Thursday, May 29, 2008

Walking Manhattan

On Friday June 13 I am attempting to complete one of my life goals- walking the length of Manhattan down Broadway Avenue. This walk should be about 16.1 miles, and I am assuming that it will take about 8 hours, with an hour of lunch stuck in around Columbia University. If any of my NYC friends are up for a little stroll-let me know and join me for a portion of this walk.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Working Up the Ladder: An Analysis of West Michigan's County Commissioner Races


If you are like me, county commissioner races are often an afterthought. When canvassing, one puts the Presidential, Senatorial, Representative, State House/Senate literature into a neat little bundle, while only rarely does the county commissioner’s literature get added to the mix. When I was younger, my Dad often expressed dismay come late October because his local county commissioner never had a yard sign to give him, leaving him one sign behind his Republican nemesis across the street. In the ballot booth, many times people fail to vote for the county commission races and move on the ballot issues or to collect their “I voted” sticker.

Yet lowly county commission races are extremely important. County commissions have a large impact on citizen’s lives, serving as the policy making body for the county and oversees many local services (such as local elections, public safety, transportation planning, and regional land use planning). County commissions allows for direct citizen involvement, as residents of counties serve on boards and committees that make decisions with immediate and long-term impact. Finally, county commissions serve as a base for local political parties. Members of county commissions often serve in other local, state, and federal offices. Service on a county commission allows for a commissioner to develop policy skills, garner campaign experience, and helps to sustain the local party.

Much of the attention in 2008 has been devoted to races on the national and state level. This is fine and good, since the Democratic Party has a chance to promote its agenda of change in Lansing and Washington. However, it is the success in local county commission races that will provide local party leadership and ensure our long-term success on every level of government over the next few decades.

This post reviews the state of the Democratic Party on 23 county commissions in west Michigan. I used information for a variety of sources to determine the partisan affiliation of commissioners and the boundaries of their districts. I also have incorporated the previous work of Jason, Lisa, and Mark in this analysis, linking their posts when their analysis is much more perceptive than my own. I am covering these races from a broad perspective, and certainly do not know many of these areas as do other readers and writers on this blog. So, if my information is incorrect, or my opinion is wanting, please comment! I hope that the listing of candidates will help connects Democrats across the region as we see to make west Michigan blue.
(Two counties were not included in this analysis. Lake County did not have a website, which limited my ability to find county commission districts and commissioners. Likewise, Mescota County has a listing of commissioners, but does not provide partisan affiliation or district boundaries. If someone does have this information, please let me know.)

Map 1: West Michigan Commissioner Districts

Within west Michigan’s 23 counties there are 220 county commission seats (Map 1). Of these seats, 172 are occupied by Republicans, while 47 are in the Democratic column. Of the 23 counties, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Muskegon, and Manistee have a Democratic majority on the county commission board, while the other 19 have Republican majorities. Democratic seats generally tend to be located in central cities across west Michigan, with 21 commissioners hailing from central city districts in Benton Harbor, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon. The rest of the Democratic seats are located in small progressive lakeside communities (Manistee and Saugatuck) or in rural districts with long-standing African American communities (such as in Cass and Lake Counties).

Republicans dominate rural and suburban districts. With the exception of a few districts in Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and Muskegon Counties, the GOP dominates suburban seats in west Michigan. This is especially true in long-standing Republican counties like Allegan, Grand Traverse, and Ottawa, where the party has near unanimous control of the county commissions.
Map 2: West Michigan 2006 Baselines

However, Map 2 shows that the GOP domination of County Commissions in west Michigan does not reflect the baseline vote in the region. Following Mark Gerbner’s use of statewide board of education races to determine the baseline Democratic vote, I have calculated the Democratic baseline on the municipality and township level throughout west Michigan. As some WMR readers have noted in pervious posts, state board of education races are not a foolproof manner to calculate the baseline Democratic vote. However, I am using these races provide a standard other potential races (such as congressional elections) cannot provide. These baseline numbers do not predict what a county commissioner should expect his or her vote totals to be come election night, but rather a potential base that a candidate must build upon to gain victory.
Looking at the baseline numbers should not hide the fact that county Democratic parties have their work cut out for them in the next few election cycles. Finding candidates for many of these races is a challenge. Of 172 seats control by the GOP, 110 do not have Democratic challengers, essentially ensuring that the GOP can shift resources and time into the races we do contest. If we are ever going to make west Michigan blue, we need to ensure that we challenge more seats across the region.

What follows is a regional analysis of county commission races for November.

Section I: Traverse Region (Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau Counties) 3: Current Partisan Status 4: 2006 Baselines Figure 1: 2008 Candidate Listing

The Traverse Region of Benzie, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau Counties has historically been Republican strongholds well before the Milliken era. This dominance is reflected on the county commission level, as the GOP controls all of the 16 commission seats in Leelanau and Grand Traverse Counties, and all but one in Benzie County.

However, this dominance hides a long-term Democratic trend in the Traverse region. As Lisa pointed out in an earlier post, Granholm carried Leelanau and Benzie Counties, and lost Grand Traverse by a narrow margin. Map 4 shows that the Democratic baseline in 2006 in certain areas of the Traverse region. Traverse City has a Democratic base, and Benzie features a Democratic stronghold around Frankfort.

Such areas of strength should result in long-term Democratic gains in the region. In particular, Benzie’s 3rd County Commission seat (which covers Frankfort) should be a good opportunity to pick up an open seat. As Figure 1 shows, every seat (with the exception of District 6) have contested races this November, which bodes well for building the party. Districts 5 and 7 in Grand Traverse, as well as District 6 in Leelanau likewise offer opportunities for Democratic gains. However, it appears that the Grand Traverse Democratic Party is weak, running only three candidates for nine races (including leaving District 7 unchallenged).

Section II: North Lakeshore (Manistee and Mason Counties) Map 5: Current Partisan Status 6: 2006 Baselines 2: 2008 Candidate Listing

This region, as detailed by Lisa earlier this week, is one of Democratic strength. Democrats have a majority on the Manistee and Lake County Commissions (see Map 5), and have strong benchmarks throughout the region as well (Map 6). Mason County has a much stronger Republican lean, although seats in Ludington might offer opportunities in this area to increase Democratic representation on the County Board.

Lisa covered the Manistee races quite well in a previous post, so I don’t need to explain further here. However, I would recommend that District 5 be watched closely for a tight race. Also, it might be interesting to see what party building Scripps is able to develop in Mason County to help reduce the traditional Republican plurality. Just out of curiosity, what makes Mason and Manistee Counties different politically (or for that matter, how do Manistee City and Ludington differ)?

Section III: Far Northeast (Wexford and Osceola Counties) 7: Current Partisan Status 8: 2006 Baselines 3: 2008 Candidate Listing

Wexford and Osceola Counties are solidly Republican areas of west Michigan. As Map 8 shows, the Democratic baselines are rather low. However, there is no need for unanimous Republican control over both county boards (see Map 7), or the lack of a single Democratic candidates for this election cycle. I don’t know what the current condition of the Democratic organizations is in these counties, but Mark Brewer et al should be ashamed for allowing for such a situation to occur. It is like forfeiting before even starting a game. There are successful Democratic County parties in northern Michigan that can be used to resurrect these organizations, and end the sin of leaving districts without GOP candidates (Osceola District 5) without a Democratic candidate!

Section IV: Near Northeast (Mecosta, Montcalm, and Newaygo Counties) 9: Current Partisan Status 10: 2006 Baselines 4: 2008 Candidate Listings

Montcalm and Newaygo Counties, much like Wexford and Osceola, are locally dominated by the GOP. Republicans control all 9 commission seats in Montcalm, and the 7 seats in Newaygo (see Map 9). However, Map 10 shows that a number of areas in both counties are potential Democratic seats, such as each county’s 1st District (northeast Newaygo and Greenville City).

Jason has discussed the Newaygo races earlier, and I do think that Barbara Geno’s race might be worth watching. Likewise, keep an eye on District 1 in Montcalm as well as there will be a GOP and DEM primary. Many of the seats here are uncontested though, giving the GOP a free ride on election night.

Section V: Muskegon Region (Muskegon and Oceana Counties) 11: Current Partisan Status 12: 2006 Baselines 5: 2008 Candidates

Muskegon County has long been a Democratic base in west Michigan. This is reflected on the county level (Map 11) as the party holds an 8-3 edge on the county board. However, there have rumblings about discord within the party, especially for some of the county-wide races. I would be interested to hear how the county party races might impact Valentine’s reelection efforts for the 91st state house district. That said, the Muskegon Democrats have all but one seat challenged (District 3), which is more than many county parties can say.

Oceana County is interesting. The county has fairly decent Democratic baselines, but only has one commissioner, and is not contesting five of the six remaining seats. I would think that a number of these races could be doable, especially in districts 4 and 7, but not having a candidate for either doesn’t help.

Section VI: Republican Core Region (Kent and Ottawa Counties) 13: Current Partisan Status 14: 2006 Baselines 6: 2008 Candidates

I have discussed the Kent County Commission races in earlier posts, so I really don’t have much to say about these than suggesting that Districts 8, 12, 13, and 19 are races that deserve a serious challenge. I hope that strong vote totals from some of the higher races can help push District 19 in the Democratic column, giving us 6 of 19 Commissioners in Kent County. 14a: Precinct Baseline for Metro Grand Rapids

Ottawa County is another story. This is a core GOP region, and the Republican domination of the Board (see Figure 6) and the baseline vote (Map 14) shows why there are no Democrats on the County Commission. Yet, we could only win one race, since we only have one candidate running, ensuring that the GOP will have 10 seats in 2009. I do think that the county party should make serious efforts to run candidates in Holland’s two districts (7 and 8) since there is an untapped Hispanic presence that could be woven into the Democratic column. Kudos for Karel Rogers for running for the 2nd District seat-that is more than anyone else can say for the other 10 races.

Section VII: GOP Farm Belt (Allegan and Barry Counties) 15: Current Partisan Status 16: 2006 Baselines 7: 2008 Candidates

As Maps 15 and 16 show, these two counties are Republican dominated. Part of the reason stems from the dearth of Democratic candidates on the local level (Figure 7). There is one Democratic challenger in Allegan’s first District, along with an incumbent in District 9, and not a single Democratic candidate in Barry County. No opportunity for a pick up this cycle in Barry County.

Section VIII: Southwest Democratic Core (Calhoun and Kalamazoo Counties) 17: Current Partisan Status 18: 2006 Baselines 8: 2008 Candidates

Democrats control the majority of seats in both Kalamazoo (9-8) and Calhoun (5-2) Counties. As Mark Miller noted in an earlier post, Democratic control over the Kalamazoo County Board is narrow, with seven seats from the City of Kalamazoo and two from outlying suburbs included in the Democratic ranks. While it is essential to defense these seats, Mark also noted that there are some potential Democratic gains in Districts 8 and 10. Check out Mark’s earlier post for more details.

The Calhoun Democratic Party is also in good shape to preserve its majority. Democrats hold the three seats from Battle Creek, one rural seat, and also represent the Albion College portion of the county. They are also contesting every Republican held seat in 2008. Not bad work!
Section IX: Southern Michigan (Branch and St. Joseph Counties) 19: Current Partisan Status 20: 2006 Baseline 9: 2008 Candidates

Another unanimous GOP situation-and county Democrats are not challenging any seats. Talk about a dead local party. What annoys me is that District 3 in St. Joseph could easily be a Democratic seat, as Sturgis has a strong Democratic baseline. However, to win these seats, you need candidates. Serious party overhaul needed in this area of west Michigan.

Section X: Southwest Corner (Berrien, Cass, Van Buren Counties) 21: Current Partisan Status 22: 2006 Baselines 10: 2008 Candidates

The southwest corner of Michigan is a historic GOP area that provided fine people like David Stockman as foot soldiers for the Republican Revolution in the early 1980s. This past history covers some strong Democratic areas in the region, especially in Cass County. Democrats currently control 3 of 10 seats on the Berrien County Board of Commissioners, 1 of 7 in Van Buren County, and 6 of 15 in Cass County (Map 21). The Democratic strongholds in the region include Benton Harbor, Cassopolis, Niles, and South Haven, while the GOP is strongest in St. Joseph and southern Berrien and Van Buren Counties (Map 22).

The state of the three Democratic parties are in varying condition. Cass County Democrats have nearly a full slate, and could conceivably pick up Districts 2 and 11, giving it a county majority. Berrien County Democrats are not challenging as many seats, although they could pick up District 13. Why they left District 12 unchallenged is beyond me, since it could be a pretty open race and there will be a GOP primary. Finally, Van Buren County has the most work to do, as Democrats are leaving 5 of 7 races uncontested, although Districts 2 and 5 could be Democratic seats.


There is good news and bad news for Democrats in west Michigan. The good news is that we have many county seats where we have strong candidates, counties where we control the agenda, and places where candidates can prove their mettle before moving up to higher offices.
The bad news is that we have many places where our party does not exist on the local level. This hurts us not only on the county level but in state races where we need the organization and volunteers that only strong organizations can create. Allowing 110 Republicans to have unchallenged elections this year only hurts us in future races on the local and state level.
I do not think that it would be unrealistic for Democrats to gain 10 seats this fall in county commission races, and to flip one 1 county (Cass). However, if we want to build on this success, we need to running in more races.

Just as people laughed at the though of the GOP winning the South after 1945, people will probably laugh at west Michigan Democrats thinking about gaining seats in an enemy stronghold. However, we know that few people laugh at the thought of southern Republicans any more. One day the joke might be on those who laugh at strong local Democratic organizations in west Michigan.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Examining the Kent County Democratic Baseline Vote


After writing a few weeks ago about the status of state legislative races across west Michigan, I went back to tinkering with some of the piles of data that I have collected from a number of sources. Since all politics is local (with a strong national undertow), I figured that it might be worth analyzing some precinct level data in Kent County. Before I go further, I should mentioned that I do not have GIS precinct level data for other counties in west Michigan, although a number of GIS folk (your’s truly included) are starting work on creating such a file in hopes of being finished in the early summer.


As in my earlier work, I have determined the Democratic (and Republican) baseline vote by averaging the statewide Board of Education races for each party, although this time I did so on the precinct level. For Map 1 (and the ones that follow), the baselines are from the 2006 election. While I realize that 2006 was a year of much higher Democratic turnout, the patterns of Democratic and Republican votes remain relatively similar to the past three elections. Likewise, it increasingly appears that 2008 will be a year with an extremely energized Democratic base with a large number Independents supporting the Democratic ticket. In contrast, Republicans appear tottering on every level of competition.



Above is a map of Kent County. As you may notice, this map has different shades of red and blue splotched across it, with a few patches of white. As you can see, there is a range of percentages across Kent County. Bryn and Gaines Townships, as well as Grandville, are shaded in deep Red, while the center of Grand Rapids is dark blue. Interestingly, some of the northern townships in Kent County (Nelson, Spencer, and Oakfield) are considerably less Republican than many of the other rural townships surrounding Metropolitan Grand Rapids. The exurban townships of Ada, Cascade, Plainfield, and Alpine are strong Republican areas, although much less so in southern Alpine and Plainfield Townships.


The Democratic baseline vote strongly correlates with Grand Rapids’s long-term physical expansion. The pre-1891 core of Grand Rapids (enclosed by Bristol, Leonard, Fuller and Hall) is strongly Democratic, and provide the base of the county’s Democratic efforts. The streetcar suburbs in Grand Rapids (areas of the city annexed between 1891 and 1927), are also increasingly becoming more Democratic, although sections of the Southeast Side (especially in Alger Heights) remain slightly Republican. The areas of Grand Rapids annexed between 1957 and 1961 remain the Republican base in Grand Rapids, with pockets on the west, northeast, and southeast sides of the city. It was from these bases that the GOP was able to hang on to the 14th and 18th County Commission seats for many years, and a large reason why it still controls the 19th district.


Metropolitan Grand Rapids (which I define as East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Township, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming) clearly shows your typical election night map. I don’t have the data, but I have heard (and read) that the Democratic Party was strong in Wyoming until the early 1980s when feuding within the party resulted in a disastrous election and redistricting on the county level. One can seek that there are portions of Wyoming where the Democratic vote is pretty strong, especially along the industrial (Division Ave) and commercial (28th Street) cores of the city. The same is true to a lesser extent in Kentwood. Much of southern and portions of eastern Kentwood has become increasingly less Republican over the past three elections. There exist strong sections of Republican support near Grand Rapids and Gaines Townships in the newer portions of Kentwood. This is also true in Wyoming, as precincts south of 44th Street are a GOP stronghold, especially in the panhandle region south of Grandville.

Grandville has long had a high Republican baseline vote which has not declined over the past decade. Likewise, Grand Rapids Township only has one precinct where the Democratic base vote exceeds 39%. Walker has sections that are strongly Republican, although the denser portions of the city near Alpine Avenue are less wielded to the Republican column. East Grand Rapids has trended increasingly Democratic over the last ten years, although the community has a weak GOP lean.


What does this data tell us? First, we’ve been good at turning out our base, but we need to do even better this cycle. One can assume that Obama’s national efforts to register voters in central cities will have some impact on increasing turnout within central Grand Rapids. However, we really need to start pushing up turnout and registration among Hispanic voters on the southwest side of Grand Rapids and in northern Wyoming. Precincts in these areas have low turnout rates (even among registered voters), and the voter registration rates are also quite low.

Secondly, Democratic gains are possible in the suburbs. Portions of Wyoming and Kentwood are Democratic, and any effort to increase the Democratic vote percentage in these areas will help on the state level. Serious party building efforts in the 70 precincts in metropolitan Grand Rapids could help pave the road for future gains.

Finally, we need to work hard to develop the Democratic brand in exurban townships of Kent County. Townships such as Ada, Cascade, Gaines and Alpine have issues that require Democratic understanding and responses. Promoting smart growth development, as well as farmland preservation, could help foster long-term party growth in these regions.

The 2002 and 2006 29th District State Senate races help illustrate these rather abstract goals. In 2002 Democrat Steve Pestka ran a heated race against Republican Bill Hardiman. Hardiman gathered 44,000 votes to Pestka’s 37,000, and polled 54% of the total vote. Hardiman ran behind the GOP baseline vote for the 29th District, although he pulled to victory with a strong performance in Kentwood. In 2006 Hardiman ran ahead of the GOP baseline vote, which was a mere 50.2% of the total vote. His victory was largely due to a large turnout in Kentwood, although he over performed in Grand Rapids as well. In 2002 and 2006 a large amount of the Republican victory was built in the exurban townships and Kentwood. The race for the seat in 2010 is likely to be among the top races in the state, and may impact which party controls the Michigan State Senate. Efforts to build our party in areas with limited Democratic presence over the next two years will help determine whether we turn west Michigan a darker shade of blue.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The fall (and rise?) of the Grand Rapids Christian School system

Today's Grand Rapids Press reported that nearly thirty five years after the Grand Rapids Christian Schools attempted to shut down Oakdale Christian School, the Board of Trustees is trying again. In an effort to cut down costs while facing the reality of declining enrollment, the Board of Trustees is closing the three remaining elementary schools (Millbrook, Creston, and Oakdale) and consolidating these into one elementary school. This is on top of the closing of Seymour and Sylvan elementary schools in 2003/4. The citywide Christian School system has declined drastically since I graduated from Christian High School in 1998; system wide enrollment that year was around 3,300; this year it barely holds over 2,500.

Many parents from Oakdale are getting together to prevent the closing the school. One parent (and a Professor at Grand Valley State University) took the time to do an analysis of the enrollment decline in the Grand Rapids Christian Schools since 1969. This excellent report argues that massive tuition increases, along with the CRC's decline in the central city explains much of the decline.

When I think of my own experience in the Grand Rapids Christian School system, I have mixed feelings. I greatly enjoyed attending my local christian school (Seymour), and found my time at Grand Rapids Christian High School rewarding. However, the staggering tuition costs (which I know that my parents struggled to pay on one income with four children to pay for) certainly limited the students who attended high school with me. I then, and still do, associate the rising tuition with a decline in racial and socio-economic diversity within the school system. Who wants to shell out $7,000 a year to attend a very good school with a nearly all white population with incomes well in the upper middle class? Grand Rapids Christian High is on the road to becoming another Detroit Country Day, or at least another American Pie High School-with Jesus on the side.

I sometimes get mail from my alma mater. The request is inevitability for 1) helping build the new football/basketball stadium, 2) funding the new arts theatre, or 3) or to update my alumni profile. Never have I gotten a request for funds to help reduce the cost of tuition to make this school system available for hundreds of students whose parents may be sincerely interested in a christian education, but cannot afford it. I honestly feel that these tuition problems could be eliminated if the well off donors supporting building projects for the system would create an endowment to cut tuition down $2,000 a year for nearly all students. Sure the cost would be significant, requiring an endowment of over $100 million. However, the cost of doing otherwise is simply: the christian school system in Grand Rapids that educated 2 generations in my family (and employed another) is doomed to extinction.