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Buying Energy Policy in Michigan is a Bipartisan Affair: Lobbyists for DTE and Consumers Energy

July 25, 2016

A recent report from Michigan Campaign Finance Report documents how state legislators, regardless of party affiliation, are influenced by DTE Energy and Consumers Energy on energy policy.

2340-lobbyists-have-an-opinion-on-how-best-to-enact-climate-policyThe report states:

In addition to the lobbyists working on the legislation, at least 86 individual companies have made their positions known by providing official statements to lawmakers. They range from Ford Motor The top photograph shows the scene at a Senate Energy and Technology Committee this spring.Company to a Holiday Inn Express in Bad Axe. On top of those businesses, at least 95 interest groups or governments have also officially weighed in.

At the center of the fight are the state’s dominant electric utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy. Combined, the two utilities have 42 individuals or firms that are registered as lobbyists they employ. However, DTE says not all of its lobbyists are actively working on energy reforms. Plus, DTE and Consumers each work with at least one of the state’s eight largest multi-client firms, which don’t have to disclose how many of their lobbyists are working on specific proposals.

DTE AND CONSUMERS TOP

One can see from this first graphic how both Republican and Democratic legislators in Michigan rely heavily on funding from DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.

  • Of the 63 GOP State Representatives, 25 of them have DTE or Consumers Energy as Top 10 donors.
  • For the 45 Democratic State Representatives, 22 of them have DTE or Consumers Energy as Top 10 donors.
  • In the Michigan Senate there are there are 22 out of the 27 GOP Senators with DTE or Consumers Energy as Top 10 donors and 9 out of 10 for the Democratic State Senators.

DTE and Consumers Any

Looking at the second graphic, nearly every member of the Michigan Legislature has received donations from DTE Energy or Consumers Energy. Only 1 Republican State Representative and three Democrats have not received any donations from the two major energy companies in Michigan. However, every single member of the Michigan State Senate has received funds from either DTE Energy or Consumers Energy.

You can track how much each member of the Michigan Legislature has received funding from DTE of Consumers Energy, by going to the MCFN donor tracking data base

The report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network also lists the top 100 lobbyists in Michigan working on energy policy. The majority of these lobbyists are paid by private businesses, such as DTE, Consumers Energy, Ford Motor Company, General Motors and Whirlpool. In addition, there are numerous business associations that also have paid lobbyist on energy policy such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau and the Michigan Manufacturing Association.

There are a few entities that have paid lobbyists on energy policy that are based in West Michigan, such as the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and Amway.

“It was a peaceful event”: How media framed Saturday’s event and virtually eliminated any analysis of state violence that targets the Black community

July 18, 2016

(As a matter of transparency, I was part of the Black Lives Matter Grand Rapids action at the Am I Next rally on Saturday.)Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 3.41.32 AM

On Saturday, several hundred people gathered at Rosa Parks Circle for an event entitled Am I Next, organized by four black teenagers, in response to recent shootings across the US.

The rally lasted about an hour and featured a representative from the City of Grand Rapids, commentary from the four organizers, the Grand Rapids Chief of Police, 2 representatives from the Western branch of the ACLU, someone from the Be Nice campaign and several religious leaders. 

The rally speakers had some useful things to say, but much of the information that was shared focused on individual behavior, particularly on what individuals need to do to be safe and protect themselves. This was overwhelmingly the message of the person from the Be Nice campaign and the information that was shared by the ACLU about “knowing your rights.”Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 12.08.30 PM

In other words, there was no critique or analysis of state violence at the hands of law enforcement. There was no analysis of why blacks are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement with repression and there was no critique of other systems of oppression such as  White Supremacy and capitalism.

What the crowd was implored to do was to be nice or ask for a lawyer. Such advise is mostly irrelevant when people of color are confronted by state violence at the hands of the police. What good is it to be nice when the cops are beating you? The Grand Rapids Police Chief even had the audacity to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, by saying, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” How dare he try to appropriate Dr. King and the Black Freedom movement, which was constantly monitored, harassed, arrested, brutalized and murdered by the very same law enforcement agencies.

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One of the main reasons why Black Lives Matter GR came to the Am I Next rally was to make it clear that police brutality and repression against the black community happens in Grand Rapids. This is why they stood up and held signs right in front of the stage when the Chief of Police spoke, so ask to make a clear statement about why it was problematic for the rally organizers to invite the head of an organization that targets, harasses and brutalizes black people on a daily basis in Grand Rapids. To read the Black Lives Matter Grand Rapids statement, go to this link. 

How commercial media framed the event

As of this writing, there has been commercial news coverage on the three Grand Rapids-based TV stations and MLive.13707603_10153616898510966_4545522590783359987_n

The WOOD TV 8 story was framed as a “peaceful” event, juxtaposing the direct action tactics with other places in the country, with the permitted gathering in Grand Rapids. Framing the story this way made it seem like the gathering in Grand Rapids was respectable, when in fact, it demonized confrontational actions. The story gave voice to the organizers of the event and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police. They did mention the statement that BLM GR had published a few days earlier and that members where there to protest when the Chief of Police spoke, but no one from Black Lives Matter GR were interviewed.

The WZZM 13 story also promoted respectability politics and framed the story as a peaceful gathering. Channel 13 gave voice to the organizers of the event and an ACLU representative, but did include a quote from the Black Lives Matter statement on why they were not promoting the event. 13754105_10209939478944629_6977609487713386091_n

The WXMI 17 story continued the “peaceful” mantra, but offered no substantive difference to how the other TV stations covered the issue and completely ignored the Black Lives Matter Grand Rapids presence. 

The Mlive story was also overly simplistic, with quotes from the organizers, a couple who attended the event and someone from the Grand Rapids Urban League. The MLive story did mention the action that the Grand Rapids Black Lives Matter group took while the Chief of Police spoke, along with a brief comment from one of the groups members at the end of the article, a comment which appears to be taken out of context. 

Black Lives Don’t Matter: The Political reality of Electoral Politics in Michigan

July 14, 2016

According to a recent report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the top 150 Political Action Committees (PACs) have raised $26 million this year through April. The top ten PACs in Michigan are listed below, but you can go to this link to see what other groups are raising money to buy the elections. 

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Of course there are the usual suspects such as Republican and Democratic Party PACs, which are acting in their own self interest. In fact, most PACs raise money for their own self interests. The Michigan Farm Bureau wants to make sure that agribusiness interests are taken care of by the politicians in Lansing, just like corporations such as DTE, Ford, Consumers Energy, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Meijer.

Then there are other groups like the DeVos led PAC, the Great Lakes Education Project, which seeks to undermine public education. There are other entities like the Michigan and Grand Rapids Chambers of Commerce, which will also try to secure the interest of the capitalist class through their PACs come the November election.

There is nothing shocking or revealing about such entities, which will continue to raise and spend millions of dollars before the election day on November. However, if one looks at the list of top Political Action Committees, one can see that there are numerous trade unions that have also raised collectively several million dollars. Now, it is no secret that they too are trying to influence the outcome of the election and are primarily throwing their funds behind the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates.13728987_915085058620808_5338231205123077566_n

Remember in 2012, when labor groups tried to get Prop 2 passed in Michigan? Unions spent $21.9 million dollars that year to push for Proposal 2. What if that amount of money, along with all the current labor-based PAC money, was spent on paying people to become organizers, to provide resources to those doing organizing campaigns wherever workers wanted to organize? Workplace democracy is one of the strongest forms of democracy and can trump Right to Work laws. If businesses do not have compliant workers, they can’t make money.

In addition, what if unions, which are spending millions on the current election, would redirect those funds to building affordable housing in their communities. What about re-directing those funds used for elections to create community gardens in urban spaces to improve the nutrition of families with children? Imagine if unions collectively spent money that made the statement Black Lives Matter and assisted Black families experiencing poverty, increased rent costs and mass incarceration. Don’t you think that taking these kinds of actions would send a strong message that labor groups truly care about working class people? Imagine what such a show of solidarity would do to build membership. More importantly, imagine how it might radically challenge systems of power and oppression.

BUT…….this is not likely to happen. Those same unions will spend millions and millions of dollars on electoral politics. So, how is that strategy working out for communities of color, undocumented immigrants, communities experiencing violence at the hands of the state and working class families who are struggling to survive? That answer seems pretty obvious. An electoral strategy doesn’t work for communities of color, undocumented immigrants and working class families. The reality is that the trade unions, which give millions to the Democratic Party, send a very real and clear message – Black Lives Don’t Matter! 

Trust Us, We’re Experts: Rockford Construction, public forums and westside development projects

July 11, 2016

Last Thursday, a community forum was held at Rockford Construction’s westside facility in Grand Rapids on proposed plans for a new construction project.

The event was promoted on facebook with the following description:

“Please come out to Rockford Construction to meet their new Director of Community Engagement, Brad Mathis and learn about the proposed zoning update on the WestSide’s Bridge Street and Stocking Block.”

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The forum was planned from 6 – 7pm, which started a little late and finished with little time for public comment. There were three people with Rockford Construction presenting, Suzanne Schultz from the Grand Rapids Planning Commission and representative with the Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF), Ryan Schmidt.

After a brief welcoming and overview from a Rockford representative, Brad Mathis, Rockford Construction’s new Director of Community Development spoke. Mathis talked mostly about how Rockford Construction is a values oriented organization. He offered up 5 points that reflected what the company is all about: beauty, quality/diverse housing, a healthy blend between office and retail space, economic development/employment and lastly, work that is inclusive. Mathis went on to state that what the company is doing, “lines up with what the City of Grand Rapids is doing.”

The hiring of Mathis can be seen as a PR move, since Rockford has come under some scrutiny in recent months, especially over the proposed project on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and their current projects on the near westside, particularly on Fulton and Bridge street. 

Suzanne Schultz, with the Grand Rapids Planning Department, spoke after Mathis. While some of the information presented by Schultz was instructive, it seemed rather unnecessary given the time constraints of the meeting and offered no concrete information on the proposed project by Rockford Construction.

Ryan Schmidt, with ICCF, went next and talked specifically about their partnership with Rockford Construction to potentially construct 60 affordable housing units on Stocking St, roughly at the location of the current Stockbridge Pub. ICCF has submitted with the state of Michigan an application for Low Income Housing Tax Credits and is one of 58 applicants. VerWys said that only a dozen projects in the state would be approved, but that he felt that ICCF’s application stood a good chance. They would most likely know in October of this year if the funding for such a project would be approved.

The last presenter was also with Rockford Construction, who gave a brief summary of the larger development project, which would include a potential partnership with ICCF. The hour allotted for the meeting had already passed at this point, but Rockford Construction representatives then fielded a few questions. One major question centered around the issue of affordable housing and whether or not the additional housing offered in the new project would be “market rate.” The person asking the question also made it clear that many of the residents who lived west, south and north of the proposed project cannot afford the rental costs of the Rockford Construction projects located on Bridge and Fulton streets. The Rockford representative did confirm that the additional housing units would be market rate for the proposed project being presented that evening.

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There were only a few additional questions asked, but the company’s representatives kept say that people could speak with them one on one if anyone wanted to talk further. So essentially, the 25 people who showed up for the forum were talked at by the four presenters. Not allowing more time for questions was problematic, since it didn’t allow for questions to be answered publicly, only in private one on one conversations. Again, the forum could have been structured in such a way as to present a brief overview of the proposed project and then lots of time for Q & A. However, such forums are usually designed to minimize public input.

I was about to walk out the door, when a Rockford Construction representative stopped me to let me know that they “were aware of my articles” that have been critical of the company in recent months. I was asked if I would like to sit down with Rockford Construction so I could “have a better understanding of what their plans were.” I said that I didn’t really see the benefit of such a conversation and that the issue wasn’t about me, but the larger issues of gentrification and affordable housing.

The Rockford Construction representative said that if they could figure out a business model that would allow them to construct affordable housing they would do it. I said if they really wanted to build affordable housing the company would do it and that it wasn’t really about funding but about justice. He said that there is no way to construct affordable housing without massive state subsidies. I said that clearly the company is engaged in lots of construction projects that do not rely on state funding, so it is really a matter of priorities and whether or not the company plans around people or profits.

This Thursday, the Planning Commission will decide on whether or not to approve the Rockford Construction plans along Bridge and Stocking. We plan to be there to report on the outcome.

Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap of any city in Michigan

July 7, 2016

Recently, the Economic policy Institute published a new report on income inequality in the US and found that Grand Rapids has the largest gap between the richest people in the community and the poorest. 

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However, none of the West Michigan news media chose to run a story about the wealth gap in Grand Rapids. WDET radio in southeast Michigan did produce a story about the new report and interviewed the head of the Grand Rapids Urban League. 

The link to this story provides a summary of the interview with Joe Jones (GR Urban League) and Karen Holcomb-Merrill with the Michigan League for Public Policy. However, we encourage our readers to click on the audio file at the top of the link page, since the full interview is worth listening to.

What the text version of the story doesn’t share is that Joe Jones acknowledges that Grand Rapids is a highly gentrified community. The Michigan League for Public Policy spokesperson also stated that one reason why Grand Rapids made the top of the list in Michigan for income inequality is because the top 1% in Grand Rapids is making more than top 1% in Detroit.

Karen Holcomb-Merrill goes on to say that there are clear policy decisions that have been made in recent years that impact income inequality, such as a regressive tax structure that benefits the wealthy and the earned income tax credit has been reduced. Joe Jones said that the reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit has particularly been devastating in communities of color, with 52% for blacks and 31% for Latinos unemployment in certain neighborhoods.

Who are the wealthiest people in Grand Rapids?

It is difficult to find out exactly how much the wealthiest people in the area are worth, since many of them do not like to reveal this information to the public.

We do know, based on the Forbes list of wealthiest people, that Hank & Doug Meijer are worth $8.2 billion and Richard DeVos is worth $4.7 billion.

In addition to these billionaires, we know that data from the Michigan Department of Treasury’s tax filings shows that when comparing 2010 to 2014, the number of millionaires in Kent County increased from 407 in 2010, to 600 in 2014. 

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Other people in Grand Rapids who are part of the millionaire plus club are:

Dick & Betsy DeVos

Dan & Pam DeVos

Doug & Maria DeVos

Steve Van AndelScreen Shot 2016-07-07 at 1.11.35 AM

David Van Andel

Pete Secchia

Michael Jandernoa

Sam Cummings

Scott Wierda

John Kennedy

Blake W. Krueger

Interestingly enough, many of these same people are not only amongst the richest in Grand Rapids, thus contributing to greater income inequality, they are part of the larger power structure that makes policy decisions or at least influences those same decisions in Grand Rapids, Kent County and at the state level.

Many of the people listed here are part of groups like the West Michigan Policy Forum, which has helped to push through legislation in recent years that made Michigan a Right to Work state and change the tax structure to benefit themselves.

Some of these millionaires and billionaires have contributed hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to political campaigns to make sure that state legislators pass laws that support their political agenda or benefit their own economic interests. 

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So the next time the news media proclaims these people as great philanthropists, just remember that their wealth is directly contributing to greater income inequality in Grand Rapids.

The Business of Making Lists in Grand Rapids

June 29, 2016

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“For the second year in a row, the Grand Rapids – Wyoming metropolitan area was ranked as the nation’s third best place to do business by Area Development Magazine.”  

This was the first sentence from an MLive article posted yesterday. The folks at MLive love lists and are happy to promote those lists that Grand Rapids appears on, especially if it doesn’t question the neoliberal capitalist agenda that dictates so much of this city. 

The MLive article only provides one source in response to the announcement about Grand Rapids appearing on yet another list. Birgit Klohs, with The Right Place Inc., affirmed the pro-business narrative about Grand Rapids, but she was the sole voice.Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 4.00.00 PM

The Grand Rapids ranking on best places to do business by Area Development Magazine lists San Francisco and Napa, California as the top two places to do business across the country. It is interesting that these two cities topped the list, because there is another similarity between their status on the list and Grand Rapids. The similarity is that Grand Rapids, like San Francisco and Napa are cities that have seen significant increases in the cost of housing in recent years.

James Tracey, in his book Dispatches Against Displacement: Field Notes From San Francisco’s Housing Wars, makes a strong case for San Francisco being one of the most gentrified cities across the country. Tracy cites the work of the National Housing Law Project, which emphasizes the links between wages and housing and tracks what is Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 4.04.19 PMaffordable for the average worker. He writes that this group’s data, “has consistently shown that rents far outpace the means to pay not only in high-investment, hyper-gentrified cities like San Francisco, but also in shrinking cities such as Detroit. Thus, in 2014 … there is no state in the United States where a typical low-income worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment.” Tracy and others use the toolkit, Mapping Susceptibility to Gentrification as a resource.

If one looks at recent data for Napa, which is just north of San Francisco, we find the same thing is happening there, although not at the same breakneck pace.

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Using the mapping project created by the University of California, Berkley, we can see how Napa is also experiencing increased gentrification.  The color coded descriptions are shown here in this graph as to how much of Napa is being gentrified or is at risk of gentrification.

As we and other independent media sources have been reporting over the past year, Grand Rapids has been undergoing a process of gentrification, resulting in significant rent increases and displacement in numerous parts of the city. 

Making a List

As a way to counter some of the euphoria associated with the latest list that Grand Rapids is appearing on, we think it is important to offer up some alternative lists that Grand Rapids could aspire to. The lists that follow are not in any particular order, but are ones that will require major changes to how “business is done” in Grand Rapids.

  • Cities that promote and practice Racial Justice, including reparations
  • Cities where sexual assault and rape are not experienced
  • Cities that embrace the LGBTQ community and particularly Trans people of color.
  • Cities where Environmental Justice is practiced
  • Cities where poverty and homelessness are not experienced.
  • Cities that have done away with the Prison Industrial Complex

Children Living in Poverty in Kent County increases based on new report

June 27, 2016

In Kent County, 31,167 children, or 20 percent between the ages of birth and 17, lived in poverty in 2014, up 18 percent from 2006, according to Kids Count data.

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The Annie E. Casey Foundation and Michigan Kids Count just released data on the condition of children all across the US, in Michigan and by county throughout the state.

This data is sobering and is a clear reflection of how many families are negatively impacted by neoliberal capitalism and White Supremacy. How is it that so many children in Kent County are experiencing poverty when the mantra in news media is that Grand Rapids is booming? How is it that with people like Richard DeVos, Hank & Doug Meijer who are worth billions ($4.7 and $8.2 billion respectively) can have so much wealth when so many children are living in poverty?Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 11.35.29 PM

These are fundamental questions of justice that are not being asked by policy makers, business leaders and non-profit organizations, because they are either the beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism or they are too compromised to take a stand.

We are constantly hearing about the need for equity in Grand Rapids. However, equity in its most basic form would never allow so many children to suffer as they do in this community. So the question is, what are we going to do to end child poverty in this community?

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