This is L.A.W.’s commentary on the candidates in the primary race for Grand Rapids mayor. The election is next Tuesday, August 7th. If one of the candidates wins more than 50% of the vote, he will win the mayor’s office outright. Otherwise, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a run-off election in November. The candidates are the incumbent, George Heartwell, and challengers store clerk Jackie Miller, attorney and G.R. Board of Education member Jim Rinck, and Second Ward City Commissioner Rick Tormala. We collected our information for our report from public appearances by the candidates, news reports, campaign websites, and other sources. In keeping with our longstanding policy, we will not endorse any candidate, but that won’t stop us from telling you what we think about each of them and their positions.
Miller is a newcomer to politics. She has never held or run for public office before. An ex-cab driver who now works as a store clerk, she campaigns as an ordinary citizen who will bring commonsense to the office of mayor. Apparently one of her bona fides as a regular Joe is that she has been poor and has literally gone hungry in the past. Well, OK, but generally speaking there’s not a thing wrong with a non-politician jumping into this fray. While political experience is useful, lacking it is no disqualification for mayor of Grand Rapids. After all, the mayor is essentially a commissioner-at-large, one vote out of seven on the City Commission. That vote consistently cast with commonsense would be a plus for the city.
Unfortunately, Miller hasn’t told us much about what she means by commonsense. This wouldn’t be a problem, I suppose, if we could glean some meaning from her positions. All too frequently she has no position. For example, on the heated issue of the sale of city-owned properties (e.g., the City Island, Indian Trails golf course, downtown parking ramps), Miller says she would have to consider this on a case-by-case basis. Well, true, but what would be the guiding principles she would apply to each case? We don’t know. Then sometimes she appears contradictory. Miller clearly opposes increased taxes to cover River City’s endemic budget shortfalls. She says spending must be reduced. OK, that’s sounds good. But then she opposes reducing compensation to city employees, wants to increase the ranks of our cops and firemen, and thinks mass transit needs to be a top priority for the city.
Then sometimes Miller takes a position that defies commonsense. The clearest instance of this is her support of the smoking ban that the City Commission passed earlier this year. The ban forbids business owners from setting their own policies on smoking at their establishments in favor a one-size-fits-all, pseudo-science rationalized, Big Sister-knows-best prohibition throughout the city (except where state law supersedes). Then Miller argues the prohibition will be self-enforcing so that the city government will not have to do any work to make the ban effective. Yeah, right. There’s no free lunch, Jackie. All the ban will be is a nuisance to business owners, a means for a disgruntled employee or other busybodies to make pests of themselves, a dead-end workload for zoning enforcement, and a great way to make the ‘burbs more attractive for businesses that do not need to be located in the city.
So we agree with Miller that commonsense is an asset and that ordinary citizens have sufficient commonsense to serve as mayor. Unfortunately, Miller has not demonstrated that she has it.
After losing as the Democratic candidate in last fall’s congressional election, Rinck is now seeking the mayor’s office. He is a local attorney who has served as a member of the Grand Rapids Board of Education for the past fourteen years. As he is wont to remind us, his length of service is a record – or should be once the records are checked. Swell, although I’m not sure that is anything to brag about in light of the dismal depths the Grand Rapids Public School District has sunk to during that period of time. Well, that’s not really fair. Although Rinck’s liberalism has prevented him from embracing the fundamental reforms needed to rescue the system, he has been his own man, does not hesitate to speak out against nonsense, and from a managerial perspective (if not a reform one) has been a sound member of the school board. He also played a similar role as a member of the Downtown Development Authority until he was recently ousted by the establishment in favor of a more congenial placeholder.
In a word, Rinck is a technocrat. He clearly enjoys being a part of government and gives a great deal of thought to how it should be run. He even has a wonky persona that borders on a “Saturday Night Live” parody. While a technocrat as president or even governor is not such a hot idea, it’s not a bad thing in a mayor, especially under the present city manager form of government. There’s a lot of detail work to handle, and Rinck certainly has strong policy preferences that he would apply to the details as they arise – especially when it comes to reining in a city staff that frequently fails to appreciate that it is subordinate to the elected representatives of the city’s residents. I don’t see Rinck getting buffaloed, let alone bullied, by them. The question, of course, is whether or not his policy preferences are the cure for what ails River City.
Well, they could be worse for a liberal politician. Although Rinck hasn’t ruled out increasing city taxes, he says the city government must continue to cut spending. One means to that end is consolidating municipal services with surrounding communities. However, that “no new taxes” semi-pledge is vitiated by his support for a new property tax to pay for city parks and recreational programs. This is at odds with Rinck’s clear statement at the Neighborhood Business Alliance forum last week that he opposes an increase in property taxes, because the tax burden is already too high on homeowners. Further complicating the clarity of his commitment to avoiding new taxes is his position that the DDA should continue to retain control of the tax dollars paid into it and his desire to create mini-DDA’s in the neighborhoods. I suspect Rinck has sorted all of this out in a consistent way, but it is not evident to the voter from information he has put out so far.
On many things, Rinck tends toward the small bore – i.e., the doable rather than the grandiose. However, what he wants to do tends to be in the service of some rather grandiose, even obnoxious, agendas. So even if what is doable doesn’t seem so unreasonable, it clears the path towards even more bloated and heavy-handed government programs. For example, Rinck supports the new smoking ban. He made it clear that he does so because government health policy trumps business owners’ property rights. While the ban itself may end up only being a nuisance (let's hope), it is troubling that Rinck thinks that the rights of property owners must yield to whatever is the enlightened progressive agenda of the day. After all, the one area of an ordinary citizen’s life over which a city government has real clout is the regulation of real property through taxation, zoning, use restrictions, building and housing codes, etc. If the unsubstantiated dangers of second-hand smoke give Rinck enough reason to ignore property rights, what might he justify in terms of other pseudo-science like global warming, a dire concern of his that he has raised a number of times?
This is not to say a Mayor Rinck will baby-step us in a relentless march towards a dreary socialist utopia. He seems to have a better grasp of reality than that. But his “government can help” policy preferences point us in the wrong direction. We don’t need more city regulations, bans, and intrusions to make our lives better; we need sound management of basic city services and we will take care of making our own lives better. If there is any doubt that Rinck is an old-hat government-is-the-solution liberal consider his one Big Idea to improve Grand Rapids, our own homegrown version of the Kalamazoo Promise. After fourteen years of failure on the Grand Rapids school board to support fundamental reforms that are the only hope to fix a rotten public education system, Rinck’s solution to stem the flight from the city’s public schools is bribe parents with college scholarships to put their kids in them. Granted, Rinck wouldn’t restrict enrollment to public schools and would include in the Promise students graduating from parochial and private schools, but parents would still have to pay tuition on top of higher city property taxes if they enroll their kids in them instead of public schools. So, the net effect of Rinck’s Grand Rapids Promise would be to boost enrollment in the Grand Rapids Public School District without the district having to do anything to actually improve itself to compete for students. The neatest trick behind Rinck’s Big Idea is that private donors and not the government would fund the Promise, so government schools stay on the gravy train without any improvement in their operation while private citizens pick up the tab on the scholarship bribe. Of course, that is probably exactly why the local moneybags won’t contribute to a Grand Rapids Promise. Doing so would reward the educrats who have repeatedly failed in their mission.
So, if Rinck’s “small-bore” policies aren’t the answer (i.e., the Rinky-Dink Rinck) and Rinck’s one Big Idea doesn’t add up, what are we left with? He is very strong on government transparency, which after sixteen years of Logie, Heartwell, and Kimball at the helm is a joke in River City. He has justly excoriated Heartwell for his penchant to operate behind closed doors with the movers and shakers in town. He has less justly tarred Tormala for supporting a city policy on confidentiality agreements that would conform with the Freedom of Information Act. (While we agree with Rinck that elected officials and city staff should not enter into confidentiality agreements with developers at all, FOIA does permit them and it makes sense to ensure that the public can find out about them should public officials sign them.) If Rinck were to lead the charge as mayor for a return to open government and so fire Kurt Kimball as City Manager, hold the city staff accountable for its responsibilities to the public, and put the players in town on notice that their deals with city government are going to be fully exposed to sunlight, his ossified liberalism would be probably be bearable. As outspoken as Rinck has been in his political career, I am not sure (from personal experience dealing with him on the Toxic Towers scandal) if he has what it takes to risk a breech with the River City establishment by pushing for genuinely open government.
Like Rinck, Tormala is a Democrat. Unlike Rinck, he is more of an old-fashioned blue-collar one. That has its pluses and minuses. One plus is that he genuinely respects the ordinary citizen as opposed to his progressive colleagues who regard the man in the street as a buffoon to be either enlightened or controlled unless, of course, the yahoo can be classed as a victim and thus be useful to the liberal agenda. Another is that his policy preferences have an organic rather than a doctrinaire quality to them. That is, one gets the impression that hard-won experience rather than enamorment with a pretty idea is key to the decisions Tormala makes. For instance, he is not opposed in principle to increased taxes and spending by the government, but as a city commissioner he has routinely, often in lone dissent, voted against such out of practical considerations to get the city’s budget balanced during the recent fiscal crisis. A further plus is that Tormala is not a deracinated man. He is sustained by his roots and traditions. That is why he is the only pro-life candidate in the mayor’s race and won the Michigan Right to Life endorsement. That is also why he is a strong proponent of the workingman and won the backing of the city’s labor unions.
And that brings us to the minuses of Tormala being an old-fashioned sort of Democrat. It is one thing to stump for labor and another to carry water for unions. Labor and union are not synonymous. To make sure that the average working stiff gets a fair shake from the system is worthy, and too often Republicans are dismissive of this and even so-called progressive Democrats are a bit sniffy when it comes to dealing with whom they perceive as the great unwashed. So Tormala is right to be true to labor in that regard. But if tribal loyalty to the blue collar translates into support of the union machine, that’s a problem. It is especially a problem when the union benefits at the expense of ordinary citizens outside of the union. That’s precisely what happens when government employee unions make demands that can only be met by increasing taxes on those citizens or cutting services to them to cover the bill. Indeed, there is something essentially perverse in unionizing against the taxpaying public (which is wholly different from labor organizing against private business owners). It is corrosive of the ideal of public service. The only checks against the excesses of this perversion are our elected officials, and so it is cause for concern when the city’s labor unions think Tormala is their man for mayor. Is he?
It is a fact that Tormala voted for the city manager’s budget recommendation to reduce total compensation of city employees by 6.4% to meet a $5.2 million shortfall in covering skyrocketing health benefits. There is no reason why the generous compensation that public pays city employees should not be trimmed back in a fiscal crisis, especially when that trimming means nothing more than doing what most private sector employees do – i.e., make contributions to partially cover the cost of their health insurance premiums. So that reduction hardly puts the screws to city employees. Their wallets remain fat, and so far their ballooning pension entitlements are completely untouched. Even if Tormala hadn’t asked city employees to concede much, he did ask them to. However, in the pursuit of the endorsement of their unions, he has pulled his punches during the mayoral campaign. For example, when asked by the Grand Rapids Press last week whether or not reducing city employee compensation was the right thing to do, Tormala bobs and weaves: “This year’s budget still has too many non-essential items that should be eliminated to address the shortfall. Our bargaining [with city employee unions] must be fair, honest, and effective.” Well, all true, but hardly a firm statement that city employee compensation is on the table, just like increased taxes on the public are, even if as a last resort. Of course, it is certainly possible that Tormala in dealing with unions as mayor will be like Nixon going to China, but his public statements during the campaign currently leave him as a mixed bag on this issue.
Now it has been suggested that Tormala’s firm commitment to increasing the number of cops and firemen is a sop to the unions. That would appear to be a difficult case to make. Public safety is just about as basic a service as a city can provide, and none of the candidates argue that the city doesn’t need to get its act together on that score. In fact, the keystone of Tormala’s campaign is his plan to focus upon and improve the city’s basic services. In getting back to basics – i.e., police, firefighters, parks, street maintenance – Tormala proposes to cut unnecessary government programs, chop further away at the middle and upper level featherbedding in city staff, fire the city’s lobbyists, privatize where it makes sense (hence, his proposal to sell the city’s parking ramps), get beneficiaries of city services like the Downtown Development Authority to pay more of their fair share, consolidate municipal services with surrounding communities, stop diverting property taxes into special set-asides like the proposed millage for the city parks or new neighborhood improvement districts, and so on without raising taxes (short of an impending cessation of basic services). While none of these policies individually constitute a fundamental reform of the city government, together they can make a substantial change for the better. In this way, Tormala is the Anti-Rinck. While Rinck’s small steps would generally go in the wrong direction, Tormala’s would mostly go in the right direction.
However, to make that happen Tormala as mayor would have to lead the City Commission to assert its authority over a city manager and staff used to having it their way when it comes to running the city government. It remains difficult to see how that can happen without getting rid of Kimball as city manager. Kimball should go if for no other reason than he has held the office for far too long. It does not inspire confidence that Tormala has not been outspoken in his campaign about the need for a change in the city manager’s office. After all, come next January Tormala will either be Hizzoner or completely out of city government, so why should he be circumspect about the matter? With all the talk during the campaign about whether the city needs a “strong mayor” form of government instead of the current “city manager” type, the problem with Kimball is a natural tie-in. Indeed, in light of the public disgust with the backroom shenanigans in dealing out city-owned property to private developers, in which Kimball has played a prominent role, the candidates’ collective silence about the continued tenure of our city manager is perplexing and even disheartening. Genuine change for the better will not be realized until the mayor and the rest of the City Commission deal with Kimball once and for all. Is too much to ask the candidate who has been most acutely aware of Kimball’s short-comings as city manager to put that issue out in front of the voters?
While Rinck and Tormala have clear party affiliations, Heartwell claims he is an independent. Actually, we should put some credence in that. He is an independent much the same way Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, is an independent. He is an opportunist who keeps his partisan options open. For Heartwell one of those options may be running for congress when Vern Ehlers retires, and in this town that means running as a Republican. That would explain the queer dynamic of the progressivist Heartwell successfully courting the support of the local establishment, a G.O.P. crowd that normally wouldn’t be caught dead hanging with a lefty like Big Sister. But so long as he isn’t formally a Democrat, they can fudge things enough to make it work. And why would the players want to make it work? We’re looking at a quid pro quo, folks. Heartwell carries the bigwigs’ water in the city government and then he gets their nod for Ehlers’s seat when the time comes.
This explains the vapidity of the Heartwell campaign. He thinks he only has to justify himself to his establishment benefactors, not to you the voter. So as a candidate whose entire campaign is founded upon his excellence in office over the past four years, Hizzoner has curiously little to say about his tenure that is concrete. That’s understandable. What does he have to brag about to the voter? This man of high principle has been most unprincipled as mayor. He can’t even hold true to his dearest convictions if it means fighting for them. Remember his promise last November to “sacrifice” his office if that’s what it took to nullify the voters’ ban on government affirmative action? Within a month, facing significant opposition from the City Commission and the City Attorney’s office, Heartwell stowed his progressive pieties, stuck his tail between his legs, and slunk away from the issue. Not only did his office remained un-sacrificed, he soon afterwards collected a shiny new car as a perk of that office. So much for Heartwell’s lifelong commitment to racial justice. But then, let’s not be unreasonable, folks. Something had to be tossed overboard if Heartwell was to keep his foundering office of mayor afloat. What's a core principle or two as flotsam when there's a new set of wheels waiting if you make it to port?
Then again Heartwell did stick to his guns when it came to keeping the public in the dark about the Mystery Development. You will recall that was the high drama of 2005-2006 in which an out-of-town huckster tried to talk the city government into, basically, selling him the rights to the southwest corner of downtown Grand Rapids for next to nothing (yes, that’s “76 Trombones” you hear playing in the background) and Heartwell agreed to carry his water through the city government on the Q.T. At that point, Heartwell as mayor, Kimball as city manager, and Eric DeLong as assistant city manager signed the Mystery Developer’s confidentiality agreement to keep his plans and their work on his behalf a secret. Heartwell even kept the existence of the confidentiality agreement a secret from the public until the whole thing fell apart. (Doing that was in fact a violation of Michigan law under the Freedom of Information Act.) However, he didn’t keep the Mystery Development a secret from one of the key players in town, Peter Secchia. While Hizzoner, on high principle, refused to compromise the confidentiality agreement to keep the public informed, he was readily unprincipled when it came to keeping his benefactors informed. After all, Secchia and the gang just might want to dip their beaks in this Mystery Development if it’s the real thing. Of course, it wasn’t the real thing. Heartwell was played for a fool, and the vaporous nature of the Mystery Development would have been revealed very quickly if he hadn’t agreed to keep it a secret from not just the public but also the City Commission. Instead the affair dragged on for months during which a pile of taxpayer dollars were wasted in this wild goose chase.
Well, that’s just to cover a couple of the most spectacular pratfalls of the Heartwell administration. This is to say nothing of his Big Sister penchant for fashionable liberal-left policies he tries to impose upon the denizens of River City (provided, of course, his Republican establishment backers don’t care). But maybe we should let the past be the past and consider what Heartwell proposes for the next four years. Once again, Hizzoner is curiously evasive about just what he would do for us as mayor. His participation in last week's Neighborhood Business Alliance forum with the other three candidates was telling. While he answered most questions with sonorous appeals to high principle, he didn’t say much that actually committed him to any specific course of action. To the extent that he did, it was wishful thinking of the “free lunch” variety. For instance, in response to how to get the city government out of its current fiscal crisis, Heartwell said he will press the state government to cough up more cash in revenue-sharing. Well, gee, that would be nice, but the state won’t do that, so the city has to either cut spending, raise taxes, or do both. Another example is how to enforce his beloved smoking ban upon recalcitrant business owners. No problem, says he, because the ban will enforce itself. Well, there you go! Now only if we can get all the laws enforced that way, we can dispense with the huge expense of the police department.
In his concluding remarks at the N.B.A. forum, challenger Rinck nicely encapsulated Heartwell’s vacuity with this jab. He noted that Hizzoner has put out a very pretty campaign brochure but it says nothing, and if that was all a Rinck administration had to show after four years, he’d quit. Perhaps Tormala put it best when he plainly stated that Heartwell has lost the trust of the public and that “the warranty on my colleague is up”. Indeed, the Heartwell administration may be a pale imitation of the twelve years of the Logie regime, but it is nevertheless a continuation of it. Open government is routinely evaded or ignored in service to the agenda of an establishment that includes the likes of Secchia, the Amway clans, and their associates. It is not an excuse that the development they facilitate in downtown makes backroom dealing O.K., for that assumes two obnoxious things:  The establishment and not the public knows what is best for the city, and  the principles of open government can be compromised if the end justifies the means. We have had sixteen years of this corrupt governance and we don’t need another four more under Heartwell.