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On Becoming a Democrat

It's an honor to be part of this eCircle about party politics. Seventeen years in local, partisan elected office, over the past twenty-five years (with an eight-year break in the middle), has given me a lot to reflect on.

I enjoy hearing stories. I also like to tell them. I've found that personal stories are a great way to begin and develop discussions about intensely personal topics. Many people have strong feelings about politics and stories can sometimes help moderate them. So to open this discussion I want to share personal stories that give insight into how my political thinking and action have been shaped.

Getting the Bug

I grew up in a conservative Christian Reformed community, outside of Chicago and just over the Illinois-Indiana border. My earliest memory of anything political is from the Nixon-Kennedy presidential election of 1960. I was only seven years old but I still remember saying, along with my second grade classmates, "Nixon, Nixon, he's our man...." and then some derogatory statement about Kennedy and a garbage can (yes, we made it rhyme). At that young age I was somehow left with the impression that it would be a horrible thing for us Protestants if a Catholic became our President.

I probably would have traveled down that conservative, Republican road into my adult life except for a pit-stop at Calvin College. Back in those days  we stood in line to enroll in classes and if we were at the end of the line, the classes were often full. This naive "pre-sem" freshman ended up at the end of the line for my first enrollment and only one of the classes that I wanted was still available. A wonderful second year student advisor stepped up to help me. "Why don't you try this philosophy class - I hear that the professor is pretty interesting."

In my older years I have the privilege of being able to look back and recognize pivotal times in my life. Sitting in Evan Runner's Introduction to Philosophy class during the fall of 1971, at the advice of that student advisor, was one of those. I discovered new ways to see the world and my place in it. I began applying my new lenses to my interest in education, on the way to becoming an elementary school teacher.

A few years later, a series of Runner lectures were published under the title "Scriptural Religion and Political Task". I was fascinated by his analysis of religion and politics and apparently took to heart the closing sentences of his Foreword to the publication. "We need men and women to live politically out of a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus Christ and the whole revealed Word of God. Then, perhaps, the present young political revolutionaries - and there will be more of them - will learn to fight for political, social and economic justice on the side of the Lord of Creation, whose Kingdom will surely come, and is coming daily through our own acts of obedience to His revealed Word." That commitment to political, social and economic justice, grounded in Biblical and creational discernment, came to be the lens through which I eventually viewed my role as an elected official.

Choosing a Party

Fast forward to 1989. While living near downtown Grand Rapids and helping to run a small social service center, I became involved in community organizing activities. People I worked with began to suggest that I should run for political office and my life experiences in human services and public works made county government a nice fit. I decided that I should give it a shot. But there was a problem. The County Commission was a partisan office and I had to run as a either a Republican or a Democrat. I didn't like the choice - I wanted to be an independent. But a little research quickly quashed that thought. In partisan elections where straight party ballots are allowed (like in Michigan) over 50% of voters only fill in one circle - for their party of choice. I would need to get more than 75% of the remaining votes for a chance of winning and that would be next to impossible.

In retrospect, my choice to run as a Democrat was less about the official positions of the party than it was about some general themes and the public figures who represented their parties at the time. The presidents who served during my early adult years were Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. I was a big fan of Jimmy Carter and appreciated what I saw to be an approach to politics and government that was grounded in faith and scripture. Nixon certainly set a bad precedent for Republicans and, following Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan was a striking contrast when it came to themes of political, social and economic justice.

"All Politics Is Local"

Over the years I've come to recognize a fascinating inconsistency in both political parties. Republicans tend to emphasize individual rights - to bear arms, to have "local control", to control one's own income. But that changes when it comes to the issue of abortion, where they oppose personal  choice. Democrats tend to emphasize community responsibility over individual rights - except when it comes to abortion when it becomes all about "a woman's right to choose".

In my many years of campaigning door to door for election, I've developed a standard response to the question that I'm occasionally asked, "Are you pro-life?". But when I say that my Christian faith leads me to generally be opposed to war and against capital punishment, I usually hear a flustered "That's not what I mean!" response.

Interestingly, in conservative West Michigan, there was a time, some years back, when I was the only local Democratic officeholder who wasn't strongly opposed to abortion. The other elected Dems bucked the national party platform and there was a sort of "urban legend" that held that a Democrat couldn't be elected in West Michigan if they didn't staunchly oppose abortion. I was evidence to the contrary but the belief continued for many years.

I've also heard the tendency for partisan politics to have a local flavor referenced by some who have suggested that a West Michigan Democrat would probably have to run as a Republican in nearby Chicago. What might be viewed as liberal or progressive thinking in the Grand Rapids area would probably not go over so well inside the windy city's Democratic political machine.

The National Platform

When I compare the platforms of the national Republican and Democratic parties, I'm more drawn to highlight the negatives on the Republican side than I am to the positives of the Democratic side. But let's set those negatives aside for potential future discussion and peek at the positives on the Democratic side.

For me, some of the strongest Democratic values can be found in the Preamble of its Platform. They are certainly values that I share as a Christian. Here are a few examples:

  • "We believe that today’s extreme level of income and wealth inequality.... makes our economy weaker, our communities poorer, and our politics poisonous."
  • "And we know that our nation’s long struggle with race is far from over.... race still plays a significant role in determining who gets ahead in America and who gets left behind."
  • "Above all, Democrats are the party of inclusion. We know that diversity is not our problem—it is our promise."
  • "We are proud of our heritage as a nation of immigrants."
  • "We believe in .... guaranteeing civil rights and voting rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights, LGBT rights, and rights for people with disabilities."

Straying From the Party Line

One of the areas where I've struggled within my own Democratic party has been around the topic of education. I believe that a strong public system of education is very important.  I also see opportunity in recognizing the diversity of world-views that exist in our society and viewing government as the entity that ensures adequate funding and establishes educational standards. When we do that, it opens the door to public funding of non-government schools that meet the educational standards. While I have yet to see a voucher or charter system, proposed or in place, that creates a level playing field for government and non-government schools, I can imagine a system that functions well  by funding all types of schools, including "religious" schools, so long as they meet the minimum standards set by the society through its government. Such a view isn't typically appreciated by Democrats, who are usually critical of public funding of private, parochial and charter schools. That criticism seems warranted in Michigan, where charter schools have not been required, for example, to transport students or provide special education services, leaving government schools with higher costs for students needing such services.  Another side of this debate, of course, is that private schools may not want to agree to the standards set by the state so may still want to operate separately from the public system. In private discussions, I'll often make a comparison to Kent County's long-standing and highly respected public mental health system. In that system, the local public mental health organization receives funds from the State and subcontracts with private providers, mostly non-profit, to provide mental health services. The public agency distributes the funds and ensures that adequate services of the highest quality are being provided.

Becoming More Comfortable

Over the years I've become less hesitant about my Democratic affiliation. I've come to view the Republican party as generally more concerned about individual rights over community responsibilities, more concerned about government investments to create individual wealth rather than investing to develop community health, and relatively blind to the structural racism that is a primary cause of the growing gap between people with wealth and people without.

Development for Whom?

In Grand Rapids I've been fortunate to be able to serve as a board member of a quasi-government downtown economic development group called the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). In Michigan, DDA's are authorized to capture the property taxes that result from the growth of property values in a designated geographic area. The original intent of the tool was to support redevelopment of economically depressed downtown areas. Investments of DDA captured tax dollars, along with significant private investments and philanthropy, have transformed downtown Grand Rapids over the past few decades. Yet the transformation hasn't been good for everyone. There are almost no Black or Latino property owners downtown, despite being 40% of the city's population. And there are almost no downtown business owners of color either. Some local leaders, including me, have begun asking whether it is a legitimate role of government to incent social change. If reversing the multi-generational effects of racism is a priority for our community, is it appropriate for government to target economic development investments to support that change? In the case of the DDA, should we offer incentives that support things like affordable housing, minority businesses or low-impact green development? As those conversations have begun to occur, I've seen a reluctance, even significant pushback, from conservative developers.

Health Care

I've also been privileged to be a member of Kent County's quasi-government community mental health (CMH) organization. In Michigan, we had a significant public debate about the expansion of Medicaid health care funding that became available through the Affordable Care Act. Many in Michigan's Republican-dominated legislature were strongly opposed to taking advantage of the opportunity to use a relatively small state financial contribution to leverage significant federal support that would give hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents new access to health care, including mental health services. Following intense debate and negotiation, the moderate Republican governor was able to sway enough other moderate Republican Senators so that 8 of 26 voted for the expansion. In the House, 28 Republicans voted for the expansion while 31 voted against it. Only one House Democrat voted against the expansion, compared to none in the Senate. The solid support of Democrats for justice for all in health care increased my appreciation for the efforts of Democratic officeholders.

Setbacks

While my fondness for the Democratic Party as the better choice for my political affiliation has grown over time, it hasn't been without some setbacks. One of the earliest took place in the beginning stages of my first campaign. I had put together a campaign committee that included close friends, colleagues from my work in the community, and a labor leader.  I was surprised and grateful when the labor representative presented me with a significant financial contribution for my campaign from a labor group. Sometime later I brought a draft of a brochure that I wanted to use in my campaign and asked for feedback. The labor person did not like a line in the brochure and asked that I remove it. The sentence in question expressed my desire to follow in the footsteps of several of the area's well-respected legislators, including Paul Henry (U.S. Representative) and Vern Ehlers (State Senator). For me, the referenced legislators and I clearly shared that desire "to to live politically out of a whole-hearted commitment to Jesus Christ and the whole revealed Word of God." But they were all Republicans and the labor person would not have that. He was adamant that the sentence needed to be removed. And I removed it. I'm not sure why. Honest self-reflection would suggest that I felt some guilt about taking that large contribution and not giving back something in return. Over the years, as I've shared this incident with other aspiring politicians, I've described that it made me feel dirty.  And I soon resolved to limit the size of contributions that I would accept from interest groups. When I talk to people about my experiences in politics, I assert without hesitation that money DOES buy influence - don't believe anyone who suggests otherwise. I've seen it repeatedly in elected office and it is one of the worst aspects of our system.

Lessons Learned

I've learned a couple of important lessons in my years of running for office and I feel a need to share them at every opportunity so I'll conclude with them here. The first is that most people don't vote. In Grand Rapids, not unlike many areas, we might see 75-80% turnout in a presidential election, every four years. In between the presidential elections we vote for a governor and other statewide offices. Between 50-60% might turnout in those. In a City election, like for Mayor, we are lucky to see 25% of registered voters cast a vote. And when school board races are the only thing on the ballot, the turnout is a dismal 15% or less. I'll say it again. People. Just. Don't. Vote. It's even more discouraging to learn that, when they do vote, most people know little to nothing about who they are voting for. They tend to vote based on name recognition or, if they don't recognize a name, they'll choose based on gender or ethnic considerations. It's well known, in some parts of the country, that having an Irish name will give you an electoral advantage. Candidates who want to win have to recognize voting patterns and focus their limited resources on people who will actually vote. So you will see candidates going door to door, only talking to people who have some history of voting in their particular election. You'll only get a candidate brochure in your mailbox if you have some history of voting. The irony of this is that lots of people complain that they don't know who to vote for, and say they don't vote because they don't know what the candidates stand for. But they don't receive information about the candidates because they don't vote. It's a classic catch 22.

The other important lesson that I try to share with aspiring candidates is that campaigning for office is VERY different from legislating. Campaigning is mostly about building positive name recognition and making sure your supporters get out to vote on election day. That's hard work but it's pretty straight-forward. Legislating, on the other hand, can involve making tough decisions on difficult issues that can affect a lot of people. Being grounded in principles of justice for all, and discerning how those principles should guide decision-making that benefits everyone in society, can be gut-wrenching work.

 

I'm grateful to have acquired a Biblical lens and life experiences that help shape my work in elected office. I look forward to continuing that work, Lord willing, a bit longer. And I look forward to what I'll learn from this eCircle discussion that will enhance my contribution to my community's political life.

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