Foremost, this marks the end of a long political career, one that exemplifies the Dutch engagement on issues over the years:
- 1970s -An environmental activist, campaigning for recycling.
- 1975-1983 – County Commissioner
- 1983-85 – State Representative
- 1985-1993 – State Senator
- 1993-2010 – US Congressman
Those familiar with the SE side recognize the pattern, the movement from local issues to the County Commission, and then using that as a springboard to larger offices. It was this groundedness in local politics, in neighborhoods, but even more, in the web of Dutch American culture that gave such office holders their peculiar form of moderation. They were conservative (even the Democrats) but rarely ideological. Ehlers could play the role of party apparatchik as well as anyone, yet for his constituents maintained a moderate image — much to the frustration of his opponents.
Yet, with Ehlers’ departure, a certain hole opens up in the body politic. Who will replace him? The old neighborhood culture has at the very least thinned. (When Ehlers went to Congress the city still had six Christian elementary schools, next year there will be two. ) Grand Rapids has now expanded to an urban area encompassing Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids, the issues at the heart are more identifiably urban; meanwhile the southern and eastern suburbs have become homes for more militant forms of conservatism — social as well as economic.
What then will the new post-Ehlers world bring?
Aprés Vern, the Deluge?
Already the candidates are lining up: first out of the box was Amash. His jump on Ehlers’ announcement gives him strong creds with the conservative community. With every mention of Ehlers’ retirement, he gets a second mention — this is all to his political good. He brings the benefits of youth and of a sizeable bank account. The downside will be that he represents a militant economic conservatism that makes him anathema to moderates in both parties.
Right behind him, is Ken Sikkema, former State Senator. Now a consultant with Public Sector Consultants, Sikkema has a long connection with the region, first as a the head of West Michigan Environmental Action Committee in the 70s, then later emerging post-Michigan MBA as a Republican from Grandville. His eyes have long been on the Congressional seat. He would look to be the front runner for the moderate and mainstream GOP.
In the wings is also Bill Hardiman, State Senator for the 29th. Formerly the mayor of Kentwood, and groomed by Ehlers for the seat, his service in Lansing has been relatively lackluster, still, a lot of the old line SE Dutch like him. With Sikkema and Amash in the race, he remains the safe, nondescript choice. In the present combative environment in Washington, it is not clear that Hardiman has what Republican true believers really want. With $23,000 in the war chest, he would be starting behind, however he does have strong connections into the social conservative community.
Finally, there is Terri Lynn Land. Again, it is no secret that she has had her eyes on the seat. Term limited from serving as Michigan’s Secretary of State, she is presently identified as the running mate for gubernatorial candidate Mike Bouchard. Her jumping in would certainly be seen as a vote of no-confidence in the Bouchard campaign.
And what about the Dems?
Here, things get interesting. With the emergence of an open seat, a forgettable seat begins to look suddenly more attractive. Several names stand out.
Robert Dean (MI 75), candidate for State Senate 29 would seem to have a great deal to gain from the upcoming Republican primary. With Amash in the race, this cuts cross-over voting for David La Grand, Dean’s opponent for the State Senate. More intriguing will be the role of LaGrand’s fundraising and organization — should Dean conclude he is out-gunned, running for Congress provides an important out.
Mike Sak, former State Rep for MI-76 and Speaker pro tempore of the Michigan House. Sak has some $236,000 in his fund waiting to be used (and raised more than $53,000 in the present cycle), so he is certainly positioned. A staunch Catholic, he brings a conservatism necessary to win the mind of the district.
Other names mentioned could include former judge and state rep, Steve Pestka, though he remains far more prudent. A congressional run will be draining. That said, were Hardiman to jump in, the chance for a rematch of 2002 may be especially tempting. Should Dems decide the race is not winnable, likely sources for nominees would include those engaged by education issues (school board, PTA Legislative committees), as well as the Progressive Women’s Alliance.