The race to fill an opening 2nd Ward Grand Rapids City Commission seat could be hotly contested between at least two candidates with years of public service experience.
Commissioner Ruth Kelly, who has served the northeast corner of Grand Rapids since 2010, is term limited.
Milinda Ysasi, executive director of the nonprofit business collaborative The Source, is looking to become the first Latina to hold a seat on the legislative body. Ysasi has endorsements from Kelly and 3rd Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear.
Wendy Falb, executive director of the Literacy Center of West Michigan and former Grand Rapids Public Schools board member, formally launches her campaign on Feb. 8. Falb has announced support from State Sen. Winnie Brinks, GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal and 1st Ward City Commissioner Jon O’Connor.
“I was not happy when Milinda decided to run,” Falb joked, indicating Ysasi a formidable challenger. “I have a lot of respect for her. On some level, we’re on the same page.”
Months ahead of an April filing deadline, Kelly’s vacant seat appears to have attracted at least two candidates with strong community support.
Ysasi, 38, announced her candidacy on Jan. 3 at Creston Brewery. She was flanked by dozens of supporters, neighborhood organizers and advocates from the Latino community.
“More than anything, it’s her character,” Kelly said of her endorsement. “She’s a servant leader and has staying power.”
Kelly added that Ysasi’s background in workforce development and talent retention will be particularly useful with “the direction (the city is) heading in.”
Lenear said she has known Ysasi for about 12 years as someone “extremely focused,” and agreed Ysasi’s work experience would prepare her for resolving city staffing challenges expected in the years ahead.
Ysasi co-founded the Latina Network of West Michigan in 2014 and has more than a decade of experience in human resources at multiple West Michigan companies. For more than three years, she has led The Source, which partners the public and private sectors on talent retention. Earlier this year, the Grand Rapids Business Journal named Ysasi one of the 50 most influential women in West Michigan. She ran an unsuccessful bid for the Grand Rapids Public Schools board in 2014.
Ysasi decided to run more than a year ago and will do so on a platform of an “equitable Grand Rapids for all,” she said. Her priorities include piloting new workforce development and housing programs, “furthering conversations” on public safety and mental health support for residents and maintaining city infrastructure.
‘Things are moving quickly’
Falb, 53, plans to officially launch her campaign next month. She recently served two terms on the GRPS board and has an extensive background in education. She has also served on the board of the city’s Downtown Development Authority, which she says has given her experience in land use issues.
“Things are moving very quickly in the city,” Falb said. “The leadership it takes in governing to discern, make decisions, bring people along and be responsive is not straightforward. I feel very confident in my government skills at this point.”
Falb said “land use and mobility are at the center” of issues facing Grand Rapids.
“One of the core issues is to not make decisions and design things that exacerbate the inequities that already exist,” she said. “I want to create opportunities for all.”
O’Connor said he’s supporting Falb based on their experience together on the GRPS board.
“I found her leadership and skills were really paramount to helping GRPS move forward and becoming a leading public education institution in the country,” O’Connor said. “As a potential colleague on the City Commission, I think she would do an absolutely spectacular job.”
O’Connor said he is also running for re-election in the 1st Ward, but hasn’t officially made an announcement. Commissioner Nathaniel Moody in the 3rd Ward and Mayor Rosalynn Bliss also are up for re-election.
Both candidates also responded to a Revue story this month on interest in expanding the number of wards in the city to attract more candidates that reflect the city’s neighborhoods.
Ysasi said it’s a “timely” discussion but ongoing work is needed to keep the election process and opportunities equitable. She added that while Latinos have been underserved on the commission, the city also has a “strong refugee community” that lacks representation.
“Just having more wards won’t ensure more people will run,” she said. “It takes money and time.”
Falb agrees it’s an idea worth exploring.
“I’ve been involved in the city since the ’80s, and I’ve always wondered about it,” Falb said of the ward system. “That there’s this legacy we keep dragging with us for 100 years — to the extent it’s still reinforcing the problem it was meant to create is really a legit question.”
For now, the two will square off to represent the area stretching from Eastown to I-96, east of the Grand River.
And it’s early: the 2nd Ward and other races are likely to attract more candidates before an April filing deadline.
“It’s a marathon,” Ysasi said, “not a sprint.”