Something interesting has occurred in this year's Grand Rapids City Commission races. (What? There's a city election this year?) Two overtly partisan groups have publicly announced their backing of candidates in the First and Second Wards. Because city elections are non-partisan under the city charter, not only has there been no formal identification of candidates with any political party, there usually hasn't even been an informal one since the McKay era to give voters a good idea of a candidate's general political outlook.
Over the past few election cycles, informal partisanship in City Commission races has perked up mostly in the form of making a candidate's party registration publicly known. Also there have been the endorsements of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the Friends of Labor. Now a group of crypto-Republicans, the Mavericks, are stumping for Dave Shaffer, a candidate in the First Ward race to oust incumbent James Jendrasiak and a group of crypto-Democrats, the Progressive Women's Alliance of West Michigan, are doing the same for Rosalyn Bliss in the Second Ward race to replace retiring Lynn Rabaut. So, voters now know how to pigeonhole at least a couple of this year's candidate.
I don't think this is a development to be lamented. First all, partisanship is inevitable. Even the Founding Fathers, with all their genius, were unable to stop the formation of "factions" -- i.e., political parties -- upon the ratification of the Constitution. Second, there's nothing wrong with the oft-scorn "label" of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. It is the most succinct way for a candidate to communicate to fellow travelers that he or she shares their political values. Finally, non-partisanship has always been a fiction in the City Commission. What official non-partisanship boils down to is public censorship of a candidate's political affiliation, which works to the benefit of those who are connected while leaving the voters in the dark.
This is not to say that the groups now filling the non-partisan vacuum don't bear scrutiny. There is always the carpetbagger factor. Few of the one hundred or so Mavericks actually live in the City of Grand Rapids. However, most of the outsiders claim to have business interests within the City, thus making them City taxpayers. Therefore, their participation in local elections is not necessarily suspect, though the wise voter will want to make sure that a Maverick candidate for the City Commission won't be a tool for greasing the skids for outside business interests to slide into City contracts or government subsidies.
After all, the leader of the Mavericks knows something about government subsidies for big redevelopment projects. He is Chris Beckering who worked with his father Thomas Beckering (of Toxic Towers fame) on the Berkey & Gay building's conversion into offices and apartments and an American Seating factory's renovation into apartments. He is now the spokesman for both projects, which have received millions in public subsidies including historic preservation tax credits, brownfield tax credits, and a suspicious low-ball tax assessment of one of the properties.
Exactly what the mostly-carpetbagger Mavericks want of candidate Shaffer in exchange for their $3,000 contribution to his campaign is a legitimate question for voters. The same goes for Third Ward candidate Dan Tietema, if Beckering follows through on a Maverick plan to endorse him in an attempt to defeat incumbent Commissioner Jim White. (And don't sneeze at that three thousand bucks, folks. That's BIG money in city races.)
As for the Progressive Women's Alliance, one-third of their six hundred members live outside the City. From their public statements to date, it's not clear what interest the non-resident members of the PWA have in backing candidate Bliss. Strangely the rallying cry behind Bliss appears to be -- heaven help us! -- ABORTION. Perhaps the pro-abortion PWA is trying to supplant the influence of the Friends of Labor, mentioned above, who are on the left end of the political spectrum but are pro-life. Also being played up is that PWA candidate Bliss is pro-choice while her main opponent, Shaula Johnston, is pro-life.
No matter what anyone's position is, so long as Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, there is NOTHING a City Commissioner can do to outlaw, regulate, or protect "abortion-on-demand" in River City; the issue is a dead letter in local politics. Therefore, only zealotry would seem to account for its injection into the Second Ward race. Then again, maybe the abortion issue is a down-and-dirty way of communicating to voters Bliss's liberal credentials. Whatever the case, it got Bliss a $5,000 check from the PWA.
The bottom line is that there's nothing wrong with crypto-Republicans and crypto-Democrats uncloaking themselves in City Commission races. But let's just make sure that the carpetbaggers backing them are importing nothing more than good ol' fashioned partisanship into town.