Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Oh, yeah, right.

A week ago Bridge and WZZM both wondered aloud whether Michigan was turning “red.

Of course, that all depends, not least with what one means by “red.” Voting Republican at the State level? That seems to be a sure thing, between the mid-term fall-off, and the shape of the legislative districts. Nonetheless, there are also signs that “red” as in the partisan never say yes to taxes crowd was abating. After all, there was Ottawa County passing a road millage of their own. And in Grand Rapids there is a continuing push to local solutions that surprisingly do not have the partisan tinge. Even the one notorious measure, term limits, was more a product of local frustration than ideology. So if Michigan was turning ideologically red, it would be a surprise.

But just to be sure, Rep Pete Lund decided to remove all doubt with his proposal to revisit electoral vote allocation — a reallocation that would just conveniently hand off more votes to the GOP candidate. The entire premise of the bill of course is that Michigan is anything but but Red, that it will be voting for the Dems in 2016. Sharon Doente, director of the Michigan Election Coalition, nails it,

“Michigan has had a winner-take-all Electoral College since 1836. Any changes to the Electoral College should be made by the voters of Michigan and not the politicians who stand to gain.”

Taking decisions from the voters is another piece of political gamesmanship that has too often bedeviled Michigan politics.  It makes the GOP look petty when they should be looking like leaders.

Filed under: Republican Folly, , , , ,

Listening to Bad Advice

Gabriel Sanchez at the Bridge was thinking about the past elections and his decision not to vote. Formally, he was appalled by the choice between Justin Amash and Bob Goodrich, both deeply offensive to his Catholic values if in different ways.

Faced with such impossible choices (and I suspect others) Sanchez decided that the best answer was to sit this one out. This is certainly culturally understandable: there is something of this despair in the air, the stench of disconnection. But sadly, that was not his point, but rather there was another path to be followed, one pioneered by Alasdair McIntyre

I have chosen to keep faith with moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s provocative dictate: “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”

He expands this later,

MacIntyre, we cannot forget that in our present political environment “a vote cast is not only a vote for a particular candidate, it is also a vote cast for a system that presents us only with unacceptable alternatives.” As such, “The way to vote against the system is not to vote.”

McIntyre’s branch is a poor one to try and hang much on.

McIntyre’s proposal cleaves participation in the political process with its fundamental questions of how power is to be distributed, and the act of ratification — the vote. In contemporary terms, we may see the political process in both its advocacy and actions as a kind of secular liturgy — a set of acts we collectively engage in. Voting, then is a ratification of these decisions; my vote participates in the process. Again to steal from religion, there is something sacramental about it.

Political participation without voting is either a tacit acceptance of the status quo, or an appeal to a non-electoral model of change. An end around of some kind; it’s McIntyre as an anti-democrat.

What about justice?

As an acceptance or willingness to accept the status quo, non-voting makes another statement: it denies the possibility of justice. Whether it is the hunkering down despair of the working poor, the too-busy indifference of the young adult, or the belief that they’re all the same — the action testifies to a belief that what finally counts is power, power alone. The notion that power can be rightly ordered (the actual stuff of politics) is glossed over. McIntyre ends up with Nietzsche.

While there is a temptation to withdraw, especially from educated conservatives of a certain ilk (e.g. see Rod Dreher’s “Bendict option”), it is one clouded by a lack of hope. In the name of principle, it denies the possibility of principled action.

It is the peculiar evil of this age of partisanship to devolve issues of all kinds to simply that of power and self interest without the possibility of something better, greater, a good. At the end of the day politics is an exercise in hope, in believing the best about our neighbor; that’s why there can be no walking away.

Filed under: Community, Politics, , , , , , ,

Mapping the Future

MI76 : Gov 14 map This is a map that will drive many crazy in the GOP. As the red dots indicate, Gov. Snyder won decisively in the 76th District. Eleven precincts gave him at least a 20 point margin (and some came close to a full 40; a 70-30 split). The places where the party dominated on the SE side, the NE fringe (with the Riverside neighborhood tossed in) demonstrate why the district has the shape that it does. They were supposed to win in the off year, except, they didn’t. The gerrymander failed.

For party strategists, this map represents a what-if, a secret nudge of hope. But that partisan reading may miss the message. Take a look at the results for Winnie Brink.

MI76 14 mapPrecincts that were in the GOP column are now in her’s and what is more, they are there in decisive shape, with her winning with twenty percent margins (look at precinct 2-42, or precincts 3-77, and 3-59). Even in precincts where the Governor won big, the Brinks campaign tightened the margin (look at precinct 1-6).

One can look at this as a matter of hard work, that the campaign worked and earned the win. That is certainly the case. But this is also a map of hope, of a future.

Brinks strength even in the usually conservative neighborhoods points to the power of pragmatism within the City. The fact that both Brinks and Snyder win the same seats suggests a common persona, one of moderation, a look past the partisanship. There is surprisingly little of the Tea Party in this map (perhaps pct 1-21 or 1-23).

The Brinks campaign modeled this moderation as well, her’s was a campaign emphasized hard-work and pragmatic solutions. Where the term limits opponents had stumbled in the blue collar neighborhoods, Brinks won comfortably, sometimes even spectacularly.  And this was done without running away from her stance on abortion — a killer for most candidates a decade ago. Brinks again demonstrated that where one is moderate and hard-working, the questions on abortion can be handled.

As the City explores how it should continue to develop (that long conversation between the downtown and the left out), the Brinks win maps what a coalition might very well look like. Yes, we will always have the west side but most in the City want to see it succeed. And to do that, they are willing to cross lines and work together. It’s the sweat equity of hope.

And it bodes well for our City.

Note on the maps: The dots measure the size of the margin, from the lightest representing less than a one percent difference (a margin +/- 0.5 percent) to the darkest representing at least a twenty percent margin (60/40)

Filed under: Uncategorized, , , , , ,

On Natural Experiments

As with all victors, there’s always something more. For Rina Baker, that means those “stealthy” elections like the roads tax. MLive explains:

So what’s next on Baker’s to-do list?

She wants to end “stealth” elections and require that city votes take place in November of even-numbered years, when gubernatorial and presidential races are on the ballot. Last May’s vote on a city streets tax – which passed with abysmal voter turnout – partly motivated Baker’s campaign for term limits.

Baker’s complaint is that fewer people voting is tantamount to reduced democracy. Perhaps hidden in all this is the question of neighborhoods; her concern is not enough of her people are voting. This is not a generalized concern as to why few people vote in some parts of the city than others, reasons often overlapped with issues of poverty and inescapably, with race. No. That is not the concern. “Democracy” does not mean getting more people generally to vote, but getting more of your team out.

Politically, that is easily understood. Although, given the margin that these poor neighborhoods turned in for term-limits, you would think that maybe Baker actually should pay more attention (but this is not the point).

In the last election, we already have a natural experiment about voting down ticket on November elections. it’s the school board.

Few people actually voted that far down the ticket. Where on term limits perhaps ten percent did not vote, on the school board races the number is closer to half if not more. (Mathematically, the top vote getter in a precinct was approximately one third of total registered votes). This behavior is not surprising, non-partisan issues and candidates typically fare far worse than the top of the ticket candidates. The difficulty here may not simply be forgetfulness, but the reality of electioneering itself. To get a vote, one must be visible. And in highly competitive election environment that ability to get heard is substantially restricted.

Take the school board race: the incumbents win, and the new comer is a long-time civic activist, Jose Flores. In a dense environment, the most visible win. It is similar to the issue proposals: those well-known get the votes. But becoming well-known? That’s another matter.

In economic terms, we would call this a high barrier to entry.

The advantage of the odd-year election or off-season election is that it is easier to be heard and seen. It opens up the process to other participants. If anything this is the real argument for term limits: opening up the field means more, perhaps not as well-known individuals can step up. Of course if the context is that of a general November election — the school board provides the natural experiment. The unknown voice is far less likely to be heard. Ask Milinda Ysasi or Jamie Scripps.

Baker in effect, wants it both ways: more voice but then a mechanism that cuts that voice. It is a contradiction that at the least suggest that there are other ideologies or commitments at play.

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , ,

Three Maps that Explain the Term Limit Results

Vote distribution term limitsFor politicos, the above map will look rather familiar. Support for the Term Limits amendment is in red and right where you would expect it: up on the hill on the west side, and out one the NE rim. These have been reliably conservative votes for some time, and especially on the more populist measures like term limits. On the SE side, the continuing impact of the Dutch community can be seen. This pattern of balance between the far SE and the west side can also be found on taxation issues such as the Silver Line or way before, on school millages.

The SE side vote serves as a reminder that the populist, libertarian stance so popular today is not the only one available to the conservative. The precincts out Burton can be painfully conservative, but they nonetheless vote for institutions. This lies less in a hidden heart of softness, than in the character of their theology and social class. Like their neighbors to the north in East Grand Rapids or in Ottawa Hills (historically a “Yankee” not a Dutch neighborhood) the population out Burton is one that prizes education; the residents are professionals and white collar, often in management or in education. Underneath this, there is also the element of the Dutch Reformed social philosophy, “Kuyperianism” that seeks to bring belief to transform society. Think of it as social conservatism with brains.

So this is story one: the Term Limits proposal pits the conservative populists concentrated on the west side against the socially moderate SE side. For a long time in Grand Rapids history, this has been THE battle. But the map of course shows another segment for the opposition: the “hipsters” (as commentators on MLive have it) — a band of neighborhoods stretching out Fulton from Downtown out Marywood and the city limits, a region usually defined by its zip code: 49503. In contrast to the Dutch, these are largely Yankee: middle class of varying religious persuasion, largely white. This has been the part of town that has provided some of the strongest leadership in the urban revitalization, and for that matter, the City; it is the backbone of the political culture of the Second Ward (although the Ward is far more diverse than this).

In most seasons, the alliance between Second and Third Wards is enough to stop the occasional populist outbreaks on the West Side. Not this time. What happened?

Map Two: the Blue Collar Revolt

Term limits map 3 blue collar

Earlier, I had posited a blue collar antipathy to the Big City: term limits were part of a struggle for the urban guidance of the city. The data above is pretty clear.  The neighborhoods of the northside by Aberdeen, or on the SE side towards Alger Park (the blue collar part of the SE side Dutch community) — they were pretty adamant about the term limits voting in a range of 54%-60% in favor.

The distinct geographic clumping adds another layer to the story. These are not so much the disaffected as they are the invested. Their neighborhoods have not seen the downtown love, so to speak. These are also the neighborhoods with relatively less spending income: first home buyers, long time residents. What we see is something like a map of (potential) revolt. Oddly, the passage of term limits may actually help reconnect this group, provided they get representation.

A third map, however reveals the mistakes of the opponents. Painfully so.

Map Three: the Disconnected Poor

Term limits map 2 poor

Above are the low-turnout precincts, again with the darker dots indicating strong support for term limits (approx. 54%-65% in favor), the lighter dots represent those low turnout precincts that slightly favored the measure. We can consider low turnout as a proxy for poverty — a position any one familiar with these neighborhoods already understands.

Again, the geography tells everything. These are the Hispanic and African-American districts, the same ones that were skeptical in the Lenear/Tuffelmire battle.These are neighborhoods of the working poor — low turnout is strongly correlated with poverty. In civic discussions, they are also the community that is acted upon, rather than takes part (as an aside, one might read the election of Jose Flores to the school board as part of this same dynamic, a pushing back as it were).

Looking to the numbers, this was the part of the electorate where the measure won. The two thirds of higher-turnout precincts basically broke even. So although this cluster of precincts represents perhaps 20 % of the total vote, the 900 vote margin provides the win.

In short….

When considered through the lens of the usual politics, or even of the Blue Collar Revolt, the battle over term limits looks manageable. It is the failure to make the case with the working poor that really stands out. This may have arisen from unconscious bias (i.e. communicating as if your viewpoint is normative, leaving off the connecting with the audience). It could have been that the argument was too abstract relative to the proponents. It may well be something else.

Here’s one thing that advocates of the City need to take to heart: the big measures will take buy-in from the near neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and often our friends. Advocates ignore them at their own risk.

And for purposes of vote counting, these districts represent the winning margin for Term Limits

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , , , ,

The Silent Campaign

Fallen_Tree_Background_by_mysticmorningThat would be the race for the fourth and fifth school board position.

Tomorrow (Tuesday) Grand Rapids residents will elect five members to the school board from list of seven. Four are incumbents: Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, John Matias, and Maureen Slade; the other three are Jose Flores, Jamie Scripps, and Milinda Ysasi.

Without an angry or anxious community, school board races can be dull. For now, the drama has left the stage. At present the school board and the GRPS administration are enjoying success: the most recent teacher contract, powered by far better than expected First Friday numbers makes an upbeat mood; new programs are being launched and civic stakeholders are smiling; and the superintendent is recognized among the best in Michigan.

Of course, there’s work to be done, but it is of the more policy-oriented sort: how does the district begin to get traction on student achievement; how do we raise up students in the face of financial headwinds from Lansing, and the continuing impact of poverty in our community?

When the conversation turns to policy, the challenger’s road becomes steeper, still it’s not as if the candidates have been helping themselves.

Some campaigns have risen to the challenge: Baker and Falb have the strongest public identity, and are closely identified with the current state of success. Matias, too, has some visibility, and enjoys the non-endorsement from the GREA — for the conservatives in the city, this is about as a good a sign as any.

Maureen Slade’s campaign is far more low key. For an incumbent, her vision for GRPS remains remarkably under-developed. One may fairly ask if, at 71, she wants a four-year term. Among the challengers, one can pose a similar question to Flores. This is another campaign by a seasoned school administrator that nonetheless has little in the way of actual visibility. As valuable as he could be as to input, there is little evidence that this campaign is serious.

Two other campaigns are definitely serious, though with weaknesses.

Jamie Scripps brings a strong policy focus, and has won endorsements from some progressive organizations. Still, she  has struggled on the basics of campaigning. Hers has been a puzzling low key race, in part one suspects, because of her “outsider” status.

If Scripps struggles with the outsider status, Milinda Ysasi is the opposite: her ability to solicit endorsements is impressive, speaking well of her relationship building and of her progressive creds.  Of course, unless one were on her Facebook page, one would never know. What is also clear from the Facebook postings is how her campaign has only recently gotten its act together.

The relative silence of Scripps and Ysasi is a shame. Both deserve far more public recognition. As it is, in the mid-term election, the Scripps name may have the advantage if only because it will seem more familiar (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) to the electorate.

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , ,

A Muffled Voice

There’s a voice coming from the political closet: Michigan’s moderate Republicans. To hear what it’s saying (and understand the problems of Michigan’s GOP)  look no further than a recent ad from Donnijo DeJonge.

She’s pissed (or at least trying to be — this is the election season, after all). Winnie Brinks is a liar, or at least her allies are lying about who and what Ms DeJonge stands for:

Winnie claims I support the tax on pensions. This is a lie. I have never said I supported the pension tax. In fact, I support a reduction in the income tax and with that the repeal of the pension tax. I support fair and efficient tax policy. I support reducing the tax burden for hardworking Michigan families.

One can understand the confusion here. DeJonge’s web page is silent on issues of any kind. Nor was the pension tax  mentioned in the candidate profile. Then again, others would point to the interview with the MLive editorial board. Let’s just say that on pensions, it was awkward:

“You can call it a hike in tax. What I call it is making tax policy fair (by taxing pension and 401(k) income the same).”

So what’s going on here?

Brutally, some part may simply be lying. The pension tax attack has got traction and so Republicans of all sorts have to adjust, no matter what the paper trail says. It’s the old story of “I was for it before I was against it.”

DeJonge, however, is rather smarter than that, and certainly more principled. Her core positioning has been that of taking the high ground, and in that light, her words are something of a gaffe. Of course, the fiscal conservative (now) knows, the program of Gov. Rick Snyder to shift the tax burden to the individual tax payer was wrong. It was wrong, but she (and other moderate Republicans) can’t put the policy at the Governor’s feet. It was wrong, but they are unwilling to place it at the feet of their corporate benefactors.

And it may be personally wrong: an idea held once in good faith, but now exposed. Repentance can be a good thing.

There’s more. It’s not just the repeal of the pension tax, it is also the reduction of the income tax. Whether the Democratic “middle class taxpayer” or the Republican “hardworking Michigan family” the point is the same; Michigan citizens need their taxes reduced. DeJonge’s problems (and those of the moderate GOP) compound: to reduce the burden on the taxpayer means raising taxes somewhere else, or cutting programs somewhere else. And what are those trade-offs?

For a professor of public finance, the silence is hardly golden. She certainly knows the trade-offs. Then why the silence? What keeps her in the closet? Is it fear of the political powers? Is it a sort of magical thinking where some unforeseen event rescues? Is it perhaps simply the dissonance between their economic shibboleths and the impact on people’s lives?

Painful as it is, this dissonance brings some good news to the moderate faction: they still have a heart. What they lack is a voice. They know the truth; it is time to come out.

Filed under: Elections, Michigan, Republican Folly, , , , , , , ,

Big City, Bright Hope?

IMG_0617There are plenty of ways to look at the proposed term limit change to the city charter. For a start there is sore loser frame; or the “anybody but George Heartwell (and throw in Rossalyn Bliss)” frame. And of course, another favorite would be that of the vaguely concealed Tea Party initiative — another right wing, ill considered piece of politics forced on the general population. While there’s some truth to all of these, their easy perspectives hide the actual civic discussion underway.

Grand Rapids continues to think about what it means to be a Big City. Stuff is happening here as the latest Movoto post would suggest. We’re a city making the lists. And while that sounds good if you’re walking down Cherry Street, or hanging out downtown, in the neighborhoods it is more ambiguous.

The battle on term limits is part of the same discussion that came with civic tax initiatives (Silver Line, road repair), as well as in last year’s Third Ward race between Senita Lennear and Michael Tufflemire. Listen closely, and one can also hear it in the  discussion on black business Jamiel Robinson is spearheading. While it is nice to have the rapids back in Grand Rapids, say, how does that translate to the neighborhoods? Is the Big City, in effect, for all of us? How does the Big City become the city that embraces its neighbors?

There’s an economic anxiety lurking, not so far from the surface. One can see it in the signs themselves, or rather where the signs lie. In the Third Ward they’re on well kept homes, young and old, whites and blacks. They may be doing ok, but the edge is there, if one looks. Perhaps nothing reveals it quite so plainly as the Urban Institute’s map of mortgages:

mortgages-grand-rapids

The lack of mortgage activity in the city speaks volumes about the continuing economic struggle in the region where the Big City glitter doesn’t make it out to the post-war neighborhoods of the city — those blocks with the 50s  brick ranches. For those neighborhoods, the larger national narrative of suspicion of elites takes hold, something that proponents of Term Limits certainly are counting on. Thus the campaign uses the language of “entrenched interests” or of vague lobbyists and the like. These are the stand-ins for the economic elites robbing us of our future: whether we call it Obamacare or the Koch brothers it is the same. We are beleaguered; we can only look out for ourselves. This is a corrosive vision, a fragmentation.

Taken at its best, the  Big City offers an alternative to this national rhetoric of suspicion. It’s not the festivals or polished buildings (or the bikeways), but an approach, a process, a working together. It is of course, imperfectly realized as the continuing discussion makes clear, but we nevertheless should be clear how different it is from prevailing attitudes elsewhere.

The question of Term Limits, then, is one of approach to those items still on our civic to-do list, viz. how to bring neighborhoods up; how to improve the schools; how to add high quality jobs. We can opt for the current path of pulling back, of looking out for oneself (that wearisome pattern of our present politics), or that of the Big City and the promise that it can in fact, be for everyone.

Filed under: Community, Elections, , , , , , , , ,

Let’s talk money.

There is lots to be said about the term limits campaign, so lets start with the most basic. Money..

To date, the  $10K raised by local proponents is also about what it takes to run a City Commission race in the first place. It’s not the money that has stopped folks from running for office, but the candidate pool itself. The problem at hand — from their own literature — is that of lack of candidates, “many won’t run against an entrenched incumbent.” (Although there is a certain irony here, since most of the commissioners have been at best, re-elected once — this does not especially seem to be the definition of “entrenched,” say like a Fred Upton).

The cure for entrenched incumbents is simple: vote them out. And besides the money it simply is not that hard: 6,000 votes or so would do.

What is perhaps  oddest aspect of the measure is that cycling through of commissioners only means that the well-funded get in.  It pushes for more money in the races, more engagement by outside interests, ie. the professional interests. For a measure that is supposed to strengthen the connection between the local, the neighborhood, the “small platoons” of conservative lore, this would do almost the opposite. It certainly would not result in an  environment where say, a medical clerk could  successfully run.

Filed under: Community, Elections, ,

The problem in a word

Well, two: “single women.”

“I am available to share a platform with Congressman Amash. My campaign isn’t about battling the Republican incumbent. My campaign is focusing on messaging to women, especially single women, what they appropriately expect government programs can do to help them and those who depend on them.” – Bob Goodrich, Democratic candidate for the Third Congressional District.

This might have had a chance against a Brian Ellis who wanted to be a truer-than-true Republican, less so with Amash with his maverick reputation, who has invested significant energy on the National Security Administration (NSA) and away from social conservative issues.  Counting on single women for victory is not unlike the imagined path to deficit control through austerity measures alone. There are no magic bullets here, only the hard work of coalition building.

 

 

 

Filed under: Democratic Party, Politics, , , , ,

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