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

On Natural Experiments

As with all victors, there’s always something more. For Rina Baker, that means those “stealthy” elections like the roads tax. MLive explains:

So what’s next on Baker’s to-do list?

She wants to end “stealth” elections and require that city votes take place in November of even-numbered years, when gubernatorial and presidential races are on the ballot. Last May’s vote on a city streets tax – which passed with abysmal voter turnout – partly motivated Baker’s campaign for term limits.

Baker’s complaint is that fewer people voting is tantamount to reduced democracy. Perhaps hidden in all this is the question of neighborhoods; her concern is not enough of her people are voting. This is not a generalized concern as to why few people vote in some parts of the city than others, reasons often overlapped with issues of poverty and inescapably, with race. No. That is not the concern. “Democracy” does not mean getting more people generally to vote, but getting more of your team out.

Politically, that is easily understood. Although, given the margin that these poor neighborhoods turned in for term-limits, you would think that maybe Baker actually should pay more attention (but this is not the point).

In the last election, we already have a natural experiment about voting down ticket on November elections. it’s the school board.

Few people actually voted that far down the ticket. Where on term limits perhaps ten percent did not vote, on the school board races the number is closer to half if not more. (Mathematically, the top vote getter in a precinct was approximately one third of total registered votes). This behavior is not surprising, non-partisan issues and candidates typically fare far worse than the top of the ticket candidates. The difficulty here may not simply be forgetfulness, but the reality of electioneering itself. To get a vote, one must be visible. And in highly competitive election environment that ability to get heard is substantially restricted.

Take the school board race: the incumbents win, and the new comer is a long-time civic activist, Jose Flores. In a dense environment, the most visible win. It is similar to the issue proposals: those well-known get the votes. But becoming well-known? That’s another matter.

In economic terms, we would call this a high barrier to entry.

The advantage of the odd-year election or off-season election is that it is easier to be heard and seen. It opens up the process to other participants. If anything this is the real argument for term limits: opening up the field means more, perhaps not as well-known individuals can step up. Of course if the context is that of a general November election — the school board provides the natural experiment. The unknown voice is far less likely to be heard. Ask Milinda Ysasi or Jamie Scripps.

Baker in effect, wants it both ways: more voice but then a mechanism that cuts that voice. It is a contradiction that at the least suggest that there are other ideologies or commitments at play.

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

Three Maps that Explain the Term Limit Results

Vote distribution term limitsFor politicos, the above map will look rather familiar. Support for the Term Limits amendment is in red and right where you would expect it: up on the hill on the west side, and out one the NE rim. These have been reliably conservative votes for some time, and especially on the more populist measures like term limits. On the SE side, the continuing impact of the Dutch community can be seen. This pattern of balance between the far SE and the west side can also be found on taxation issues such as the Silver Line or way before, on school millages.

The SE side vote serves as a reminder that the populist, libertarian stance so popular today is not the only one available to the conservative. The precincts out Burton can be painfully conservative, but they nonetheless vote for institutions. This lies less in a hidden heart of softness, than in the character of their theology and social class. Like their neighbors to the north in East Grand Rapids or in Ottawa Hills (historically a “Yankee” not a Dutch neighborhood) the population out Burton is one that prizes education; the residents are professionals and white collar, often in management or in education. Underneath this, there is also the element of the Dutch Reformed social philosophy, “Kuyperianism” that seeks to bring belief to transform society. Think of it as social conservatism with brains.

So this is story one: the Term Limits proposal pits the conservative populists concentrated on the west side against the socially moderate SE side. For a long time in Grand Rapids history, this has been THE battle. But the map of course shows another segment for the opposition: the “hipsters” (as commentators on MLive have it) — a band of neighborhoods stretching out Fulton from Downtown out Marywood and the city limits, a region usually defined by its zip code: 49503. In contrast to the Dutch, these are largely Yankee: middle class of varying religious persuasion, largely white. This has been the part of town that has provided some of the strongest leadership in the urban revitalization, and for that matter, the City; it is the backbone of the political culture of the Second Ward (although the Ward is far more diverse than this).

In most seasons, the alliance between Second and Third Wards is enough to stop the occasional populist outbreaks on the West Side. Not this time. What happened?

Map Two: the Blue Collar Revolt

Term limits map 3 blue collar

Earlier, I had posited a blue collar antipathy to the Big City: term limits were part of a struggle for the urban guidance of the city. The data above is pretty clear.  The neighborhoods of the northside by Aberdeen, or on the SE side towards Alger Park (the blue collar part of the SE side Dutch community) — they were pretty adamant about the term limits voting in a range of 54%-60% in favor.

The distinct geographic clumping adds another layer to the story. These are not so much the disaffected as they are the invested. Their neighborhoods have not seen the downtown love, so to speak. These are also the neighborhoods with relatively less spending income: first home buyers, long time residents. What we see is something like a map of (potential) revolt. Oddly, the passage of term limits may actually help reconnect this group, provided they get representation.

A third map, however reveals the mistakes of the opponents. Painfully so.

Map Three: the Disconnected Poor

Term limits map 2 poor

Above are the low-turnout precincts, again with the darker dots indicating strong support for term limits (approx. 54%-65% in favor), the lighter dots represent those low turnout precincts that slightly favored the measure. We can consider low turnout as a proxy for poverty — a position any one familiar with these neighborhoods already understands.

Again, the geography tells everything. These are the Hispanic and African-American districts, the same ones that were skeptical in the Lenear/Tuffelmire battle.These are neighborhoods of the working poor — low turnout is strongly correlated with poverty. In civic discussions, they are also the community that is acted upon, rather than takes part (as an aside, one might read the election of Jose Flores to the school board as part of this same dynamic, a pushing back as it were).

Looking to the numbers, this was the part of the electorate where the measure won. The two thirds of higher-turnout precincts basically broke even. So although this cluster of precincts represents perhaps 20 % of the total vote, the 900 vote margin provides the win.

In short….

When considered through the lens of the usual politics, or even of the Blue Collar Revolt, the battle over term limits looks manageable. It is the failure to make the case with the working poor that really stands out. This may have arisen from unconscious bias (i.e. communicating as if your viewpoint is normative, leaving off the connecting with the audience). It could have been that the argument was too abstract relative to the proponents. It may well be something else.

Here’s one thing that advocates of the City need to take to heart: the big measures will take buy-in from the near neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and often our friends. Advocates ignore them at their own risk.

And for purposes of vote counting, these districts represent the winning margin for Term Limits

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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:

mortgages-grand-rapids

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.

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Let’s talk money.

There is lots to be said about the term limits campaign, so lets start with the most basic. Money..

To date, the  $10K raised by local proponents is also about what it takes to run a City Commission race in the first place. It’s not the money that has stopped folks from running for office, but the candidate pool itself. The problem at hand — from their own literature — is that of lack of candidates, “many won’t run against an entrenched incumbent.” (Although there is a certain irony here, since most of the commissioners have been at best, re-elected once — this does not especially seem to be the definition of “entrenched,” say like a Fred Upton).

The cure for entrenched incumbents is simple: vote them out. And besides the money it simply is not that hard: 6,000 votes or so would do.

What is perhaps  oddest aspect of the measure is that cycling through of commissioners only means that the well-funded get in.  It pushes for more money in the races, more engagement by outside interests, ie. the professional interests. For a measure that is supposed to strengthen the connection between the local, the neighborhood, the “small platoons” of conservative lore, this would do almost the opposite. It certainly would not result in an  environment where say, a medical clerk could  successfully run.

Filed under: Community, Elections, ,

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