Former Grand Rapids Public Schools Board President Wendy Falb formally launched her 2nd Ward city commission campaign Friday amid another controversial week for police-community relations.
Speaking at the Grand Rapids Public Museum School, Falb was flanked by prominent local officials backing her campaign, including GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, state Sen. Winnie Brinks, state Rep. David LaGrand, Michigan Board of Education member Lupe Ramos-Montigny and former Mayor George Heartwell.
The contested 2nd Ward race also includes Milinda Ysasi, who launched her campaign in early January.
Falb’s event came the day after the Grand Rapids Police Department placed Capt. Curt VanderKooi on administrative leave over his handling of the mistaken detention of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, a U.S. citizen and former Marine. VanderKooi referred Ramos-Gomez to Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE), and local groups have accused VanderKooi of racial profiling.
Last week, the Grand Rapids Police Command Officers Association criticized city officials for cowering to “mob rule” and interfering with the Police Department’s arrest of two people at an immigration rally last year. Police union officials say the city is violating VanderKooi’s due process.
David Doyle, Falb’s campaign manager and long-time political consultant who has lived in the 2nd Ward for more than 60 years, said ICE will be a big issue in this year’s election.
Brinks called the Ramos-Gomez incident “certainly troubling. It will require a really honest conversation on everyone’s part.” She added that ICE should not be “grabbing” immigrants for minor issues and deporting them.
Brinks said she will propose legislation this year creating a scholarship program for police departments to hire minorities, creating diversity so police forces “look like the people they’re serving.” She called it a “long-term solution” to build community relations.
Falb, executive director of the Literacy Center of West Michigan, said tackling issues like police-community relations takes experienced public officials who maintain a dialogue with both sides. She said it will take “discernment” from local officials to solve problems.
“Even if people think you’re a shithead, you should try that process. You can’t cave to the loudest (voices),” Falb said. “It’s not sexy, but I feel it’s very important. It’s really hard work.”
Ysasi is the executive director of the nonprofit business collaborative The Source and would be the first Latina to hold a City Commission seat. She is endorsed by 2nd Ward City Commissioner Ruth Kelly.
“We need to understand the needs of our community and also those of our police officers. It’s not one or the other,” Ysasi said, who called Ramos-Gomez’s detention “concerning."
She added that “buried deep in the story” is the availability of mental health services in the city. Ramos-Gomez is a war veteran diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“There’s a deep need for mental health support in the community, especially for those who fought for our country,” Ysasi said.
Falb’s supporters also recognized the challenges ahead for Grand Rapids.
Despite the perception, “Grand Rapids is not a community full of people who have made it,” LaGrand said, referring to “persistent problems” related to affordable housing, race, environmental contamination and police-community relations. “We have a lot of work to do in this community to bring everyone along.”
Supporters touted Falb’s tenure on the GRPS board and her work with the district administration to turn around “really hard times,” Neal said. Falb served on the school board for eight years.
“One thing is for sure: You will not find a person who will do their homework like Wendy,” Neal said. “I miss a Wendy Falb on my board.”
Grand Rapids’ 2nd Ward covers the northeastern corner of the city and downtown east of the Grand River. If one more candidate joins the 2nd Ward race, voters will elect two in an August primary to a November general election.
1st Ward competition
The 1st Ward — which covers the west side of Grand Rapids roughly from Walker to 28th Street — will also have a competitive race.
Commissioner Jon O’Connor, a former GRPS board member and co-owner of Long Road Distillery, is seeking a second term this year. He ran unopposed in 2015.
O’Connor told Revue in January the coming years will be “very much a continuation of a lot of issues we’ve been trying to tackle in Grand Rapids.”
He cited policy-community relations, affordable housing and “fiscal responsibility.”
“At some point the economy is going to change and we need to be prepared,” he said.
O’Connor has endorsed Falb in the 2nd Ward.
On Feb. 20, Allison Lutz announced her campaign for O’Connor’s 1st Ward seat. Lutz, whose LinkedIn page says she is a creative marketing and media entrepreneur, seeks to become the first LGBTQ city commissioner in Grand Rapids.
Her campaign issues include racial and economic inequity, affordable housing and child lead poisoning in Grand Rapids. Specifically, Lutz says the city should explore the potential for creating a “city owned public bank which could be used to raise revenue for the city without raising taxes and provide funding for critical needs like affordable housing, green energy infrastructure, low interest student loans, small loans and more.” Lutz proposes a tiered pricing system for city water that charges customers for excessive use, and supports increasing the number of city wards from three to six and electing 12 commissioners.
Lutz also says she refused to accept contributions from corporate and industry political action committees and calls on other candidates to do the same.