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Whiteness, white fear and the outcome of the Grand Rapids 1st Ward City Commission race

November 9, 2022

By now, I am assuming that most people are aware of the fact that Andrew Robbins defeated Kurt Reppart in the race for the Grand Rapids City Commission 1st Ward. The margin of defeat was small, with Robbins getting 8,042 votes to Reppart’s 7,690. 

Beyond the numbers, it is important to ask ourselves, what were the factors that ultimately determined the outcome of this election. I say factors, because it wasn’t simply one reason that more people ended up voting for Robbins. What follows are some of my own reflections/observations on the factors that contributed to Robbins winning the 1st Ward election.

However, before we look at the factors, I think it is important to look at the geographical make-up of the 1st Ward. The 1st Ward is all of the westside, but it also includes whole other neighborhoods, like the Granville Avenue corridor and the Burton Heights area. (See map)  When I ran as a 1st Ward City Commission candidate in 1997, I was confronted by a ton of people while canvassing on the westside, who asked where I lived. I told them I lived on LaGrave SE, near Wealthy and Division. Their responses was almost always either, “that isn’t part of the 1st ward” or “you are not a westsider.” The later response can be taken as a geographical response, but I also believe it is about race and ethnicity (more on that later). 

With the boundaries of the 1st Ward out of the way, let’a talk about the factors that led to Robbins becoming a Grand Rapids City Commissioner.

As we have noted in previous posts, Andrew Robbins received large campaign contributions from some powerful political players. Robbins received nearly $10,000 from DeVos family members/associates, along with other members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure making substantial contributions. Then there was the $10,050 contribution from the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of the Capitalist Class. In addition, the Grand Rapids Police Officer’s Association contributed $10,000 to Robbins, who campaigned on a Back the Blue platform.

All of these contributions were used primarily for flyers and mailers in Robbins’ campaign, which meant he had lots of money to do multiple mailers and flyer drops in the 1st Ward. 

A second major factor was the white fear factor. It was revealed months ago that the SafeGR campaign was created by white people in order to discredit Commissioner Reppart as “soft on crime” and as someone who wanted to “defund the police.”

Now, it is true that Commissioner Reppart, along with Commissioner’s Ysasi and Jones, was proposing to reduced some of the budget for the GRPD in July of 2020. What the SafeGR people don’t want you to know is that these three commissioners were simply responding to thousands of letters and messages that GR City officials had received in the wake of the George Floyd protest in May of 2020. In that moment you actually had 3 commissioners who were listening to the community and a movement, which was part of one of the largest ever in US history. 

In addition, the SafeGR campaign used bogus information, which was designed to paint a picture that Grand Rapids is experiencing a crime wave and that less police would mean more crime. Neither of these claims are true, and even one of the sources they used around public opinion and safety doesn’t support their claim. Go to this link, which SafeGR cited, and then click on the heading Safety. 

The other component of the white fear factor is that the SafeGR campaign, like all campaigns that Back the Blue, is that when white people hear increased crime and gun violence, they overwhelmingly think of Black and Brown people. In fact, every time US governments – federal, state or local – want to increase police budgets, it is always after there has been an increase in resistance by Black and Brown communities. See Elizabeth Hinton’s excellent book, America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion since the 1960s. Also see my post on the 1995 campaign in Grand Rapids to change the City Charter, which institutionalized no less than a third of the City’s budget for the GRPD.

In August, the City Commission held their Commission meeting in the 1st Ward. During public comment, there were several white 1st Ward residents who all spoke against defunding the GRPD, saying things like “we need more funding for the GRPD” and “they keep us safe,” but never providing any evidence to support their claims. Then, another white dude from the 1st Ward said, that Patrick Lyoya got what he deserved because he refused to obey the cop who ended up shooting him. I remember looking at the Commissioners, then looking at the guy who said these hateful words, and then I turned around to see what kind of reaction there was from the mostly white audience. The only outward show of disgust to these comments, came from the Justice4Patrick people who were in attendance. I remember thinking to myself, the very fact that this white guy felt safe to say such a thing in public, was in part because it was in the heart of the 1st Ward. Therefore, playing to white fear on the westside was an effective strategy by the SafeGR group, disgusting, but effective.

This brings us to the last major factor that I want to talk about, in regards to Robbins’ victory over Reppart. Andrew Robbins was virtually an unknown, which means he was probably chosen to run for office. Unlike Robbins, Kurt Reppart has been been rooted in Grand Rapids, not just as a City Commissioner, but as a minister working with the Other Way Ministries, which does important housing justice, anti-poverty and food justice work. Being an unknown, Robbins had to recruit people who would support his campaign, people who are known in Grand Rapids. 

One of those who endorsed Robbins early on was Johnny Brann Sr., owner of Brann’s restaurant. Besides the restaurant being an institution on the westside, Johnny Brann Sr. was the main organizing force around the group called Voice for the Badge. Voice for the Badge was created in response to the growing criticism of the GRPD, which began when Black Lives Matter GR was formed in 2014 after the police murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Johnny Brann Sr. and Voice for the Badge started coming to the City Commission meetings, because Black and Brown-led movements were confronting the City Commission around policing issues, those that impacted the Black community and the immigrant community. Johnny Brann Sr. had been using the Voice for the Badge Facebook page to threaten City officials and bragged about Reppart losing his seat on the City Commission ever since the uprising in May of 2020. Not surprising, Andrew Robbins celebrated his victory at Brann’s restaurant on W. Leonard Tuesday night.

Another person who decided to endorse and stump for Andrew Robbins was Lupe Ramos-Montigny, someone who is seen as a “leader in the Hispanic community.” Lupe was very public about her support, plus she did active campaign work with Robbins. It is also worth noting that Lupe Ramos-Montigny is part of the Democratic Party, where she held the position of Chair of the Kent County Democratic Party for years and was elected as part of the Michigan State Board of Education, where she served for 8 years. Having Lupe Ramos-Montigny endorse and campaign for Robbins, in a city ward that has the largest Latino/a population, was not only a major factor in Robbins winning that seat, it is a deeply troubling and problematic that a Latina leader would endorse a pro-police candidate in 2022. 

White fear, the white dominated westside, campaign contributions from the Capitalist Class and the Police union, were all factors that contributed to Andrew Robbins becoming a 1st Ward City Commissioner. This means that the police union, the Chamber of Commerce, the DeVos family and other members of the Grand Rapids Power Structure will have yet another member of the City Commission representing their interests. 

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