Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 25, 2013

Estes ponders political future after arrest


— TRAVERSE CITY — Michael Estes made up his mind after a nearly six-hour stint in jail following a drunken driving arrest:

He’d immediately resign as Traverse City’s mayor and find out if he could withdraw from his re-election bid prior to the Nov. 5 election, he told his wife when she picked him up from Grand Traverse County’s jail.

Estes’ wife, Rhonda, urged him to take a couple of days to think about it. Prior to his arrest Estes was an overwhelming favorite to win a third term, and said he’ll take his wife’s advice and wait a couple of days before making a decision.

He called his actions an embarrassment to both his family and the city, and said the incident will always follow him.

“I’m guilty,” Estes said. “I put myself in a terrible position ... and I’m totally at fault.

“You are not supposed to do this as mayor,” he said. “No matter what, this is going to negatively impact my ability to serve as city mayor.”

City police stopped Estes as he headed home from a candidate forum sponsored by neighborhood associations at Central Grade School. Estes acknowledged drinking alcohol prior to the forum, but declined to say where.

“What was I thinking; I don’t have the foggiest,” Estes said. “If I had actually gone through a thought process I wouldn’t have had anything to drink.”

City resident Andy Camden plans to cast a ballot for the Nov. 5 election. He said he might have been able to forgive the drunken driving arrest — except for the circumstances.

“You’re drinking before you are going to drive to speak to voters about your plans for what you are going to do for the city,” Camden said. “That makes a big difference. That’s very irresponsible. Maybe he has an issue and he needs some help.”

Four of six city commissioners said they don’t want Estes to resign or withdraw from the race. Commissioner Jeanine Easterday was in Japan and unavailable for comment, while Commissioner Jody Bergman said she didn’t know enough to take a position.

“He’s been a good mayor,” Commissioner Mike Gillman said. “It’s an unfortunate personal circumstance. Everybody makes mistakes, you and me included.”

Commissioner Jim Carruthers called the arrest “a travesty” and “not acceptable behavior” but doesn’t want Estes to resign.

“What’s he going to do, let Rick Buckhalter become mayor?” Carruthers said of Estes’ mayoral opponent. “The voters can decide it in two weeks.”

Carruthers said he smelled alcohol on Estes’ breath at prior city meetings, but said Estes always handled himself well and there was no indication he was drunk. He hopes Estes will use the arrest as an opportunity to clean up, get help and turn the incident into something positive.

No other commissioner said they detected alcohol on Estes’ breath at meetings. Commissioner Barbara Budros said she wasn’t even aware Estes drank alcohol.

“I’ve been with him before at social events and he’s always refused a drink when offered,” Budros said.

Commissioner Mary Ann Moore said she’s sad for Estes and his family.

“I do not think he should resign, but he should probably plan on going to some kind of counseling and publicly announce that,” she said.

Estes said he does not recall ever having consumed alcohol prior to a commission meeting. He declined to answer when asked if he has an alcohol problem.

“Obviously, people have already begun speculation ... and there’s no advantage to addressing the issue,” he said.

Buckhalter said he saw no evidence that Estes was drunk while they debated at the Wednesday night forum. He said Estes should not step down and his “lapse” should not cloud voters’ judgment on election day.

“If they think he’s right about the election issues, then they should vote for him,” Buckhalter said.

Estes’ name will remain on the ballot regardless of his decision, said city Clerk Benjamin Marentette. Should Estes resign before the Nov. 5 election, the city commission can either appoint a replacement or leave the position vacant until the election.

If Estes wins re-election and declines to take office, the city commission can appoint a replacement for the remainder of his term or call for a special election in February or May.

Several voters interviewed by the Record-Eagle called the situation “sad” but were divided on how it might affect their votes. The majority were undecided.

Resident Ginger Schultz said it will impact Estes’ ability to lead the city and it will negatively affect her decision when she goes to the polls.

But resident Penny Krebiehl said everyone makes mistakes.

“He can still be mayor if he can be honest about it,” she said.

The anticipated negative backlash against Estes already enticed some to take a shot as write-in candidates.

John Reid, a candidate for city commission, filed paperwork Thursday afternoon to run as a write-in for mayor. He’ll also appear on the ballot for city commission.

Marentette said he received several inquiries and is researching to see if commission candidates can seek both positions simultaneously. He’s also researching to determine if sitting commissioners can run for mayor as a write-in without resigning their current seat.

Carruthers said he’s been approached by supporters, but won’t run as a write-in.

“You can’t effectively organize a write-in campaign in less than two weeks unless you are prepared to spend tons of money,” Carruthers said.

— Record-Eagle staff writers Michael Walton and Nathan Payne contributed to this story.