Friday, April 25, 2008

West Michigan State House Races

(I cross-posted this at West Michigan Rising earlier this week to celebrate the end of exams. If you are a Democrat from west Michigan, check out the site-PB)


Thanks to my exams being finished at Michigan, I am doing a bit more of the number crunching I promised in the past two months. I am working with Mark Gerbner and Michigan Liberal to start doing some detailed analysis of the Michigan House races. I hope to provide some detailed analysis of the swing seats (16 or so) for Michigan Liberal, but this analysis probably won't finish up until later in May after the filling deadline closes. However, I did want to provide some early analysis on west Michigan races to promote some discussion on West Michigan Rising.

West Michigan in my mind goes from Traverse City in the north to Sturgis in the south and includes everything to the west. With these parameters, there are 27 Michigan House seats in the region. Since we have a number of strong candidates and incumbent representatives starting to launch campaigns as the snow finally melts, I wanted to see what baseline we might be operating with in this election cycle.


My basic unit of measurement is based on Charlie Cook's Partisan Voting Index (PVI). Cook uses PVI to find how strongly United States Congress districts lean to one party over the other. Cook uses the district's presidential vote totals from the past two elections and finds the average. The average is then subtracted from the national popular vote average. For example-Vern Ehlers district has a R +9, meaning that the 3rd congressional district is 9% more Republican the rest of the nation.

For this analysis I modified Cook's formula slightly. I used Mark Gerbner's Democratic baseline vote, which he defines as the average Democratic share of the vote cast for major parties for the four statewide education boards. Mark helpfully broke these totals by Michigan House and Senate Districts (I'll analyze Senate Districts at a later time). I then took the 2006, 2004, and 2002 baselines, and found the average, which I subtracted from the statewide baselines. From this I found the PVI.

Before discussing the PVI for these districts further, I should note that as Mark mentioned in Michigan Liberal postings, Michigan has become an increasingly Democratic state since the 1998 elections. This is especially true since 2002, as the Democratic baseline increased from 49.2% in 2002, to 52% in 2004, and jumped to 55% in 2006. Since the PVI is based on this statewide average, districts that have small Republican PVI are more competitive than they first appear, especially since to win one only needs 50%+1 vote.

the full spreadsheet is here
Table One shows the data for west Michigan's 27 House seats and are ranked from highest to lowest Democratic PVI. While the Democratic baselines have increased by at least 4% in most districts, some sport a double digit gain in their baselines (75th). Interestingly, the districts that are the most marginally Republican (Swing, Weak, or Lean Republican) are the ones that have had the greatest increase in their Democratic baselines. This trend is especially noticeable in some districts where we have top-notch challengers.

Table One also shows what districts are the one most open to a Democratic take over in 2008. Conversely, we can also assume which districts our party should devote some serious efforts to define (of course, we all know which ones these are already, but it doesn't hurt to think about it again). Below I have grouped the districts in different status groups, and I have included some maps to provide some further reference for interested readers.

Safe Democratic (1) District 92-This Muskegon-based district has never sunk below a 62% baseline. Nothing to worry about here.
larger southern districts map here
Strong Democratic (1) District 60-Robert Jones Kalamazoo seat should not face a serious challenge with a PVI of D+9.

Leans Democratic (1) District 76-This west-side Grand Rapids district has long been Democratic, although I can remember some fierce races back in my youth (I'm thinking of the 1996 race between Pestka and Kozak). Since Sak is term-limited here, this would be the best chance for the GOP to pick up a seat. However, Roy Schmidt seems to be well-established to keep the seat in the Democratic column, as the Republicans have no standard bearer yet.

Weak Democratic (1) District 62-This Battle Creek-based seat is perhaps the best pickup for the Democrats in west Michigan. Term-limited Mike Nofs is leaving a seat that has had a majority Democratic baseline in the past two elections, and which Granholm and Kerry carried by even larger margins. This is a district that should receive serious money and a strong candidate.
larger northern districts map here

Swing (4) Districts 71, 75, 80, and 91. Democrats control the 75th and 91st districts, and from the early buzz, appear to be well-positioned to keep these seats. Both Dean and Valentine have ample funds, and the former faces especially marginal opposition. Valentine will face Holly Hughes, who has pushed a lot of personal money in the race. Whether this can result in a serious efforts remains to be seen.

The two Republican swing seats are interesting. The 71st District (covering Eaton County) is represented by Rick Jones, who is in his second term, and has a PVI of R+5. Still, the Democratic baseline has jumped in this district from 45% in 2002 to 51% in 2006. A good candidate might be able take this seat. The 80th District, covering Van Buren County and a few townships in Allegan County, has a PVI of R+6. Granholm carried this district twice, and a serious effort by Jessie Olson could make this seat very competitive.

Weak Republican (3) Districts 61, 63, and 101. These three seats all have a PVI of R+7 and are all open seats, making them very marginally Republican seats. Districts 61 and 63 (both based in Kalamazoo County) have serious Democratic candidates running, as does District 101 (Mason, Mainstee, Benzie, and Leelanau Counties). From the larger trends, it appears that 2008 is a Democratic year on par with 2006, so our candidates in these races are in the position to tip these seats into the Democratic column.

Leans Republican (3) Districts 70, 78, 100. These seats are more strongly Republican, each with a PVI of R+9. District 70 (which covers part of Ionia and all of Montcalm Counties) and District 78 (covering Berrien and Cass Counties) are open seats that have competitive Republican primaries and ready Democratic candidates. District 100 will likely be a greater challenge, since we don't have a Democratic candidate to run against a Republican incumbent. These seats are likely to remain in the Republican column, although a strong Democratic effort could do provide some serious double takes.

larger central districts map here

Strong Republican (5) Districts 59, 79, 87, 102, and 104. These seats located around Traverse City (104), Cadillac (102), St. Joseph (79), Cass and St. Joseph Counties (59), and Barry and Ionia Counties (87) are strong Republican seats. The good news is that we are running Democratic candidates in these races, something that does not always happen.

Safe Republican (8) Districts 72, 73, 74, 77, 86, 88, 89, and 90. These seats are the Republican base in Michigan politics. Covering Allegan, Ottawa, and the suburbs of Grand Rapids, these seats are places were lackluster Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates come to hang out and stir up votes in hopes to getting a vote margin to hide under when the Wayne County returns arrive. Republican candidates in these seats often get free passes, allowing the GOP to direct resources and party infrastructure in these areas into critical districts. Keeping resources tied down in these districts is something that we desperately need to do to ensure that our party can offer strong challenges in other districts. That we have two competitive candidates running in the 73 and 88 Districts is a good start to ensure our Democratic majority in the Michigan State House.


As we begin the primary season, Democrats have some opportunities to expand the traditional playing field in west Michigan. While defending our swing seats in the 75 and 91 Districts should be a priority, supporting competitive challenges in Republican-held swing seats and weak Republican districts should be strongly considered.

I would love to hear feedback on this analysis-either on West Michigan Rising or via my email. I have all the precinct data for these years as well, so if anyone want me to crunch things further, please do not hesitate to ask.

More updates

As readers may notice, I've updated sections of this blog. I added a few new papers, and will be starting to reorganize some of the sidebars later. And for those who love politics, there is a Democratic Convention delegate tracker. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The 1967 Grand Rapids riot

As I'm finally getting out of the haze of final exams over in Ann Arbor, I figured that I might update people on a writting project that I have been working on over the past few months. A professor at Michigan encouraged me to look at some of the urban issues in Grand Rapids from a planning perspective. I figured that might be a good idea, and I've done a bit of research that I'll be writing up later this summer. Last fall I did compile some of my research on the 1967 riot into an article which I though might be worth putting in the Grand Rapids Press. However, since the paper cut out the "My Turn" column, they were unable to run it. So, I've posted it here, and can provide it as a PDF as well for interested persons.

Peter Bratt
September 26, 2007

A Region, 40 Years Later

Little mention is made of an event which occurred forty years ago in the shadow of the massive construction developments being built in the downtown of Grand Rapids,. In late July 1967, as racial tensions blazed in Detroit, another tale of urban devastation occurred in Grand Rapids. As news of the violence in Detroit reached Grand Rapids by late July 24, 1967, sections of Grand Rapids soon began experiencing vandalism of commercial property, armed confrontations, and confrontations between the growing number of Grand Rapids Police officers and African American youths. The police officers’ perceived beating of a youth by enflamed the growing crowd, which promptly rained rocks and bottles upon the officers. Tensions did not subside until noon of July 27, 1967, when local police and the Michigan State Troopers charged a group of rioters near the intersection of Hall and Jefferson. The civil emergency orders issued first by Mayor George Sonnevelt, and later Governor George Romney, were called off as the rioting subsided.

What do we make of this event forty years after the streets of Newark, Detroit, and Grand Rapids were filled with clouds of smoke? While a few newspapers have written upon the fortieth anniversary of the riots in Detroit and Newark, many seem content to let the past remain untroubled. This is especially true in our region. Little, if any, was written to commemorate the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids, and the impact that the event had upon the greater metropolitan region has likewise been pushed aside. To ignore this story is to forget a part of ourselves, and forgo future directions that our region might choose.

Shortly after the 1967 riot, the Grand Rapids City Planning Department issued a reported entitled Anatomy of a Riot. Issued in October of 1967, the report sought to provide details on how and where the riot occurred, and what actions the city might take to prevent further outbreaks of violence. The report provided a brief overview of the events that occurred from July 24 to July 27, and noted that estimated cost of the damaged amounted to $500,000 (well over $3 million if adjusted for inflation). While almost all of the rioters arrested on July 25 were African American, more than 25% of the rioters arrested on July 27 were white, who hailed from other regions of the city and the surrounding suburbs. If our perception of the riots of the 1960s is colored by the image that the rioters were African Americans attacking whites, the image is, at best, incomplete.

Much of the destruction of property occurred within the historic African American ghetto. This area was bordered by Wealthy Street to the north, Lafayette Avenue to the east, Cottage Grove to the south, and Division Avenue to the west. The area had high unemployment, the highest median rent within the city, the highest percentage of minorities within the Grand Rapids metropolitan region, and contained many of the oldest residential structures within the city. Anatomy of a Riot noted that this neighborhood had “deteriorated residential structures that were poorly maintained by absentee landlords that charged the highest rents.”

The report also commented on the ridged boundaries of residential space within Grand Rapids. Noting that almost all African Americans in Grand Rapids faced racial discrimination that limited housing and employment opportunities in both the city and burgeoning suburbs, it warned that local governments within the region needed to provide a regional solution to discrimination.

The response to the 1967 riots required a regional approach that transcended the divisions between the city and suburbs. These divisions were driven in no small part by the expansion of Grand Rapids’ city boundaries and the rise of a neo-progressive elite leadership within the city’s business and governing community. This leadership assumed power following the successful recall election of Mayor George Welsh in 1949, and led to the establishment of the good government wing of the local Republican Party, which was led by then-Congressmen Gerald Ford, incoming Grand Rapids Mayor Paul Geobel, and activist Dorothy Judd. They pushed for a city would govern efficiently, promote economic growth, and modernize city services. Of special interest for the new city administration was preserving the downtown as a major regional economic center. This effort was carried out by urban renewal projects that created Interstate 96, Michigan Highway 131, and destroyed many of the existing commercial and residential structures in and surrounding the downtown. City planners originally intended to spend urban renewal funds to restore the housing stock in the central parts of Grand Rapids that later burned in July 1967. However, these concerns were pushed aside by the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and suburban leaders that sought infrastructure improvements that would integrate the suburbs with the downtown business district. While these programs were successfully implemented, they did little to improve housing conditions or reduce social tensions within the central city.

The 1967 riot pushed Grand Rapids’ government and many grassroots organizations to direct an increased focus on city neighborhoods. Many private organizations, among them the Inner City Christian Federation and Project Rehab, were created by concern citizens that were vested in the central city. Church ministries and community organizations such as the Baxter Community Center and Heartside Ministries sought to address the continued urban decay that followed the sustained departure of many city residents to the surrounding suburbs.

Grand Rapids avoided Detroit’s post-1967 fate due to regional cooperation and economic growth. The suburbs continued to capture a large share of commercial and residential growth as the city’s population levels remained static. However, business leaders reinvested in the downtown, with redevelopment efforts were launched with the opening of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in 1981. At the same time the nearby Heritage Hill Neighborhood reemerged as a desirable city neighborhood. Even the Wealthy Street Neighborhood, which experienced much damage and disinvestment following the 1967 riot, experienced stabilization and became increasingly gentrified. Relations between the city and suburbs improved, as leaders collaborate on issues that transcend municipal borders and were supported by regional planning organizations such as the Grand Valley Metro Council.

Forty years after Grand Rapids was plagued by civil disturbances, social problems within the central city in 1967 still exist. However, the gentrification of many Grand Rapids neighborhoods has led to poverty within the region taking a suburban nature. The 2000 United States Census revealed that there were more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in central cities; and the Grand Rapids metropolitan region is also experiencing a growth in suburban poverty. While in 2000 only three census tracts in Grand Rapids had poverty rates of 40% or greater, it is expected that there will be at least two census tracts each in Wyoming and Kentwood by the 2010 Census that will contain such figures. Accompanying the rise of suburban poverty is the decline of many suburban commercial districts, especially in portions of Wyoming, as businesses have relocated to the core or to the ever growing periphery. As suburban residential neighborhoods and commercial districts continue to age, suburban municipalities will struggle to deal with many of the same problems that led to the 1967 riot.

The Grand Rapids metropolitan region must pursue regionalism with even greater vigor in the decade to come. Greater governmental efficiency and delivery of public services will be realized by further cooperation of all local units of government and may reduce expenditures in an era of fiscal distress within the state. Some of this cooperation is already occurring, as Grand Rapids and some suburbs are working on creating a unified emergency dispatch system. Yet more remains to be done with regional collaboration. A unified zoning code and planning development will allowed for sustained growth and reduce ruinous competition between municipalities for economic growth. The first-ring suburbs of the region (Grandville, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming) have much more in common with Grand Rapids than the fast growing suburbs that lie outside of the beltways. Developing a regional greenbelt strategy that involves both established municipalities and rapidly growing portions of Kent County will help preserve our agricultural resources and existing green spaces.

The 1967 riot in Grand Rapids occurred in a concentrated portion of the city, yet affected an entire region. As our community continues to wrestle with the legacy of this event, may the Grand Rapids metropolitan region develop a long-term strategy that sustains the entire population along the Grand River.

Interesting Map

This great county level map shows the split between Obama and Clinton on a whole new level. While some commentators note that Obama is not doing well in getting the votes of white working class voters, they really mean that he is doing poorly amongst voters in Appalachia and good parts of Ozarks/Texas highlands.

However, as much as Clinton may want to think that this sort of argument will make her electable, I highly doubt that this largely Republican voting bloc is going to rush to vote Hillary come the general election.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Moving to Philly

(photo credit: Mike Penn, 2004).

As some of you may know from my wife's blog, Susan received (and accepted) a job at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Susan will be serving as a Lilly Pastoral Resident at Bryn Mawr beginning in late July. So, we will be packing up our belongings for the third time in four years and head off to a new place.

Moving is not my favorite thing to do. While I enjoy packing, in part because it involves cleaning, I always dislike leaving a familiar routine for something new. I really enjoyed my two years in Ann Arbor, as school was great, the city was wonderful and it meant being back in the Midwest. Perhaps the most annoying part of living in an educated marriage is the constant pulling up of roots; just when one settles, it is time to move again.

That being said, I am excited about moving to Philadelphia. I am just starting the job hunt, and I am hopeful that my new shiny degree from Michigan will give me good prospects. I have begun seeking out informational interviews, and I already have some scheduled for early June. I will post on this blog about my job search, as well as the transition period over the next few months.