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Another look at the Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative: History, representation, reformism and radical imagination

June 4, 2019

During the past month, there have been several news stories about the local campaign to expand the political ward system in Grand Rapids from 3 to 8 wards. The group behind the campaign is Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative (GRDI). 

The mission statement of the group says:

The Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative is a non-partisan effort to ensure that all residents of Grand Rapids have representation and access to democracy through ease of voter registration, and understanding voter rights. We are advocating for a, or multiple ballot proposals to change the Grand Rapids City Charter to include the following:

  • 8 city wards with 8 City Commissioners
  • Special elections instead of appointments for vacated seats

In early May, MLive ran an article about the campaign, and last Friday, Revue Magazine posted their story. The MLive story is pretty basic, with several of those involved with the  effort cited, as well as Tim Gleisner, former head of special collections at the Grand Rapids Public Library. Gleisner was quoted as saying, “The opposition groups felt that city government was better run as a business and more streamlined when commissioners were representing not at a local level but the city as a whole. That was a big concern, they didn’t want local interests to dominate the discussion.”

While Gleisner’s statement isn’t inaccurate, it doesn’t fully reflect why the City Charter was changed from a 12 ward system to a 3 ward system in 1916. The business community was so threatened by the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike, that they didn’t want to leave the future of city politics in the hands of working class people. Here is a summary of what happened from the Grand Rapids People’s History Project:

During the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike and its aftermath, the business community and leading industrialists, began to develop a plan that would significantly alter the way electoral politics was done in Grand Rapids. 

The 1911 Furniture Workers Strike revealed several things to wealthy industrialist. First, there was a growing threat of Socialist and Anarchist politics, particularly with the Socialist Mayoral candidate, Edward Kosten, in the 1912 Mayoral race. Out of the 14,772 votes cast in the Mayoral race in 1912, Kosten received a total of 2,315 votes in a three candidate race, which was roughly 1 out of 7 votes.

Second, the wealthy industrialist of Grand Rapids were further committed to the notion that, in the words of Chief Justice John Jay, “the people who own the country ought to govern it.” Not only was this sentiment embraced by the wealthy industrialist in Grand Rapids, it was endorsed by Frank M. Sparks, the political correspondent for the Grand Rapids Herald. Sparks had written a book, The Business of Government Municipal Reform.

In his book, Sparks wrote, “just as ownership in the modern corporation had been divorced from management, so, too, must the individual citizen let professionals guide the direction of municipal life.”  Sparks went on to say, “Citizens were like shareholders in the modern municipal corporation. If they wanted more efficient government they must be prepared to surrender direct control of policy to elected commissioners who would serve as a board of directors and in turn hire professional managers.”

Third, the wealthy industrialist were deeply concerned about the current political ward system in Grand Rapids. The majority of working class people had too much influence in the outcome of elections, so a new ward structure was proposed in the 1916 City Charter.

Grand Rapids, at the time, was made up of a twelve ward system, with 2 aldermen elected from each ward and a strong mayor. (see Grand Rapids ward map above) What was proposed in the 1916 City Charter was to have a three ward system with two commissioners from each ward and a weak Mayor, meaning that the Mayor would only have one vote and in a sense be a glorified commissioner. In addition, there would be a City Manager position, which would essentially run the day to day tasks and make recommendations. For many, the City Manager position was the real power behind city hall.

This third factor, in determining the city’s political future, would limit bloc voting, particularly among ethnic communities and religious sectors, and give greater control to electoral outcomes. The voting numbers in the 1916 Grand Rapids City Charter were revealing.

In August of 1916, voters went to the polls to determine the future political structure of Grand Rapids. The new Charter won by a small margin of 7,693 votes in favor to 6,012 votes in opposition. According to Jeffrey Kleiman’s book, Strike: How the Furniture Workers Strike of 1911 Changed Grand Rapids, the wards that voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Charter change were made up of the city’s elite.

The Second, Third and Tenth wards provided enthusiastic support for the proposed changes. Here lived the industrialists, lawyers, and bankers who formed the leadership of the Furniture Manufacturers Association, and the Association of Commerce. These men shared social and business connections through Kent Country Club and the Peninsular Club, and many were members of Fountain Street Baptist Church.

By contrast, those who voted against the City Charter changes in 1916 were made up almost entirely of working class constituents. The wards voting against the changes were the twelfth ward in the southwest part of the city and the entire west side.

Again, according to Kleiman, “After a decade of struggle, the furniture manufacturers and other economic leaders of the new industrial city finally controlled the government.” We would all do well to recognize this history of the voting structure in Grand Rapids and not assume that it has change changed much over the years

Representation for whom?

The Revue Magazine took a different approach to the issue in their article from last Friday

The article raises several interesting points. First, the issue of racial representation was addressed, both black and latinx representation. There has never been a latinx person elected to the City Commission and more wards could provide an opportunity for that to happen. However, a member of Equity PAC, Denavvia Mojet, challenges GRDI, with these observations:

“As a huge believer in equity, I’ve heard so much skepticism about how this is being framed. It’s almost ignoring the fact that we have three black commissioners now, and the two white people pushing this (VandenBerg and Michael Tuffelmire) are two white people who lost to black people (Commissioners Joe Jones and Senita Lenear).”

A second point worth bringing up has to do with the mission statement from GRDI, which says it is a non-partisan effort. However, the Revue Magazine piece cites Mike Kolehouse as a GRDI organizer and Grand Rapids Political Consultant. The truth is, that Mike Kolehouse is a paid political operative of the Democratic Party, which calls into question how non-partisan this effort is.

Lastly, it is mentioned early on in the Revue Magazine article that the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce is not really in favor of restructuring the Grand Rapids City Commission. The Revue article states:

“the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is raising “initial concerns” about the potential of more voices at the table stymying the business of the city, specifically about whether the proposal accounts for “big-picture thinking” about Grand Rapids.”

This is exactly the concerns that members of the Capitalist Class had after the 1911 Furniture Workers Strike. The Furniture Barons were completely opposed to having too many working class people have a say in determining the political future of Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, which is part of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, also has issues with working class people making decisions that could affect their bottom line. 

Reformism or Radical Imagination

This last point about the business class not wanting regular people having too much power to make decisions about what happens in Grand Rapids. The GRDI would do well to have an astute class analysis moving forward. But this also raises issues about racial representation. While I am in principle, supportive of more people of color being in positions of power, the reality is that it doesn’t always translate into meaningful representation.

The Grand Rapids Democracy Initiative ultimately is a reformist approach to a much larger problem of democracy and political power. What this proposal does, as do many proposals is to only slightly adjust how systems of power function, but it will never really challenge systems of power. Why do we limit ourselves to having elections that means we give our power over to those who are elected to be “our representatives?”

Instead of just participating in reformist solutions, why don’t we radically imagine another possibility. For the last several decades, the global movements for justice, coming together under the World Social Forum, has used the phrase, Another World is Possible. Indeed, another world is possible, one that might adopt more direct forms of democracy, forms of governance that are much more participatory, like the models that radical theorist Murray Bookchin wrote about, called Radical Municipalism. There are also lots of other examples historically that we could learn from, like what many indigenous communities practiced, such as the Iroquois Federation or the Spanish Anarchists or what the largest contemporary social movement in the world, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil.

When one considers that Grand Rapids is faced with institutionalized White Supremacy, gentrification that displaces people on a daily basis, a housing market that serves developers and property management companies, a massive wealth gap (the worst in Michigan) and an urgent climate crisis, it seems that we need to move away from reformist politics and begin to radically imagine another world.

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