Monday, February 25, 2008

Building a Democratic Kent County

For many years people figured that the local Democratic Party had no chance of gaining a majority. Located in a historically Republican county, the Democrats were marginalized at the local level, often sporting a small minority of county commissioners. Party leaders in Lansing ignored local activists, sending campaign dollars and ground support to Democratic strongholds election after election, leaving locals to lead Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts on their own.

If you think this opening paragraph is about Kent County, you are wrong. It was Oakland County Democratic Party that long met the conditions listed above, and was considered the whipping boy of the arrogant Oakland County Republican machine. Yet, over the past ten years the Oakland County Democratic Party has become a reborn organization, and in the past election nearly grabbed a majority of County Commissioners on the Oakland County Board, with the Republicans left holding a narrow thirteen to twelve vote edge. Voters in Oakland County have become increasingly Democratic over the past few years, almost electing a Democratic state senator, and electing two Democrats to seats long held by the GOP.

Oakland County offers an example to Democrats in Kent County who have long been on the outside looking in at the local level. To be sure, Democrats have experienced local success over the past few years, gaining a state house seat in a hotly contested election in 2006, and could possibly run a strong challenger in 2010 for State Senator Bill Hardiman’s open seat. The Kent Democrats also did well in 2006 on the county level, gaining Grand Rapids-based seats that had long been areas of Republican support. With the addition of these two members, the Democratic Party controlled five of the nineteen Kent County Commission seats. The Democratic minority, while small, controls five of the seven seats that represent portions of Grand Rapids.

I can think of few things more important to the Kent County Democratic Party than adding to its numbers on the Kent County Board of Commissioners over the next two elections. Local races provide Democrats with a chance to hone their campaign skills, gain valuable governing experience, and also provides the party with a farm system that ensures a reserve of future leadership. This is extremely important in an era of term limited government that requires strong new candidates every six years to replace legislators who have just finished learning necessary skills of governance.

Building the Kent County Democratic Party also requires expanding our party. While there is a Democratic majority in Grand Rapids, there have been few competitive Democratic campaigns in the surrounding suburbs. However, it is these sort of districts, whether on the state of local level, that our party needs to carry to ensure that our state gets a party that governs to build a long-term economic future for our state, rather than a party that runs on taxes cuts regardless of how stretched our educational services or battered our roads may be. Hence, it is on the local level that the Kent County Democratic Party can start establish a framework for creating a majority. Creating this majority requires capturing suburban seats that have long been assumed as safe Republican districts.

I pulled up the last three election cycles (2002, 2004, and 2006) that feature country commission races since the last redistricting in 2000. Wwhile the results don’t appear that pretty in 2002, they look better by the year.

The total Democratic vote has increased enormously over the past four years (from 59,657 in 2002 to 91,291 in 2006). While this vote increase is due in part to Democratic gains in Grand Rapids, the percentage of the Democratic vote total coming from Grand Rapids has remained at a constant 36%. Democratic gains have been likewise constant in the first-ring suburbs surrounding Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Township, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming).

Suburban Strategy

As Myron Orfield noted in his seminal 2002 work American Metropolitics, many suburban communities are experiencing many of the social and economic problems once considered to be reserved to central cities. Orfield argues that a savvy political party would push for a regional agenda that creates a stronger regional economy that helps restore the fiscal health of first-ring suburbs.

It is time for the Kent County Democratic Party to push a regional agenda that unites the interests of suburban voters in communities such as Wyoming with the concerns of central city voters in Grand Rapids. Neither Wyoming or Grand Rapids have been immune to Michigan’s economic woes, although the impact of manufacturing job losses appears to have impacted Wyoming’s tax base to a greater extent than Grand Rapids. Both communities are also seeking long-term solutions to preserving existing infrastructure while continuing economic and community development programs.

The Kent County Democratic Party should push a regionalist agenda of efficient county government to the voters over the next two election cycles. A regionalist Democratic agenda should pursue regional economic planning to ensure that Kent County remains a bright spot in Michigan’s economy, and also seek regional environmental strategies that limit sprawl and preserve our rich farmland. While seeking to hold their five current seats, the party should also consider targeting the following districts for potential pickups:

1. District 8 (Wyoming). This district, long represented by Jack Boelema, has becoming increasingly Democratic over the past four years. While Boelema received 61% of the popular vote in 2002, he was held to 57% in 2004, and fell to 54% in 2006. District 8 covers Wyoming’s commercial core (28th Street and Division Ave) that have experienced an economic downturn over the past few years. A strong Democratic candidate should be able win this district, but the investment of time and energy needed to take this district would be comparable to what Brandon Dillion invested in his 2006 race to capture District 18.

2. District 12 (Wyoming and Kentwood). Represented by long-term member Harold Mast, District 12 has experienced economic tensions similar to District 8. Many manufacturers have left this district (Steelcase to name one), and there has been a sharp increase in poverty races in the three census tracts that overlap with District 12. Mast won 64% of the vote in 2002 and 59% in 2004, but fell to 55% in 2006. As in District 8, a strong Democratic candidate would need to map a careful campaign strategy that targets precincts favorable to the new Democratic regionalist agenda.

3. District 19 (Grand Rapids). Nadine Klein represents the southern suburban neighborhoods of Grand Rapids in District 19. Since besting Ken Kuipers in 2004, Klein has won sizable majorities, although her vote percentage fell from 60% in 2004 to 57% in 2006. A number of precincts within this district have been plagued by foreclosure problems in the past few years, and many voters are proven ticket splitters, backing Democrat Robert Dean for the State House seat while voting for Klein. A tough district to crack, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

4. District 13 (Kentwood) This district is the last of the suburban districts for the Democrats to target in 2008. While a Democratic candidate would face an uphill battle (Vander Moelen received 59% of the vote in 2006), one should also note that there has not been a strong Democratic campaign run here in a long time. A committed candidate should give this seat at least two tries.

Party Building

While the road to a Democratic majority in Kent County might seem far fetched, the work to create such a possibility needs to begin today. Every precinct in Kent County should have a Democratic captain, and the county party should make sure that voting lists (such as provided by Mark Gerbner) are accurate. Local campaigns should be built to work with state races and the national campaigns to ensure that voters get contacted. With hard work, diligent efforts, and a sustained Democratic message, the Kent County Democrats could end up looking a lot like their compatriots in Oakland County.

1 comment:

Jon Vander Plas said...

How does limiting suburban sprawl and freedom to do what you wish with your own land help with economic development? Michigan needs every job it can get.