1/12/2015

And we're off: First Grand Rapids mayoral candidate throws his hat into the ring

Just two men have served as mayor of Michigan's second-largest city since 1992.

2015 marks the 24th and final year of an era in which the mayor of Grand Rapids has been either John Logie (1992-2004) or George Heartwell (since 2004). By comparison, Kalamazoo have each had six mayors in that time, while Lansing and Kentwood have had five.

After the passage of a charter amendment limiting mayors and city commissioners to two terms, Grand Rapids's top job will be up for grabs for only the second time since 1991. Many people are said to be interested in the job, but no one had actually jumped in - until yesterday.

A 24-year-old has announced his candidacy to succeed term-limited George Heartwell as the city’s mayor. 

Jared Funk, who is unemployed, is trying to generate support from “people of all types, of all races and creeds, sexual orientations and beliefs” for his campaign.

It's certainly unconventional for a 24-year-old to run for mayor of a city of almost 200,000. At this point, it's unclear what kind of constituency might line up behind him. His natural base of support might be among young people, but it would seem even they would be more likely to back someone like Rosalynn Bliss.

That said, I'll give the guy credit for two things: First, he's running for office - a step not many people are willing to take. Second, he's got quite a solid platform - as solid as one can expect from a mayoral candidate, even though I don't agree with it in its entirety.

Still, he'll have to convince voters that rather than choosing someone with whom they're more familiar, they should give him one of the most important municipal offices anywhere in Michigan. (Being mayor of Grand Rapids is much different than being mayor of Hillsdale, after all.)

The mayor chairs City Commission meetings and represents the city at events, on boards and committees, and in other capacities. The mayor also shares in the responsibility for setting a vision for the city and for attracting residents, visitors, and businesses to the city. However, the day-to-day-operations of city government are overseen by the city manager, who answers to the entire City Commission as a whole (not just the mayor). In reality, the mayor doesn't have much formal power beyond those of his colleagues on the City Commission.

One might say, then, that the mayor's duties are leadership-focused while the city manager is, well, a manager. As I said earlier, Funk has some good ideas, and while I don't know him well, it's possible that he's an outstanding leader. But it might be more practical for him to run for City Commission, where he'd have almost as much power as he would as mayor - without having to campaign in the entire city.

Who else might run for Heartwell's job? Two current city commissioners - Bliss and Walt Gutowski - are mentioned as potential candidates. Bliss is thought to be the front-runner; if she runs, she'll have a lot of support, particularly among progressives. Gutowski has a natural base on the West Side and may draw support from the business community.

Other potential candidates, according to the Press, include:
  • Sam Cummings, developer
  • Dan Koorndyk, chair of the Kent County Commission
  • Johnny Brann, restaurateur and son of John and nephew of Tommy
  • Rick Treur, former Ehlers staffer who works for Calvin College
  • Michael Sak, former state representative and county commissioner who ran for Comptroller in 2011
  • Bing Goei, owner of Eastern Floral and two-time candidate for state representative
  • Roy Schmidt, former city commissioner, state representative, and guy who has no business running for anything after what he did in 2012
In 2002, Logie pushed for a proposal to merge the duties of mayor and city manager, effectively making the mayor a full-time position (much like it is in Kentwood). Logie, who dealt with some backlash for what some saw as a power grab, sought to alleviate these concerns by announcing that he would step down the following year.

Despite the fact that the office was open for the first time in 12 years, only one big name ran in 2003: Heartwell, who had earned a positive rapport among various groups and individuals in his two terms as a city commissioner, got 80% of the vote. His road to re-election in 2007 was trickier; Commissioner Rick Tormala and former School Board member Jim Rinck challenged him, holding him to just 51% of the vote. In 2011, however, he easily did away with token opposition.

This year, if anyone is able to clear the field this year like Heartwell did in 2003, it would likely be Bliss.

But at this point, expect a free-for-all.

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