Windmillin'

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

Campaign Notes

[I will be enjoying life far away from the polls next week. But before then, here are some notes on various campaigns]

Quite Likely the Whitest Campaign Ever

That would be Pestka-Thomas primary. Were one to look at the visuals of their websites, their Facebook pages, or for that matter the material that comes in the mail, why one would think there were hardly minorities anywhere in the region. Sort of like Ottawa County (if you’re a Republican).

This is more than an oddity, however. In the general election, minorities will play a crucial role, the challenge being to draw the occasional voter to vote the rest of the ballot.  While the voting decision for poor and minorities is often made fairly late in the campaign, candidates cannot wait until then. Moreover, the lack of face time undercuts both candidates’ claims to being progressive.

I live in the city. I know how important Democratic values and Washington decisions are to my neighbors. I would like to see more evidence that they will get heard.

Too Conventional?

When the Pestka campaign chose the standard “Defend the Retiree” stance to push back against Thomas, one can hardly blame them. This is the common tactic for appealing to a core Democratic base; it seems like an easy win. But it is also a trap, one that will become painfully clear on Wednesday, August 8.

There is something rather old-fashioned about this, almost charming. And that’s the danger. “Old fashioned.” Something from the 80s or 90s. Against a 32-year old tyro, does it work?

If anything, this defensive approach gives the opposition two avenues of attack: old ideas (that presumably don’t work), and since most adults know that entitlements will need to be looked at — the defensive approach becomes easily portrayed as a form of “do nothing-ism.” At a time when the GOP will be running on “fiscal austerity” (albeit of the sad Paul Ryan approach), the defensive position gives them the mantle of “reformer.”  It cedes the frame to the other side. And as a matter of practical politics, coming across as a conventional Democrat is a fair way to keep moderate conservatives from voting for you. Oh, they may despise Amash, but the more Pestka sounds like one more Democrat — well the campaign begins to bleed the voters it needs.

And that would be a shame. In other forums  Pestka has demonstrated a real appreciation for the budget decisions confronting the nation. By becoming known as that sort of practical, economically informed candidate, he can successfully whittle away at the Amash support.

Schmidt throws a Hail Mary

Another flyer in the mailbox is this, from Rep. Roy Schmidt

The Catholics are his last bastion, it would seem. Running as a social conservative would have been a good stance for the general, but the drumbeat of condemnation, from the County Prosecutor, Schmidt’s own nephew, and of course the press on MLive — standing up for new life and babies, but not standing up for your friends and constituencies? That doesn’t work. So he ends up simply being a Catholic candidate instead of a social conservative one, the former being a parochial stance, the latter at least in theory, one that represents a region.

As a matter of electoral politics, one also has to ask how this plays in the context of a senatorial primary. With Hoekstra well on his way to the win, the social conservative wing of Hekman (and once Glenn) is simply too small. Here, Bing Goei’s connection to regular GOP members gives him an edge. With the Hoekstra train coming through, the one play that Schmidt did have would be casting himself as a proto-Tea Party member, but then again, that would violate his implicit appeal of the “same old Roy.”

All these troubles arise because the original plan to defect was handled tactically rather than strategically. Without consideration of how to position oneself after the switch, he ends up with surprisingly little to say. And of course, if you are going to run for office, you will have to say something.

Farm? What Farm?

Last, one of the odder pieces of politics has been the attempted return of Jim Vaughn to his county commission seat.

Vaughn takes a resolute stand for jobs and for attention to the black community, but then draws a sharp (and negative) contrast with Farmland preservation. For most Democrats, this is an odd position. It does suggest another form of older politics. In the post civil rights era, one of the compromises black politicians made was the sort that secured direct advantages for communities, but largely ceded the issues outside the neighborhood to the dominant party (i.e. the Republicans). This style of politics works both ways, for the white politician, it allows for some sense of doing good, after all one is supporting their elected representative –even conservatives want to do justice — and at the same time, it provides another vote on items of concern for the conservative wing, such as opposition to farmland preservation.

This pattern of mutual benefit can also be seen in various redistricting schemes that consolidated black voters in guaranteed districts, thus freeing up other districts for more conservative white candidates.

As I said, this is an old pattern.

What Vaughn misses is the more integrated way of both parties. For the GOP, this has been shown in greater party discipline. There is less room for the older style on the part of whites, too. It is now ideological. For the Dems, issues are also more integrated. We no longer think in terms of simply our separate boxes, not even that of union, non-union. The wiser heads have come to see that the attention to the environment is every bit as important as addressing the problems of the City. The pulling it apart, the notion that Green has no place at the (economic) table is over.

Last, Vaughn’s approach might have some traction in a more purely black district, but redistricting has tossed in a number of precincts that are less inclined to make the same economic trade-off, and certainly more inclined to value the environment.

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

The way we were

Anna Bennett goes after a Pestka vote on anti-Planned Parenthood bill in 2001. For her, it is proof positive of Pestka’s fundamental anti-woman stance, the crucial attack line for the Trevor Thomas campaign.

Reading it however, one can think of the role of time. After all ten years makes a big difference.

At the start of the millennium Grand Rapids was only beginning to emerge as the shining light in Michigan. Meijer Garden was just beginning to come into its own; downtown, the DeVos campus was newly built; and on the medical complex, a billion dollars worth of new construction was still on the planning boards (if that). Politically, there were stirrings, but in 2002 the new governor, Jennifer Granholm could not take the city; the now powerful Progressive Women’s Alliance had yet to be formed; and a progressive mayor was yet to be elected. The Grand Rapids that can host innovation like Art Prize, that makes a home for young adults and even invites them back, the Grand Rapids that Anna Bennett, Trevor Thomas and a wonderful set of others have found and made their own — that Grand Rapids was still being born.

And ten years ago Trevor Thomas was a high school senior, a good Catholic boy, going to school in the suburbs. What did he think then about this piece of anti-woman legislation? Was he already the pro-choice standard bearer he has become? Or was he like so many others in our city in that day, who worked in the factories during the week and knelt in the pews on Sunday? They voted consistently pro-life.

Now  these were the same working class, skilled trades that knew Steve Pestka, that voted for Steve Pestka. The had nice homes on the NE side, or up on the hill; they attended Blessed Sacrament, Holy Spirit, St. Adalberts, St Als, St Izzies, or out on the west side, Anthony Padua. For ten years, Pestka had walked in their neighborhoods, stopped at their doors, learned their values. They were staunchly right to life; they could be maddeningly parochial, they often were skeptical on racial issues, and they disliked the Republican east-side managerial types. Pestka was not simply their representative, he could be an advocate for education or even for racial justice, but there was one voter for this community, and that was always going to be right to life.

The objection to the Pestka vote is in one deep sense an  objection to the community he represented, and the same community which Thomas calls home. What this young criticism by a Thomas or a Bennett misses is the story of  far we’ve come as a community. The Thomas campaign becomes plausible only because others have labored for a decade on small elections and large to build constituencies. The results of the end of the decade were no fluke. The work of Steve Pestka, his fellow commissioner Jim Talen, candidates like Peter VanderMeulen and others all worked to lay the foundation for a more vibrant party of today.

Ten years ago, no one thought Democrats could challenge for the congressional seat; today we have a sharp primary battle precisely because victory is a possibility. That possibility is the product of a host of pragmatic and progressive, known and unknown political activists, among them being Steve Pestka.

Ten years makes a difference. The question is now what do we do next?

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

Off to the races

The beginning of the month saw the financial reports for the looming congressional races, primary and general. And with it, also came some useful positioning as to how the upcoming campaign may go.

First, the money; Nate Reens provides the details:

(Steve) Pestka, a former Kent County judge and state lawmaker, banked nearly another $130,000 in contributions from others to put him on even footing with incumbent Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, according to the records that cover the first quarter of fundraising this year.

Given the national stature of Amash, it would be foolish to think this $200k is anything more than pocket change. A serious threat — and Pestka is clearly approaching the serious threat threshold — will be the motivation. As the proclaimed heir to Ron Paul, Amash can tap some incredibly deep pockets.

That’s why for the D’s it is less a matter of dollars than of organization. Of the two Dems, the Pestka campaign has the present advantage here over that of Trevor Thomas — certainly it has deeper connections into the community.

Second, the frame. Of more interest than the numbers was the social media frame from the Thomas campaign, providing a sharp contrast between themselves and the Pestka campaign

Total Facebook Likes: Trevor For Congress: 566 / Vote Pestka: 268
Weekly Facebook Mentions: Trevor for Congress: 113 / Vote Pestka: 44
Total Twitter Followers: Trevor For Congress (@TrevorThomasMI + @Trevor4Congress): 1,106 / Vote Pestka: 86
Total YouTube Views: Trevor For Congress: 6,904 / Vote Pestka: 60

So let’s score this. Social media and the internet generally facilitate five political tasks: Content, Messaging, Fundraising, Networking and Branding.

Content — That would be web site and YouTube views. The continuing, puzzling absence of content from Pestka and the YouTube views from the Thomas campaign together suggest an early lead. Score Thomas.

Messaging — Twitter and Facebook are both classic push media for this task. Moreover, they reach national audiences. Strategically, the battle will be fought in a four county district. Seemingly large numbers are at best non-conclusive unless made geographically more precise — the number of followers in the district or region are far more important. No score.

Fundraising — if the Obama campaign is any indication, this is a function directly of Facebook and to a lesser extent of web sites with their more passive appeals to Give Now. A secondary indication of capacity would be the Facebook mentions (though an even better would be the Twitter mentions) — these indicate potential sources. For now,  the numbers are likely too small to really offset the advantages of ordinary fundraising, and there Pestka has the lead. However, strategically the Thomas campaign cite of the numbers indicates an appeal to national donors. For now,  a draw.

Going into the general the networked base will be a significant resource for the Amash campaign. So every effort now is useful when anticipating that turn.

Networking — A classic function for Facebook (and before that, MeetUp — do we use that still?), particularly useful when tasks like petitions or door-to-door call. Thomas Facebook numbers do not look especially large, given their national character and the Pestka campaigns obvious organic connections. This is an area needing work in the Thomas campaign. Call it Pestka.

Branding — Political branding (and its evil twin sister, negative advertising) is typically  a function of heavy advertising cycles, with direct mail. Here, social media provides a means to circumvent these onslaught through directly appealing to likely voters and supporters. However, to be effective these efforts need to be done earlier, and more consistently than in conventional campaigns.  Tempo and quantity are parts of the brand. Since the beginning of April and after the above data, the Thomas campaign has noticeably stepped up its messaging/branding campaign.

As the unknown in the race, the task of branding is paramount for Thomas, whether it will be enough to claim voters is an open question. In contrast Pestka has a brand but it likely needs refurbishing.

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

Jobs, training, and education

Today’s New York Times tells the story of another part of the proposed congressional budget: cutting of job (re)training.

Whether Congress is willing to consider more aid is uncertain. The federal budget endorsed by House Republicans calls for reductions in a broad category that includes job training.

Now this should concern most folks in west Michigan. The shifts in jobs have put a number of workers in economic jeopardy; re-training is one of the crucial skills the region needs for economic health. And it is not only re-training, but simply the training itself.

As Rick Haglund pointed out Sunday, Michigan jobs are not only going unfilled, but the State continues to underfund

One of the state’s biggest problems is that it doesn’t have enough workers with the skills to fill about 76,000 available jobs posted on Michigan’s online jobs bank.
What is the Legislature’s response to that? Squeeze K-12 and university budgets.

More expected than disappointing has been the stance of “Congressman No,”  Rep. Justin Amash. His profound skepticism about the civic infrastructure robs the future prosperity.

On the surprising side, there is the silence from the Democratic challengers, either to Amash’s own votes, or for the general cause of education. After a month, the Steve Pestka campaign has yet to put out any information as to what the candidate stands for. On anything. The web site is little more than a bill board with a space to contribute. The campaign site of Trevor Thomas provides more information — one would expect that, they are in some sense the challenger, the unknown — but again, not a word about education. Not even where he was in high school, ten years ago.

Such silence is confusing for two reasons. First, for constituencies, education and retraining are essential. The African-American community has especially supported the cause; the districts to the east of Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills) are state-recognized leaders in education. Meanwhile in Calhoun County, the federal government provided $5 million in stimulus retraining. Second, knowing that the Republican campaign can pull out serious financial guns, it simply makes no sense to wait as to messaging. Like or not, the November election campaign has already started.

Filed under: Economy, National, , , ,

Mixed Messages

Trevor Thomas formally kicked off his campaign for the Third Congressional seat with a special guest: Bob Eleveld. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Eleveld is a former chair of the Kent County GOP and helped in the local McCain campaign in 2000. So what brings him out? As MLive reported

While Thomas supports the environment, woman’s rights and LGBT rights, he’s strong in his beliefs and will not waver, Eleveld said.
“He’s not going to be anybody else but what he is to get votes. He’s just going to be Trevor,” Eleveld said. “He thinks for himself.”

Eleveld, you see, is that most rare of endangered species, a liberal/centrist Republican, socially liberal but economically conservative.

His endorsement is a prize for the Thomas team,  but it also is one that adds some new challenges.

When combined with the theme of “Jerry Ford values”, the endorsement suggests a real move to the center. There’s more than a whiff of the “post-partisan”  when Thomas touts his ability to put aside partisanship.

Then again this is the same campaign that has vilified the Pestka campaign for being in the center and insufficiently progressive. Clearly a message is getting confused. Who could blame Democrats for wondering which is the real Thomas?

The presence of Eleveld on the campaign team, and even the messaging of “Jerry Ford values” create more distance between the campaign and the minority community. Those with memory know that the long time “progressive” Republicans nonetheless held to conservative economics. It’s Suburbs v. City, Forest Hills v. GRPS.

The desire to be post-partisan, to be a bridge-builder is admirable; the lessons of the past four years in Washington, offer abundant evidence that a tougher mindset may be needed.

Of course, it may also be that “progressive values” really do end up as a set of social issues and leave off economics and the question of jobs. In a word, suburban values.

But make no mistake, it’s going to take a tougher mind to fight the Austrian economics of Amash and the Tea Party.

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

Two Dems better than one Republican

Tomorrow morning Steve Pestka joins Trevor Thomas in the race for the Third Congressional.

Pestka brings a solid record as a moderate, pro-life Democrat, a background that has attracted attacks by some, as well as spurred doubts by progressives in the community. To date, none have gone public with their misgivings.

Thomas has a local connection (Wyoming native, GVSU graduate) and comes off of a big win for the overturning of Dont Ask Don’t Tell. This work has brought him to national attention, at least in the LGBT communities. And Thomas is also young, 28.

Both are driven by a combination of the redrawn lines of the Third, and by the staunchly conservative stands taken by the incumbent, Justin Amash. Add to this that the prospect that 2012 may in fact look like 2008 (so Ruy Teixiera), the candidacy becomes hot property. In 2008, the new district basically broke even in its vote for Obama (177,195 McCain, 180,021 Obama).

If the district looks like a possible win, how are the two Dems ready for the challenge? Read the rest of this entry »

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

The Windmill Turns

The big news in the last 24 hours was the emergence of Justin Amash as a candidate for the Third Congressional seat, and the retirement of the incumbent, Vern Ehlers.

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

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

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