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.

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