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

Big City, Bright Hope?

IMG_0617There are plenty of ways to look at the proposed term limit change to the city charter. For a start there is sore loser frame; or the “anybody but George Heartwell (and throw in Rossalyn Bliss)” frame. And of course, another favorite would be that of the vaguely concealed Tea Party initiative — another right wing, ill considered piece of politics forced on the general population. While there’s some truth to all of these, their easy perspectives hide the actual civic discussion underway.

Grand Rapids continues to think about what it means to be a Big City. Stuff is happening here as the latest Movoto post would suggest. We’re a city making the lists. And while that sounds good if you’re walking down Cherry Street, or hanging out downtown, in the neighborhoods it is more ambiguous.

The battle on term limits is part of the same discussion that came with civic tax initiatives (Silver Line, road repair), as well as in last year’s Third Ward race between Senita Lennear and Michael Tufflemire. Listen closely, and one can also hear it in the  discussion on black business Jamiel Robinson is spearheading. While it is nice to have the rapids back in Grand Rapids, say, how does that translate to the neighborhoods? Is the Big City, in effect, for all of us? How does the Big City become the city that embraces its neighbors?

There’s an economic anxiety lurking, not so far from the surface. One can see it in the signs themselves, or rather where the signs lie. In the Third Ward they’re on well kept homes, young and old, whites and blacks. They may be doing ok, but the edge is there, if one looks. Perhaps nothing reveals it quite so plainly as the Urban Institute’s map of mortgages:


The lack of mortgage activity in the city speaks volumes about the continuing economic struggle in the region where the Big City glitter doesn’t make it out to the post-war neighborhoods of the city — those blocks with the 50s  brick ranches. For those neighborhoods, the larger national narrative of suspicion of elites takes hold, something that proponents of Term Limits certainly are counting on. Thus the campaign uses the language of “entrenched interests” or of vague lobbyists and the like. These are the stand-ins for the economic elites robbing us of our future: whether we call it Obamacare or the Koch brothers it is the same. We are beleaguered; we can only look out for ourselves. This is a corrosive vision, a fragmentation.

Taken at its best, the  Big City offers an alternative to this national rhetoric of suspicion. It’s not the festivals or polished buildings (or the bikeways), but an approach, a process, a working together. It is of course, imperfectly realized as the continuing discussion makes clear, but we nevertheless should be clear how different it is from prevailing attitudes elsewhere.

The question of Term Limits, then, is one of approach to those items still on our civic to-do list, viz. how to bring neighborhoods up; how to improve the schools; how to add high quality jobs. We can opt for the current path of pulling back, of looking out for oneself (that wearisome pattern of our present politics), or that of the Big City and the promise that it can in fact, be for everyone.

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

Goeing, Goeing, Gone?

Does Bing Goei know something we don’t? Or is he just really pissed? In today’s press conference, he suggested a little bit of both:

“I had to rethink my position,” Goei said. “I’ve always challenged people, when they see a wrong, to stand up and challenge it and make it right. I’ve been asking other people to stand up and this became ‘Am I going to stand up?’”
“I can’t let a wrong or an injustice go unanswered and unchallenged. And when I look at Roy being a Republican leader for Grand Rapids, that move was made in Lansing. No one has said he’s a Republican here and I want this to be a choice.”

Perhaps we can attribute it to blood in the water, but Goei has been pretty cautious — after all he considered running earlier and then declined to run. So some other recalculation has taken place. Whatever the reason, Goei’s entry makes the task for Roy Schmidt all that much harder.

Tactically, Goei faces a challenge: his write-in campaign will need 4,000 – 6,000 votes for a clean win. That scale is certainly larger than his mailing list from his last run. His clear advantage is that he will be a known quantity for many in the district if nothing else, from his last run.

But it’s going to take money. Here, Rep. Ken Yonkers’ abandoning Schmidt serves as an indication of potential funding. More critically for the campaign will be that of organization. At this point it looks almost certainly like a direct mail campaign rather than a lot of door to door.

At least one commentator on MLive has suggested that House Speaker Jase Bolger is already at work on this, that Goei has at least his tacit blessing, or even more, perhaps the assurance that Schmidt will be gone by August 4.

Of course much of this is good news for Winnie Brinks.

Her background in the Christian Reformed Church dovetails with that of Goei’s — when it comes to the center they appeal to the same audience. In the general this may prove problematic, given Goei’s more visible standing in the Third Ward, but for now, she’s out front and on the doorsteps. As Brandon Dillon showed in 2010, hard work and vigorous campaigning can make a big difference in this district.

The larger question in the next two weeks will be what to do with the Republican Right Wing. In 2010, Goei ran slightly to the left of the militants, (aka Tea Party). For Schmidt, the defensive move will be to shift rightward. The danger is that the Third Ward is conservative but not as anti-government as the militant wing presents itself. Even if going right wins it for Schmidt in the primary, it only serves to confirm to conservative centrists that they will be better with the moderate Winnie Brinks.

But the other option on the  table, that Schmidt will withdraw, also poses a danger for Goei. Does he then lean right to better secure a win in November? Or can he keep reasonably centrist and so suck some air out of a Brinks’ campaign? Here, his first hesitancy probably comes into play. The ideological contortions that would be involved are the sort that can subtly rob a campaign of its attack. And most definitely, a Brinks-Goei battle will need strong, aggressive campaigns.

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

Timing is Everything

Michigan’s Rick Snyder has his sites set on Michigan’s ramshackle educational system. Goodness, there is enough work to be done, much of it the legacy of Prop A.

The big news how ever is the timing:

“I’d say in the next year or two I’d actually like to say ‘Let’s step back, let’s look at the broad picture, the formula,'” he said.

Now there is a practical reason to taking this step — the system is certainly complex enough to warrant such a step. Then again, for an unusually active administration, one that has radically overhauled Michigan’s tax code, this appeal to “modesty” seems a touch less persuasive. This is not a modest administration.

By his proposed timing, the Governor admits that an incoming Legislature will be better suited for the task. The current legislative team cannot handle this task — something that Democrats have long held. Snyder’s timing for reform is not only an implicit rejection of the present austerity-minded, Tea Party madness of Lansing, he practically asks that it be the core issue of the coming election.

For education advocates this is a gift. The question that can now be asked of every candidate, D or R, is whether they support the Governor’s upcoming reforms. By making education reform the big project for the next legislature, Snyder opens the door for a significant conversation.

Of course there is political risk here. After all, those in safe districts may still be elected on the old Tea Party ways and so have no stake in the Reform outcome (see the DRIC mess). More subtly, by advocating reform but not specifying it, the educational community may have an opportunity to lay down markers to further restrict his options. A more education-focused Legislature is not any more likely to take the Governor’s lead on reform; they will bring ideas of their own.

For now, let’s call the Governor’s appeal for what it is: Michigan needs a new Legislature if it is to reform its schools.

Filed under: Education Policy, Michigan, , ,

That Hoekstra Dog Whistle

Bad ads are rarely an accident. Quite the contrary, sometimes the things most offensive are the very things most planned. Ask GoDaddy. Or perhaps Peter Hoekstra.

Hoekstra’s infamous  Asian-bashing xenophobic Super Bowl ad went viral, receiving mention in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the New Yorker and countless other blogs (including those in China). A disaster. And now it’s pulled — a mercy death, surely. Still, it deserves an autopsy, in part because in examining the corpse, we we may be able to see something of the thinking of the Hoekstra campaign and its electoral strategy.

After all, this is a Michigan MBA, the former vice-president of marketing at Herman Miller, a smart guy. So just what was he thinking?

Her Lips say Finance but Her Eyes say Jobs

Advertising works on two levels: there is the direct cognitive message, charged with the main marketing points; then wrapping it are the associations created by allusions, the visuals, the manner of presentation.  This latter makes another unspoken argument.  When these two go together the effect can be can be quite powerful, as Ronald Reagan’s  Morning in America ad demonstrates. The twin message paths also lure political advertisers to create ads with two messages, a nominal message and a “dog whistle” inside message created for some subset of the audience.

And the two message approach seems to be the approach of the Hoekstra ad.

On the face of it (and in subsequent ads, here) Hoekstra goes after Sen. Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) spending, positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. This is actually boring and forgettable. The images, the emotional vehicle is something else again.

The “dog whistle” is about jobs.

For all the mocking tone of our debt to China, in Michigan the issue of the economy is less that of finance than of manufacturing. The story of the past decade is the near-death of domestic auto manufacturing, the loss of 800,000 jobs from GM alone; a story of shuttered factories, faltering communities, and nation-leading unemployment.

It goes to the gut.

And that seems to be what  Hoekstra was looking to do: a two-fer.  Nominally, this was going to be an ad about Debbie Stabenow and her (profligate) ways and positioning Hoekstra as a fiscal conservative. A good message for the managerial suburbs like those of eastern Kent County or Oakland County. Underneath, in visuals a different emotional message was going to be told, one aimed at the working class suburbs of Muskegon, Wyoming, Downriver or  Macomb County.

In looking at the presentation of this appeal, we can see the subset Hoekstra was hoping to reach. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Michigan, Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Party of Self-Destruction

Once again in the recent school board election, the conservative wing decided to self-destruct. In this case, by making union support the deciding issue.

So late last week came this card:

Two flaws present themselves:

First, there is the delicious faux populism, comparing average  salaries: teachers $55,000, and “the average salary for you and me” of $33,000. This latter number is something of a mystery, to wit: per capita (i.e. individual) income in the metro area is roughly $33,000 and $20,800 in the city– but that’s calculated spreading total income over total individuals. A more realistic number is that of Household Income, and here too the numbers are off. Median Grand Rapids income is $43,900. Not to belabor this, but the “average salary” seems to be an entirely fabricated number.

And then, there is the over the top language, “Stop the Union Takeover ….” The issue at hand for the school board is not the question of Reform, or Excellence, but of the dreaded teachers and their union, the conservatives whipping boy/gal de jour. Now in fairness to the mailer, this sort of approach is a motivator for the conservative side of the fence, a fear-mongering, yes, but a motivator all the same.

Still, it is so fundamentally stupid. Stupid, for misreading the situation (none believe that Raynard Ross or Monica Randles are tools of the union — at least none who have met them).  But even more so, for how it corrupts the discussion that must take place. Grand Rapids Public Schools is up against financial constraints and the challenge of preparing children in poverty. This will take a coalition drawn from across the community. And one member of that coalition will most definitely be the teachers. Given that, where — why?– does one gain by attacking teachers?

Sadly, the post card is a microcosm of the same political notion at work in our state, notions that imagine that there is something like a free lunch when it comes to education. The attacks on teachers and even the notion of public schools to judge from some both function to degrade the schools we have, and leave our children and our community under-prepared for tomorrow.

Filed under: Elections, , , , , ,

Dodging a Bullet

The City and its supporters let out their breath the other day when the City Income tax increase passed.  Yes, it was by the narrowest of margins, but it passed.  Coupled with other tax increases in the County, many have rightly understood this as a sign that the Tea Party movement has crested, or at least come to the end of its leash.

And that likely is true.  No less, true is how the measure came perilously close to defeat, not at the hands of the Tea Party, but because of its friends.

The tale of the Silver Line

Last year’s defeat of the millage for the Silver Line bus proposal would seem to have doomed this election.  In that election, the City broke along the classic East/West split, with the west side voting solidly against, and the SE side giving strong approval.  The result in the city was a 52% win for the millage request (with other municipalities sending it down to eventual defeat).

The militancy of the contemporary Tea Party opponents coupled with west side antipathy towards taxes made electoral strategy obvious: concentrate on voters in the First (west) and Second (north) wards.   The results show a remarkable impact: 16 of 26 precincts in the First Ward saw increased share of vote yes votes from 2009; the number of precincts in the Second Ward voting Yes for the tax increase grew from 10 in 2009 to 15 in 2010. Clearly, the efforts of the campaign team worked.

And yet the measure passed by 200 votes. That tale comes in two parts.

The City Collapses

A comparison between 2010 and the 2009 vote shows a significant loss through the center city and the urban neighborhoods.  The turnout dropped in Eastown and East Hills.  These precincts saw an absolute drop of almost 100 voters in the turnout.  And had the neighborhoods voted at the same average rate as the rest of the City they would have had more than  300 additional voters.  On the south side of Heritage Hill (3-14, and 3-16) 157 fewer voters showed up to vote than in 2009; and if one calculated the expected average vote, the loss was more than 350 voters. These are not Tea Party enclaves.  Rather with their mix of poor and minorities, the results suggest  that the income tax campaign had failed to connect with them.  The loss of the votes did not doom the measure, but rather took away its cushion.

Meanwhile a more dangerous tale was being told in the SE side.

Hesitation in the South

In 2009, even the conservative precincts came out solidly for the transit measure, with every precinct voting in favor.  A different story got told in 2010.   Where Yes vote share had expanded in First and Second wards, in the Third it shrank.  None voted as strongly as they had in 2009, indeed seven precincts slipped over into the No side.  However looking at the overall numerical totals, the Burton precincts extending from Plymouth & Burton to Calvin College (junkies, that’s: 54/38, 53/39, 5) not only voted large, but came close to outright defeat of the measure. How do we explain this? Is this merely a pocket of conservative Republicans, immune to the charms of the campaign?  Perhaps.  But there is more.

The slippage in the SE side compared to the North and West Side neighborhoods suggests that the campaign did not really addressed the issue.  It made a classic mistake: it assumed its victory.  There is likely also a cultural shift at work as well: appeals were crafted that worked with the sort of West Side populism (aka Tea Party and before that Reagan Dems) that campaigners knew and understood.  The SE political culture was not picked up, and so the native Republicanism took over (another political truism: no campaign loses to the default position).  Finally, there is the problem of the City itself.  The missing minority and urban voters would have put the measure solidly in the black.  Again, the disappearance of these voters points to a failure of the Income Tax campaign itself, either in strategy, or more likely, in execution.

Are there lessons here? Those running on the SE side had better heed them.

Filed under: Elections, , ,

Where will they go?

The news today was as expected: Steven Heacock announced that he, too, will stand as a candidate for the Third Congressional seat.  Heacock has the sort of political resumé that makes such a run a natural.  And for this, centrist Republicans are all breathing a sigh of relief.  More interesting  the Heacock announcement per se was the subsequent endorsement by Jerry Kooiman, leaving State Senator Bill Hardiman the only social conservative in the race.

Normally, this would be a Hardiman advantage.  The west side of Kent County and large parts of Barry are well known for their social conservative orientation.  And there is no doubt that Hardiman has carried the water for them.  So given this, it is all the more strange at the slow, even reluctant start of the Hardiman campaign.

Heacock opens with a dedicated web site; so too, does newcomer Bob Overbeek.  So what does Hardiman offer?  A splash page.  Now the real difficulty here, is less the splash page, than the lack of cross links to such sites as “billhardimanforcongress” and the like.  He owns them, but has not put up the cross links.  Whether we look at this from the marketing or the political, you need to help searchers find you, and well… he’s making it difficult.

So what are social conservatives supposed to do?  At the very least, they will need to dig deep into their pocketbook to run a campaign that gets respect.  The more likely answer is that the Culture Wars are indeed over.  It is no longer enough to be for Family or Marriage; for those  seized with political passion, they now follow other gods, not least being those of the Tea Party.

Filed under: Elections, , , , ,


March 2020