In the summer of 2012, Michael Zytkow became a prominent figure before the DNC when he joined — and usually led — bands of protesters attempting to hold local corporations like Bank of America and Duke Energy accountable for what the 99 percent saw as harmful practices. Just over a year later, the 27-year-old activist is changing his approach. Zytkow recently announced he is running for City Council.
Along with raising a few eyebrows, he may have a chance to make history. In a council where an incumbent rarely loses at the district level, Zytkow is running for the seat eight-year District 4 Representative Michael Barnes is vacating to run for an at-large position.
Zytkow would also be the only council member in Charlotte's history proud of being arrested. While his campaign was announcing his formal candidacy on June 22, Zytkow was in Raleigh participating in Moral Monday. The day ended with him in handcuffs.
What makes Zytkow's election to City Council truly remarkable, though, is also his toughest obstacle. He is running as an independent/unaffiliated, and in Charlotte more than anywhere else perhaps, that can be a hard hole to climb through.
"It will be interesting to watch and see if he can mount enough of an aggressive campaign using Democratic ideas and values to compete with the eventual Democratic candidate in the November election," wrote Michael Bitzer, associate professor of political science and history at Catawba College, in an email. "With many districts gerrymandered so heavily to favor one party over the other, and Charlotte city council districts reflect that, Michael could serve as a kind of 'protest' candidate to the established party figures and see what kind of reaction the District 4 voters have."
Unlike Republicans or Democrats, third-party City Council candidates in Charlotte are required to gather signatures from 4 percent of the registered voters in their district. Zytkow will petition door to door in hopes of receiving 3,063 signatures in District 4, which encompasses much of the University area and part of east Charlotte.
Though going door to door is hardly a burden, Zytkow says he has used the petitioning rules to get closer to what he hopes will become his constituency.
"This whole petitioning process was essentially created to prevent people like me from getting on the ballot by creating obstacles," he said. "But in the process I've met so many voters who are shocked to have a candidate coming to them to discuss issues and who is reaching out to them. The response has blown my mind."
Zytkow is using his candidacy to raise awareness for partisan campaigning rules that impede third-party candidates — a campaigning and election system he says isn't "even remotely competitive." As the founder and president of the Campaign for Political Reform he created an hour-long Powerpoint presentation using historical lessons and provocative voting literature to make a 21st century stump speech that he often shows voters. Much of his platform includes preserving Charlotte's tree canopies and building safer crosswalks
Zytkow has gathered a little over 500 signatures since announcing his candidacy and is confident that he will be on the ballot. He has recruited more than 50 people to work for his campaign and gathered the support of statewide groups, including the North Carolina Green Party. Though he says he is thankful for their nod — he has worked with them locally in the past — and agrees with many of the Green Party's "Ten Key Values," which include advocating for social justice, equality and non-violence, he emphasizes that he is not affiliated with one political party.
Raising awareness for a broken election system is a priority, but so is joining City Council.
"I fully intend to win," he says. "We have a huge opportunity. Charlotte has given me so much and I intend to give back."
Clarification: Zytkow still works with the N.C. Green Party's Charlotte chapter, serving as its co-chairman, but he says his campaign is unaffiliated.