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The honest Legacy of Congressman Vern Ehlers

August 18, 2017

On Tuesday, former US Congressman Vern Ehlers passed away at the age of 83.

In the past few days there has been a number of news stories reflecting on the life of the former Congressman, with virtually every story communicating nothing but respect and admiration for Vern Ehlers.

One article on MLive just listed the comments from local politicians, both current and former, such as Senator Debbie Stabenow, Rep. Bill Huizenga, current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. 

A WOOD TV 8 story provides significant time to Ehler’s former press secretary Chris Barbee, but also included commentary from additional politicians like Rep. Justin Amash, Gov. Rick Snyder and Rep. Fred Upton. 

An earlier story on MLive provided some background on Ehlers’ political career from Kent County Commissioner to Congressman. In addition, some of the news coverage highlighted certain policies that the former Congressman had “championed,” such as Great Lakes Restoration and STEM Education. 

Some of the themes that are reflected in the news coverage of Ehlers’ passing is that he was, “respected on both sides of the aisle,” that he had a great sense of humor and served the 3rd Congressional District well. Some of the reporting talked about his Christian faith and several respondents said that “we needed more politicians like Vern.”

It is always interesting to observe how the news media deals with the death of a politician, regardless of party affiliation. Congressmen Ehlers, like Congressman Paul Henry (whom Ehlers replaced) are almost canonized in the news coverage without any critical perspective on what these politicians stood for, not what their track record looked like.

Congressman Ehlers took over for Paul Henry as the Representative for the 3rd Congressional district in 1993, when Henry was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This means that Ehlers was Congressman during the Clinton administration, the Bush administration and the first 2 years of the Obama administration. Ehlers left office in January of 2011.

From 1993 through 2011, anyone in Congress would have had to deal with major policies that impacted millions in the US and millions more worldwide. Former Congressman Vern Ehlers voted on trade policies, domestic economic policies, war and military budgets and the aftermath of September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

I was personally involved in numerous campaigns to challenge and confront Congressman Ehlers during his time in Congress and was even arrested on a few occasions at his office in the Grand Rapids Federal Building.

Ehlers, like most politicians, practiced business as usual politics. On the economic front, Ehlers consistently voted to continue massive corporate subsidies that were in the billions, while millions of families were struggling to make ends meet. Ehlers voted for the Clinton administration’s policy to end welfare as we know it and he voted for the massive bailout of banks after the economic collapse of 2007 – 2008.

These policies expanded the gap between rich and poor in the US and had devastating consequences particularly on women and communities of color.

Congressman Ehlers voted in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).  These trade policies had devastating effects on US workers and resulted in the elimination of thousands of manufacturing jobs being lost in Michigan alone.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Ehlers voted for the Patriot Act and everyone of the subsequent policies after that to renew or expand domestic US government surveillance programs. The Patriot Act targeted the Arab American and Muslim American communities and should be seen as what it is, a racist policy.

Congressman Ehlers voted to in support of the US military assault and then subsequent military occupation of Afghanistan in 2001. Ehlers also voted for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and continued to voted in favor of military spending in Iraq, the use of private contractors and the use of torture by US military personnel in Iraq.

In March of 2007, several hundred people went to the home of Vern Ehlers to protest his ongoing support of the US occupation of Iraq, as you can see in this video:

Again, in 2008, Ehlers was confronted about his support for the US occupation of Iraq, when he was attending an event at the Women’s City Club in Grand Rapids:

Additionally, in the early months of the US military occupation of Iraq in 2003, members of the People’s Alliance for Justice and Change organized the Trial of Vern Ehlers as a dramatic depiction of the then documented US war crimes being perpetrated in Iraq, which Congressman Ehlers supported. You can read the transcript of the trial here or watch a video version of the trial.

So, despite the glowing news coverage of the passing of this former US Congressmen, some of us will remember him as a supporter of economic policies that supported the rich, devastating trade policies, US militarism, war crimes and torture. But hey, he was respected on both sides of the political aisle.

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