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

Lessons from the Third Ward race

On Tuesday, Grand Rapids voters will decided on a new city commissioner. And there’s a choice:  one an activist, one a civic leader, and  one out of her element. A month or more ago, it looked to be a fairly heated, even interesting race. As we turn towards the election, the race now looks somewhat bland, at least as the usual horse race goes. And for one, perhaps an opportunity lost.

But first, to review.

By all lights, Senita Lenear is the choice of the civic establishment. She has garnered support from a wide range of civic leaders, including both Democrats and Republicans. This fits her previous experience on the School Board where she earned a fair amount of credibility moving from the perception as a protege of Bernard Taylor to real independence in the post-Taylor period. As she explained to Wood-Tv, she was asked by the Mayor to consider running for the commission seat.

From her work with the school board she has earned the respect of the African American community. Being the wife of Dallas Lenear, one of the pastors at New Hope Baptist, certainly doesn’t hurt in this matter,either.

Her positions are what one might expect: use connections to lobby for the City, act with integrity (this poses a small question: who is it that is not acting with integrity on the Commission? — a vague sort of stance, actually), work with the budget, and in the Wood-Tv interview, address violence — particularly recent gang violence) that has been troubling the urban neighborhoods of the Ward. These are safe positions, consonant with the view of the City Commission as a civic board, and implicitly appealing to the alliance between the African-American community and the residual Dutch of the far suburbs. She’s safe.

In this context, Mike Tuffelmire is for all intents, the challenger. He is younger, a combat veteran and resident now in South Hills (originally from the Mulick Park / IHM neighborhood). His core base has been the new urbanist, local-business advocates that have revitalized East Hills, the Wealthy corridor and downtown. Key support also comes from Democrats, progressives, and the anti-Taylor cluster on the the school board. The support network is younger, more urban if not “Downtown” than Lenear’s. It can easily be misconstrued, as MLive did the other day, labeling Tuffelmire a “marijuana activist” for his work on the Grand Rapids Decriminalize campaign.

The  campaign has focused on community engagement, on getting the neighborhoods heard. The campaign platform is more direct, concrete: stronger neighborhood representation, attention to violence (Tuffelmire separates violence into two categories: the direct violence of the core city neighborhoods, and the property crimes farther out), smarter budgeting, and attention to infrastructure along the business corridors. As with Lenear, these are positions that reflect his community.

Both are clearly competent and knowledgeable about the City. Both are likely to bring new perspectives to the City Commission. Yet this has been a surprisingly bland contest — how is that?

First, the neighborhood focus of both campaigns simply ignores the make up of the far ends of the Ward, out where the  votes are. While in older neighborhoods (say pre-1950) there are strong identities and even associations, as one heads south of 28th, or east from Plymouth the character changes. These are largely suburban in layout and civic orientation. This is especially bad news for Tuffelmire, since the same suburban/civic orientation has these neighborhoods thinking in terms of Downtown, and general managerial competence — this is the strong suit for Lenear. These are also more reliably conservative in vote, another potential disadvantage for a more progressive candidate.

This is not to say it can’t be done, but only that if signs are any — or at least the first — indication, neither campaign has been especially successful in connecting.

Second, there is an absence of big picture vision in either campaign. How do we build a City that supports our neighborhoods? How will we engage in economic promotion? What will we do about our streets? Other infrastructure issues. Tuffelmire begins to get close to this; Lenear settles for pictures of the Calder (a nice subliminal touch) to indicate her Downtown sympathy.

Third, status quo issues. Here, the Tuffelmire campaign likely missed how much they were going to run as an insurgent. To be the alternative, one must make a critique of the present situation. Lenear’s presumptive role as successor is the barrier.  Again, the diversity of the Ward enters in here: change for the better in the suburban neighborhoods (e.g. Ridgemoor, Shawnee, Sherwood Park, Ken-o-Sha to use the school names) will have a different feel than those who live in the core neighborhoods along Eastern, Kalamazoo or Wealthy.

Fourth, campaign experience. The Lenear campaign has experience, and a fluency in front of the camera. The number of supporters also means that networks can be leveraged. Tuffelmire has shown a greater facility with digital communications, but has not properly thought through the issues sufficient to make the case. A challenger campaign cannot afford to coast, it has to push. What is perhaps most distressing is the let-down after the Fourth. Whether it came from self-doubt, money, time the result was that mid-July there was a pause.

And Fifth, the missing. One of the most interesting aspects of the entire campaign has been the silence of certain communities. Neither campaign has shown any ability (or perhaps interest) in reaching into the old Dutch community. Although no longer as strong as it was a generation ago, the names are still important. Likewise, both campaigns have only a sprinkling of Hispanic names — again, this speaks to the limits of their own networks. And finally, there notable actors who are obviously interested in the outcome, but studiously neutral: the commissioners of the Second Ward (Rosalynn Bliss, Ruth Kelley), and the district’s other state representative, Winnie Brinks.

At this point, with the final weekend upon us, it would seem to be Lenear’s to lose.

 

 

 

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

Pulling on a Political Scab

Something is under James White’s skin. Perhaps it is only the robo-call by school board president Wendy Falb, but the irritation may run a little deeper.

The schools and the City need to work hand in hand, so it’s no surprise that as the Third Ward race heats up, school board members take sides:  Maureen Slade, Rev. Nathaniel Moody and recent member Jane Geitzen for Senita Lenear; Tony Baker, Wendy Falb, and Jon O’Connor  for  Michael Tuffelmire. I the support for Tuffelmire fears a potential polarization, or more accurately an alienation. In response to Falb’s robo-call, City Commissioner Whites took to the press.

(Falb)  “runs the risk of polarizing her own board, the parents and the community” by actively campaigning for the opponent of her former board colleague, Senita Lenear, in the city race.

At first glance this a peculiar accusation, since White himself is also on board with the Lenear  campaign. As White further explains in the article, the endorsement threatens the necessary working together of city and schools.

“The school district must work closely with and gain support from city, county, state, and federal sources.
“It is unwise to do harm to those relationships by embroiling the school district in the political arena where it has never been before.”

Never before? Even reporter Monica Scott finds herself wondering

Mr. White thinks that the GRPS board has gotten more political and said he didn’t like the direction it is going in. Do you think the board is more political now or the same as in previous years?

Given the sort of controversies that have roiled the school board over the years, the present board is far from the divisive mode of even a few years ago. What is characteristic about the board is its general public unanimity, in part because of the strength of Superintendent Neal. If anything, the addition of John Matias promises to keep the board functioning in a productive fashion.

However there is little danger of a rift breaking out between the schools and the city. Here, White’s complaint sounds stretched, but underneath there are a couple of very real issues at work.

First, is the question of class.

Read the rest of this entry »

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

New Year’s Catch Up

This is a holding post, if only to highlight some of the adventure that makes up our politics.

First, we have the Secretary of State working diligently to make our ballots “SAFE.” This will require more attention, but for now, let’s be clear that the problems at hand are those of book-keeping, or perhaps a fear of Zombie voting. More on this in a bit.

Second, there was the report Friday from the New York Times on the role high quality teachers make in educational outcomes. This only highlights the contradictions within the Republicans in Michigan, do they go for cheap or quality? Then again, considering this is the home of K-Mart, as well as  the first hypermarket (that’s you, Meijer), we probably already know the answer.

Then there is the “who, me dysfunctional?” act of Rep. Justin Amash. This too needs explication. While the forty percent defection rate from conventional GOP stances merits some recognition, it is one driven more by ideology, the difference is not that his party is too conservative, but not conservative enough.

Last on the local note, there is the departure of GRPS Superintendent Bernard Taylor. There was one story for the media but inside the stories are more that he was handed his hat. Meantime, there is a noticeable sigh of relief arising from the schools.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Uncategorized, Washington, , , , , ,

Mapping the School Race (and our City)

As so often happens, the School Board election, now concluded, functioned as a sort of proxy conflict for various parties in the city.

There were two challengers  from the civic-Dem coalition: Raynard Ross and Monica Randles, both enjoying endorsement and monetary support from the Kent County Dems and the local education union.

Opposed has been a cluster of candidates favored by the Chamber/GOP interests: incumbent Catherine Mueller, a leader in the present direction of the schools; one enjoying fairly explicit Republican support, David Clark; and a representative from the older, broad civic leadership cadre, former Urban League president Walter Brame.

The conventional read on such a split is that of a division between those supporting the GRPS administration and Bernard Taylor, and those favoring a change of direction and emphasis. It is better, perhaps to think of the divisions taking place along two axes:

Axis One: Reform v. Continuity

The obvious split is between Taylor and the teachers (and their allies). This, however masks the underlying issue. Like him or not, Taylor has pushed a number of reform issues focused on the general schools. Teachers and parents from the specialty programs have pushed back. This battle has been fought along several fronts, beginning with a real rift between the administration and the teachers, a rift further compounded by the consolidation of programs and closures of schools — both creating great displeasure on the west side of the city. The split gets fought over essentially educational policy issues, such as H grade or blended classes, overlay this with the conflict between Taylor and the teaching staff. For the neighborhoods this is a question of preserving conventional traditional schools, for teachers there is the continued disruption made all the more painful of the way things once were. For residents and staff alike the memory of what once (imagined) was, serves as a sort of grief. This was the axis of the last school board battle, and it has taken the same shape in some unfortunate ads this cycle as well.

Axis Two: Sending v. Stakeholder

But there is a second division that is no less significant for Grand Rapids Public Schools, that of the division between the sending community — those homes that have their children in the general education programs of the school system — and the stakeholder community with children in specialized, charter, schools  of choice or private settings. This latter division is one riven by issues of race and class. The sending community is predominantly, overwhelmingly minority and poor; the stakeholder community is better off, conventionally middle class, with many choosing to stay in the city. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Elections, Horace Mann, , , , , , , , ,

The Pendulum Moves

The buzz today is the publication of Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 2010). As commentators and reviewers note, this is a big shift: Ravitch was one of the champions of No Child Left Behind.

With West Michigan being ground zero for charters in Michigan, and with GRPS adopting charters as a model for reform — the shift of an advocate changes the dynamics.  A move to community-oriented schools would certainly reinforce the position of Tony Baker, Henry Campbell and Wendy Falb trying to keep Stocking School open (and correspondingly, makes the difficulties of John Helmholdt and Bernard Taylor that much more difficult).

This news should also come in the context of recent reports on the role of teacher education in school success (here, for Amanda Riley; also see Bob Herbert).  The increased role of teachers is not opposed to the charter movement per se, but rather functions as a way to focus our efforts.  For would-be school reformers (and conservative critics everywhere), this certainly means that tactics that focus on re-structuring as a magic pill loses some of its emotional energy.

I am sure we will hear more about this in the weeks to come.


Filed under: Community, Horace Mann, , , , , , ,

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