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

Showdown in the Motor CIty

While I’m here doing schoolwork and chores, Democrats from across the state are meeting (and voting at this hour)  to elect a chair. And by all accounts, the battle should be a doozy. Certainly the campaign has been intense with both incumbent Mark Brewer and challenger Lon Johnson sending out numerous pleas, as well as motivating their forces. This has already been covered on numerous blogs and posts, perhaps most consistently at Michigan Liberal.

While the battle has been fierce, the issue is finally less about the individuals than the shape of the Party. The painful truth of 2012 is the political weakness, first with the  defeat of Prop 2 and then the lame duck enacting of RTW and other questionable legislation.  The tools to challenge or impede this were noticeably missing. Add to it the  resignation of Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway (and her subsequent conviction), and we have a Party that for all its national strength has not found the a way to translate that into state-wide leadership.

The failure is strategic. it does not rest on the shoulders of a single individual, nor can one blame the UAW, that favorite whipping boy of so many. The problems are more structural in nature, something that Johnson caught sight of in his interview on Eclectablog:

This is a very different state structure-wise than any other state that I’ve worked in and I’ve worked in a lot of ‘em.

In what way? What do you mean by that? How is it different?
Institutions play a larger role, without a doubt.

You’re talking unions, in general?
I’m talking unions. I’m talking other groups. We have a respect for institutions. I think our party does and our party activists, not only do they play a larger role, but we see the value in institutions because there is a great value in them. We are a better party because of it.

What has certainly happened is that the balancing and politics of various institutional forms has handicapped the ability of the Dems to field strong state-wide candidates. Without strong leadership on top, it makes the electoral challenge of turning out low-information voters. And this is the strategic question at its core: how do Dems as a whole combine to think in terms of winning the off-year.

On this strategic question, neither the incumbent nor the challenger have suggested any real solutions.

From the Brewer camp has come an emphasis on redistricting as the culprit. Redesigned seats could give one or more congressional seats and perhaps a majority in the State House, but this would do nothing about the core failing in terms of winning state-wide, or of better mobilizing generally in off-years.

For Johnson, the focus has been on the adoption of campaign techniques from OFA, and in particular on the focus on expanding the base to the young, minority, women and low-income. In one sense this is the future, particularly the social media aspects of the outreach. Nonetheless, if the institutional silos remain, the problem of actually mounting winning statewide offices will still be significant.

No matter who wins in this hour, one fact will be true: Michigan Democrats cannot go on as they have.


When it came time, Mark Brewer withdrew his name, leaving only Lon Johnson. The strategic questions remain.


Filed under: Democratic Party, , , , , ,

Furniture City, meet Cereal City

The state Republican Party released their planned congressional redistricting map. While the contortions in the northern burbs of Detroit make this another piece of court bait, the map for the local 3rd Congressional is certainly interesting, linking as it does Calhoun County and Battle Creek with the folks of the Furniture City.

Perhaps the most intriguing part is how the GOP gives up Battle Creek — a definite Democratic stronghold. The explanation no doubt lies in an attempt to save Rep. Tim Walberg (CD – 7). For those in Kent County this looks to be something of a fair trade. The new 3rd Congressional gets a Democratic stronghold, but needs to surrender (parts of?) Wyoming. By most lights that would be a fair trade. If the GOP plan does anything it formally creates a more competitive seat.

“Formally” is the operative word here. The configuration raises two important campaign challenges, particularly for any Democratic candidate. This is no longer a seat that can be run from the City; it’s no longer “local.” The inclusion of Battle Creek will ask campaigns to divide their time between the two regions — especially Democrats who will need a strong turnout in Calhoun to have any chance of winning, at all. The addition of a second media market also raises the funding bar for any serious campaign.

Likely the most interesting item — and the reason that the GOP likes this configuration (well, apart from saving Walberg) — is how it skews old. Where approximately 25 percent of Kent County is over 62, in Calhoun County the number is over 33 percent, one third. These are generally  more conservative voters, although in the Ryan era and the proposed revision of Medicare this older make-up opens a significant vulnerability to the sitting congressman in the 3rd, Rep. Justin Amash.

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

First Map on State Senate 29

The Michigan Dems released their redistricting map for the state senate on Tuesday. While we can’t say much about redistricting elsewhere, the proposed map for Kent County has a lot to recommend:

To understand what’s going on, keep in mind three numbers: Kent County’s population (602,622), the minimum size for a senate distict (247,091), and the maximum (273,100).  With these numbers, the county is entitled to 2.2-2.4 State Senate seats. Or to look at it another way, between 50,000 and 100,000 residents will be attached to a district outside of the county.

From a Kent County perspective, the proposed map matches the districts fairly well with the underlying social reality. The city of Grand Rapids is paired with Wyoming (for Dems, a happy thought, giving at least the possibility of a win); the southern tier of townships are sent to neighboring Allegan county, again a happy match of the economic populist/libertarians; and the remaining townships form the second complete district — one strongly Republican but also with a mix of economic and social conservatives. This last would be Hildenbrand’s seat.

But if this map is modestly happy for Dems, that’s a pretty good reason why it’s not likely to be adopted. Several other configurations suggest themselves for the GOP, chief would be the sending off the top two tiers of northern townships (roughly 50,000).  Grand Rapids would then be paired with Plainfield, Cannon, GR Twp, EGR Ada, Vergennes and Lowell. Again, an easy district for Sen. Hildenbrand. The second seat would then be Wyoming, Kentwood and surrounding western and southern townships – a district more in line with social conservatives.  There are other configurations, but as to sending folks away, the GOP would be advised to keep their social conservatives on the west intact (Alpine down to Byron Center).

Filed under: Democratic Party, Elections, , , , , ,

So that’s the plan?

Thursday, the County approved the GOP redistricting plan — no real surprises here, it’s the same one presented two weeks ago:

Over at MLive, there are plenty of disgruntled reactions, as well there should be.  The plan comes with several flaws, repeating the same flaw of the Dem’s plan, but also adding in the more problematic weighting of districts. The most notorious being the difference between districts 17 and 19 — a near ten percent spread. Add to all this the problems with Hispanic representation and this is a plan almost certain to be going to court.

But for now, perhaps a few broad observations can be made (detailed notes will come later).

The plan speaks to a  surrender of the city, metaphorically and literally. What is so striking about the 18th and 19th districts is that they go outside the City to gain some sort of (presumed) partisan edge. The action alone functions as a concession that in the present configuration the seats are too marginal, and behind that the realization that the City itself cannot support the GOP in state races. When you go outside for help, you admit that you no longer possess the electoral power to hold the City.

There also appears to be a metaphorical surrender when it comes to Grand Rapids and perhaps urban areas generally in Kent County. However much the proposed districts meet the formal requirements, their broken quality most notoriously seen in the twisting 15th suggests a lack of understanding for how the urban area is actually linked. This is a map composed by some one on the outside, not one who lives here. Contrast again the map developed in 2000 by the late Glenn Steil Sr., a conservative map that understood these inner connections far better.

The map also hints at what appears to be an intra-party feud within the local GOP, between the true believers and, as they would have it, the RINOs. There is of course, the lack of urban understanding (the city being where RINOs like to roam), but it can be most clearly seen in the split of East Grand Rapids, the separation of Lowell from its namesake township, and in the putting of Commissioners Boelema and Ponstein in the same district (7).  The combination of the older urban central neighborhoods of Wyoming with the suburban and even more conservative neighborhoods in districts 8 and 9 also seems to reflect his same trend.

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

Plan B.

Finally, the Dems came up with a real plan, one that was legible, backed by numbers, and largely work. Unfortunately, it was released a tad late, at the redistricting hearing Tuesday.  While not perfect (more on that in a moment), the plan nonetheless keeps districts generally in line with the underlying social realities, the neighborhoods and communities — and that’s all for the better.

Of course, many will miss it,so here it is:

As can be seen, the districts roughly correspond to the existing social reality on the ground in the city. And that is important.

Districts that cohere with neighborhoods or communities not only help those communities have a voice, but they help the County understand and make better policy decisions.

The plan as submitted still has its errors, most egregiously in the breaking in two of Plainfield Township and East Grand Rapids. Long time West Michigan observer and now head of redistricting for Dallas TX, Peter Bratt explains the ins and outs:

Section 46.404 of MCL states the standards for creating districts. It essentially follows the Apol standards (codified in MCL 363.261), and Section E discourages townships, villages and cities shall be divided only if necessary to meet the population standards. The acceptable range 5% deviation for population is 30,132 to 33,303. Plainfield’s population of 30,952 easily falls within the acceptable deviation. The same goes for East Grand Rapids.

The very short answer: you do not need to contort yourself so to get results that work. Both parties can. Whether the citizens will get this immediately or after a law suit depends very much on the decisions being made by the Redistricting Committee today.

Filed under: Elections, , , ,

Sacrificing Efficiency

When it comes to the proposed plans for redistricting our county, the picture is not pretty. Literally.

The opening shot by the Dems set up the problem — a virtually illegible map as to actual boundaries, save that city lines were routinely traversed in Grand Rapids. The first follow-up by the Republicans appeared to revel in the word “gerrymander” with its distorted snaking districts through the City of Grand Rapids and Wyoming. A second Republican map is only incidentally better, adjusting boundaries for the 15th and 16th Commission seats.

At the heart lies the determination by both parties to meet their goals by breaking municipal and township lines to create fractional representation. Behind this game playing lies an important and overlooked truth (at least at redistricting): Civic life functions better when community interests and representation are aligned. It’s a classic game scenario, we all win together but it is easy to break equity or in this case, the boundaries.

So what’s at stake?

Greater inefficiency
Mis-aligned districts, increase difficulty of representation. When a district is built of fractional units of government from breaking municipal or township boundaries, is overly contorted (“gerrymandered”) or is too diverse it challenges the commissioner to keep track of major concerns. The fractional add-on, the neighborhood at the far end of the district, these will not get the same attention. In turn that means that the County has less information than it should as to how policies affect residents, or how it meets needs.

Greater friction
Not surprisingly, mis-aligned districts also create problems for the local governments. Fractional representation interferes with the alignment of county and other units of government when it comes to co-operative projects, such as economic development. It’s not that the various entities don’t eventually mesh, but it takes longer. Meanwhile, unnecessary division creates the potential for mixed signals, in short, more friction. In the next decade, Kent County will be challenged in multiple ways to align its governing bodies whether its competing for jobs or expanding services. There’s little to be gained from creating roadblocks.

Greater distance
The last rip in the civic fabric takes place in the voter. Mis-aligned districts encourage disengagement between the voter and the county government. The harm is two-fold. First, the disengagement — this alienation — slows public acceptance of County initiatives, arbitrary districts creating the sense that policies themselves are arbitrary. The second harm rests more with the parties themselves, where the arbitrariness or craziness of the district is then applied to the author of that district. Although the partisan will believe that this second harm is moot, given that they (the disgruntled voter) will not vote for them anyway, this represents in fact, a subverting of future efforts. Not unlike the boy who cried wolf, teaching the voter that the party does not care for them  in redistricting can easily expand to a general distrust of the party in larger, more significant items.

The danger in all this is that the party — the Republicans in particular — not only sacrifice a certain governing efficiency, but that they compromise their future. Really, we can do better.

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

Drawing Lines

The Republicans released their county redistricting plan today. There’s much to be said about it, not much of it good. For now, it appears to be a win for the True Believers over the “RINOs.” That and the proposal for the cities of Wyoming and Grand Rapids have their absurdities. There’s more to be said later.

Filed under: Community, Elections, Politics, ,

Pragmatic Politics

One of the consequences of the Democratic implosion has been the need to reformulate how we deal with the other side.  What sort of cooperation do we maintain?  Do we allow ourselves to support GOP candidates in non-winnable districts, if they are right on at least some issues?

This is the dilemma of the minority party. And there’s no easy way to answer it, since after all, this is politics.

Take the case of Stan Ponstein, R-Grandville, Kent County Commission.

Ponstein is one of those Republicans that some Democrats can like, at least from a distance.  Able to win with big margins (3:1 in 2010), he has the freedom that comes from a safe seat, most notably when it came to  farmland preservation.  And if you sit in some circles, you may even hear a Dem or two note that “if Stan faced a challenge, we’d be willing to help” — that’s the power of pragmatism.  In  effect, “he’s a Republican but he’s our Republican.”

Last Tuesday, Ponstein underscored the first part of his identity: he’s a Republican.  When  it came time to reorganize the County Commission for the upcoming session, Ponstein took the big step backward.  The old deal he helped put in place two years ago? No more requirement for minority party representation on any of the major committees (finance, legislative, human resources), and no minority vice chair, instead return to the shut out caucus days of yore.  Indeed this was precisely what some of the re-elected bulls wanted, notably Harold Mast, and Stan Boelema.

Now as attractive as rule by caucus can seem, for commissioners coming from urban Kent County (the cities of Wyoming, Grand Rapids, and Kentwood), caucus rule means a dampening of their constituents’ concerns.   A caucus whose principle members are the suburban/township with a handful of urban seats necessarily means that urban concerns take second place to those of the suburban/township majority.  Caucus rule is a trap for anyone interested in advancing the pragmatic politics of building Kent County.

Thus it turns out that there remain two dilemmas for the pragmatic politician: for the majority GOP, a temptation to go partisan and so stifle the acting on urban issues; for the minority Dem, the temptation to co-operate so much with the GOP counterpart in the name of pragmatism so as to win a victory but lose the greater battle.

These tensions are only to grow all the more with anticipated redistricting and the shrinkage of the County Commission to 17.

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

The Shape of Things to Come

As sure as robin in spring, the hiring of Census workers can only mean one thing: time to again contemplate carving up the political landscape.  And really, nothing is quite so delicious.  Especially in Michigan with likely loss of at least one congressional seat.  A whole new set of winners and losers is ready to be created.

And of the first maps out, is that from Menhen, at Swing State Project. There’s plenty of discussion on the proposal on state-wide aspects, here.  For those on the west side of the state, things get especially interesting.  The second district (Hoekstra) becomes the Ehlers seat, with urbanized Kent County (Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, East Grand Rapids) replacing Ottawa County.  Meanwhile, the Third now becomes the “Hoekstra” home, packing together Ottawa, Allegan, Van Buren and about 40 percent of Kent).

Even were the arrangement not prove workable, it nonetheless can be considered as very useful  sort of thought experiment.

Here is how the district gets drawn:

If the map looks familiar, it should: this is essentially the same redistricting solution used for assigning  State Senate seats in he county.  So the 29th (Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood) includes Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Cascade and some exurb/rural townships to the east.  The rest of Kent County becomes the 28th (Mark Jansen, R-Gaines) surrounding the 29th  like a “C.”  Same topology here in the congressional redesign.

As a Kent County partisan this division can look problematic, especially as the region wrestles with issues of development and of educational equality.  These are contentious enough as it is; this political division could serve to increase the distances between cities and suburbs in ways that work against its best interest.  Indeed, practically speaking, this may be the real point of difficulty for any such plan: both parties maintain real interest in controlling their own destiny, as they have to date.  Thus, the pressure will be to vote for a unified Kent County.

Muskegon and Grand Rapids go together

This is perhaps the most obvious direction that redistricting will take if the Democratic party can control the process.  A District with both Muskegon and Grand Rapids in it would raise the core urban issues with much greater force.   Minorities gain voice.  The experience of representation in Grand Rapids demonstrates how urban issues can sway even otherwise conservative representatives.  That these two cities are also two bastions of Democratic strength in the region makes this a natural combination for Democrats.

Strength in numbers for Kent County

At first,  the division of Kent County looks counter-intuitive to the region’s interest.  Yet, as in the State Senate such an arrangement can potentially  serve to expand and extend the region’s clout.  This will be its great appeal to those engaged in regional planning.  The  risk is no less obvious: potentially the County could not be represented at all, and civic leadership would then have to depend on outsiders, an awkward situation if for no other reason than pride.

A look at raw numbers suggests that this worst case scenario may not be as likely as some fear.

In a Grand Rapids – Muskegon district, Kent County would continue to provide something close to two-thirds of the total vote, thereby making the region a natural home base.  For the new 3rd, things are a little more dicey.  Suburban/exurban Kent County would contribute approximately 40% of the base to the new district, and more importantly be home to some of the deepest Party pockets.   The centripetal pull of fundraising will keep any candidate close to the heart of Kent County.  And likely as not, also be a resident , as well.

likely provide a candidate for the seat.  The result for regional planning would be two members of congress tightly identified with the interests of Kent County.  This would be an improvement from the present situation.

In terms of selling redistricting plan such as this, the potential doubled representation from Kent County will rank high.

The 86th lives

On the Republican side, the plan would mirror the present division in the Kent County party, between the social conservatives  on the west — the party of the Lands, Voorhees, and generally Ottawa County; and the economic, leaning to libertarian conservatives of the east — this is the party of Ada and Amway, and also of Justin Amash.   As in te Democratic Party, the division between east and west is present and active, here best thought of as that of Ada and Grandville.

The present weakened state of the Kent County party not only has left a number of local Republican party members shaking their heads, but has been increasing the rumblings below deck.  As the national party tilts toward and ideological purity, the battle will almost certainly intensify between the economic and the social conservatives.  This division is already present in State House 86, encompassing the social conservatism of Walker and the economic leadership of  Ada Township.  The redistricted 3rd invites a similar sort of battle line.  A civil war among the GOP is not necessarily in the Democrats best interest; such a civil war is as likely to result in the ideological pure winning.  A region where the pure win promises less in terms of the deelopment the region requires for its long-term growth.

Notes on Weaknesses

Such a plan as this is bold,  but some obvious drawbacks do need to be mentioned.

  1. A district that cuts out the money powers from downtown is going to have some difficulty getting through.  Perhaps the region is at the cusp of really going metropolitan, but for many there still remains the hegemonic ideal: a unified political-social-philanthropic culture. This sense of the region as a region extends across party lines. It is not at all obvious that even a Democrat in the 29th State Senate seat would go along with a plan that fractures the congressional seat.
  2. Redistricting plans are better when they follow existing patterns of political or socio-economic organization.  What ever the virtues the partisan gains from a redistrciting plan such as this, it remains far more useful to have the congressional district and the metrolpolitan area(s) correspond with one another.  The questions of recovery and development that are likely to be ours in West Michigan ask for pragmatic leadership.

    Thus, while a Muskegon-Grand Rapids axis makes sense, being part of the same SMSA (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area).  The northern lakeshore counties share a different set of problems.  Representation that follows basic economic interests is simply going to be more efficient in helping those interests and communities deal with Washington.

  3. Lastly, on practical terms, a revised Muskegon-Grand Rapids district ought to naturally incude Newaygo. Newaygo has become part of the west Michigan metro area.  For the same reason, Ionia ought also to be part of a west Michigan congressional district.

The plan from Swing State Project is not the first to imagine the shape of things to come, but it does begin a useful conversation on how we can better structure our communities for better representation, and continued economic development.

Filed under: Elections, Politics, , , ,

Weekend Redistricting Playroom

One of the better ways to understand Reform Michigan Government Now! is to look at the county by county impact of its redistricting.  Here is an Excel worksheet for your amusement, with counties listed from most Democratic to least.  In between (clear background) are the Swing Districts.  And what bounces up immediately is the presence of Macomb and Oakland counties. As noted before, redistricting in those counties alone would be enough to meet the criteria of the proposal.  A little more tweaking, and one can start splitting up the state.  Practically speaking, it means the outposts in Kent, Muskegon and Manistee would all be swamped in any GOP plan,  and a generation of work gets lost

Filed under: Elections, , , , ,


August 2020