In the end, Mike Tuffelmire proved to be a better Catholic than a neighborhood activist. Tuesday, Senita Lenear cruised to an easy 59-35 victory on an 1100 vote margin. Given the very low turnout, the results were probably to be expected. The race is perhaps better thought of as competing affirmative votes, rather than as divvying up of the electorate (aka zero-sum”). There were always more votes to be had, so the failure in the Tuffelmire vote is best seen as a measure of strength for his ideas, his sales, if you will.
And the bulk of that margin took place in the four square miles that make up the Ward’s NW corner, a region roughly bounded by Wealthy, Sylvan, Burton and Lafayette.
Most of the Lenear margin came here. But this wasn’t Tuffelmire’s problem. To understand how he lost we will need to look elsewhere.
Going into the race, one could divide the Ward into three rough clumpings. There were neighborhoods that were African-American and broadly poor, often living in housing stock that was pre-WWII; people lived there because of socio-economic constraints; these are the Constrained. Then there were the “first ring” suburban precincts, built up in the 40s and early 50s — these were then and now, the First Homes for families, typically bungalows and some old colonials. Then there are the Suburbs, initially built out as ranch houses (note the difference between east and west side of Plymouth), the move-up neighborhoods, the middle class, for the most part post-1960 construction. In this mix there are some outlier neighborhoods: Heritage Hill, Ottawa Hills, the subsidized apartments out at Eastbrook or in back of Town and Country (44th SE).
Constrained, First Homes, Suburbs: this is the physical and political geography of the Third Ward. In his literature and approach, Tuffelmire aimed at the First Homes neighborhoods, places like Alger Heights (Pct 72-74), Mulick Park (59),and Boston Square (75). He spoke of better representation, concerns for public safety (property crimes) and of fiscal prudence — all themes that should resonate. These neighborhoods would give him an edge over the Constrained neighborhoods — principally African American and rather solidly for Lenear. The Commission would be won in the Suburbs.
That at least was the apparent strategy. Only it just didn’t work out that way.
Let’s Do the Numbers
The First Home neighborhoods didn’t respond.
- Mulick Park (59): one in eight vote; Tuffelmire lags by 68 votes
- Boston Square (75): one in fifteen vote; good news, Tuffelmire runs 25 votes behind.
- Alger (72-74): one in twelve vote; Tufflemire gives up 63 votes.
- Ken-O-Sha (65): one in twelve; Tuffelmire keeps it close, lagging by 21 votes.
Note, the problem is not the lost votes but the missed connection. These were to be the natural connections, but the message missed.
Where Tuffelmire did show strength were in the Suburb precincts going out Burton:
- Indian Village (55): 11 percent vote, Tuffelmire actually tops Lenear by 3.
- Ridgemoor (54,69): 14 percent vote, Tuffelmire lags by only 3
- IHM (77): 13 percent vote and Tuffelmire lags by 20.
These neighborhoods are shaped by the presence of two Catholic churches (IHM and St Paul the Apostle) — Tuffelmire grew up in IHM, and retained the support of members there. Away from these Catholic neighborhoods, Tuffelmire struggled.
- Pct 53 (Raybrook, Calvin College): more Christian Reformed, positive on City issues; Tuffelmire surrenders 68 votes
- Pct 56 (east side of Kalamazoo, Brookside CRC) with 58 (mostly condos, Breton/44th): 13 percent vote, Tuffelmire drops 69
- Pt 57 (Sherwood Park): this is the last standing suburban school in GRPS; one in eight vote and Tuffelmire comes short 32.
- Pct 68 – 71(Ottawa Hills): one in eight vote, but Tuffelmire comes short by 128 votes, in many ways the most disappointing showing of the race.
What Did He Miss?
Three things likely combined to doom the campaign.
First, the neighborhood message did not motivate. To win, Tuffelmire needed to make a case that things were really broken at City Hall. There was potential in the message, but he did not have it tuned to sufficient intensity to motivate the dissatisfied. Ironically, the issues that could have been pursued (Roads, economic development, transportation and continuing integration of services), broad City-oriented issues, were the ones that a local campaign passed by. The Big Picture would have helped.
Second, there were the public schools. The Four Square Miles, noted at the beginning, are the core of the GRPS sending community on the SE side. The likely reason for voting for Lenear is because of her identity with GRPS. This also explains the the win in out at Sherwood Park.
Third, let’s call it diversity. It certainly trumped the progressive politics. Within the broad CRC/Calvin mix is an affirmative response to diversity, best expressed by Rev. Al Hamstra on MLive
Two words influenced the Rev. Albert Hamstra’s vote for Lenear: “Black female.” The Christian Reformed Church pastor said “it matters to me to have diverse people in leadership.”
This is also the likely reason for the Raybrook vote, and probably much of the Ottawa Hills vote, too. What the Tuffelmire campaign missed was a connection to this CRC community. Without it, then the community votes for its perception of the common good, the broad and good vote. Issues of perceived racial (and sexual) justice become important when there there is a missing personal connection. This alliance of justice, as it were, explains why the Ward has consistently voted for conservative African Americans.