “I spoke out against some in the community protesting our Juneteenth celebration” — a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — “and that was weaponized as spreading division. That is an example of inequality. A person of color being chastised for standing up for fair treatment can’t be marginalized into causing division. It must be heard, empathy should follow, and questions as to what exists in our city to make someone feel that way.

“As the chairman of the HREC, I feel it’s our duty to lift up and acknowledge all marginalized voices when they are being overlooked. I recognize that hearing about inequality can be exhausting, but imagine not having the option of being relieved of that exhaustion,” he said. “We want to help restore that empathy for all neighbors, and help everyone in our city to feel seen and heard.”


The new appointee
Another challenger who did not prevail in his run for a four-year term is Sean Fleming, but he is now a member of the council after being appointed to fill a vacancy.

Since he was the runner-up in the 2019 City Council election, the city charter designated him as the replacement when Kymm Clark resigned from the council at the end of September. So now Fleming has taken her place, and will serve the remainder of her term, which ends in the fall of 2023.

Fleming officially joined the Madison Heights City Council on Oct. 11.

“When Roslyn Grafstein became mayor in 2020, and Bob Gettings took office, it left myself per the charter to be appointed next if someone were to leave council,” Fleming said in an email. “My top priorities are to remain a nonpartisan leader, and to improve the city in all ways possible.

“While I am new to council and just getting started, I am already talking about my personal and public-given ideas to staff and other council members,” he said. “One of my top issues was business license reform, and this occurred my first meeting. I have been an advocate for some time about the business licenses process, and advocating for improvement.

“I believe that the current council will be able to make great strides for improving the city in many aspects, and I look forward to being part of it all,” Fleming said, adding that he can be reached at his city email, seanfleming@madison-heights.org.

 

 

A history lesson
While he wasn’t up for reelection this cycle, Madison Heights City Councilman Robert Corbett was  reminded of another time that history was made during an election in Madison Heights.

It was November 1999, and Corbett had just run for the City Council.

“I left City Hall (that night) believing I had lost by three votes to incumbent John Turchin,” Corbett said in an email. “After talking to a few people, I decided a couple days later to file for a recount of the vote. Although I did not think anything would change in the results, the technology at the time was new, this being one of the first times scanner technology was used.”

About 10 days later, the county’s recount team conducted a physical recount, vote by vote, in one of the conference rooms in the basement at Madison Heights City Hall. Turchin and Corbett chatted at a table nearby.

“I think we almost got thrown out a couple times for making jokes and getting a little loud,” Corbett said. “John and I had been friends for many years at that point, so there wasn’t anything personal about the recount.”

Early that afternoon, the deputy of the recount board announced the board was about to certify a tie in the election. A few days later, the two candidates were summoned to the county clerk’s office where a tiebreaker was held.

“It was a two-step process,” Corbett recalled. “First there was a coin flip, which was won by John. He then reached into a box that contained two pieces of paper. One said ‘elected,’ and the other said ’not elected.’

“He pulled up the ‘not elected’ slip of paper. Pro-forma, I reached in and pulled out one which said ‘elected.’ And so I was declared the winner,” Corbett said. “I took my oath of office a couple days later. There have been a number of close races over the years — but that was the only tie I’m aware of.”
— Andy Kozlowski

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