In the December 2007 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine–a publication whose masthead says it is dedicated to “Celebrating City Life”–there was a feature article written by Curt Wozniak on the “25 Most Powerful People in Grand Rapids.” Not surprisingly for a magazine whose readership demographics are solidly upper class–91% have college degrees, 93% own their own homes, average income is $128,800, and average household net worth is $718,700–the story read like a who’s who of the white male elite in Grand Rapids.
Even before one considers the particular names on the list and what was left out of the short biographies included in the articles, there are significant problems with the methodology. The article lacks a clearly defined method for defining who is powerful, and more importantly, what constitutes power. In his opening paragraph, Wozniak sums up his criteria by saying:
“If they called a meeting, you would attend; if they offered a bit of advice, you would likely take it. If your organization is looking for extraordinary leadership, you would call upon them. Mayors, governors and presidents call them.”
Essentially, Wozniak’s definition is more about mystique than any clearly defined criteria. In an introduction to the issue that appears earlier in the magazine, Carole Valade elaborates more on the purpose of the issue. She explains that it the goal was to identify who the “current leaders” are in Grand Rapids, or “those who make a difference and ‘get things done'” in the West Michigan community.
It is never explained what is meant when she asserts that they are people who “get things done,” and indeed in the brief biographies of each of the twenty-five people, it is never explained. Wozniak says that the twenty-five “share the characteristics of inventiveness, leadership–and fundamental reinvestment in this community.” Indeed, the biographies do focus extensively on philanthropy, but there is little discussion about how these people generated their wealth, how they conducted themselves as CEOs or business leaders, or how their philanthropy has in some cases–particularly with the DeVos family–been used not only for “reinvestment” in the West Michigan community, but to advance a rightwing political ideology. Similarly, there is no discussion about how these people–some of whom like the DeVos family—have made significant financial contributions to politicians, a way of essentially buying access.
So, who are the twenty-five? Before we list them and summarize what Grand Rapids Magazine had to say and a bit of what they left out, it is important to note that all of these individuals could–and arguably should–be the subject of lengthy articles exploring their philanthropy, their political contributions, and how they made their money. But in the mean time, we are just making a few quick observations to generate thought:
Peter Wege – The Grand Rapids Magazine praises Peter Wege for his funding of environmental causes, mentioning specifically grants for “green buildings” as well as his involvement in the Healing Our Waters Coalition for U.S. legislators working to restore the great lakes. There is no mention of his political contributions to federal candidates or any larger review of his philanthropy. It says that he was a former vice chairman of Steelcase Inc., but says nothing about what the company did or does.
Arend “Don” Lubbers – The former president of Grand Valley State University (GVSU) is included for his work as president of GVSU from 1969 to 2001. There is no real discussion of what he did as president–no discussion of controversy–just that he oversaw growth.
Fred Meijer – The chairman emeritus of Meijer Inc. is included because of his philanthropy, summed up in his quote “Anything you do in the community, you do it for yourself–for the satisfaction–but the people who really get the benefit are the future generations.” There is no mention of the fact that Frederick Meijer has been a consistent financial supporter of Republican political candidates.
David Frey – Frey–who worked for Union Bank that in a series of mergers was absorbed into NBD, Bank One, and Chase is described as looking “the part of a conservative banker.” Included because of his involvement in the Grand Action Committee–a group of local elites who have been involved development projects in downtown Grand Rapids–there is nothing said about his contributions to Republican political candidates and causes.
Rich DeVos – Of course, no list would be complete with out Richard DeVos. Included because of his involvement in downtown development projects such as DeVos Hall and “the Medical Mile,” there is no mention of the role that DeVos has played on the national level in developing the new right–particularly the religious right–or in his use of philanthropy as a means of advancing his political ideology.
David Van Andel — David Van Andel–who is the chairman and CEO of the Van Andel Institute–is included because of his efforts in running the Institute and bringing life sciences development to Grand Rapids. There is no discussion of his political contributions or his family’s funding of rightwing political groups.
Jim Brooks – Jim Brooks, who was a CEO of the Holland-based Beverage America, is included for his efforts at stimulating economic development along regional lines through the West Michigan Strategic Alliance. There was nothing really said about what exactly this group does. Brooks has also provided financial support to Congressman Pete Hoekstra.
Kate Pew Walters – One of only three women included, Pew Walters is included for her role in raising money for the new Grand Rapids Art Museum. She describes her self as being “a little left politically,” but is able to work with folks–such as Doug DeVos–who are more aligned with the right. She is also on the board of Steelcase and chairs the Steelcase Foundation. There is no discussion of what the foundation funds.
Peter Secchia – The retired CEO of Universal Forest Products and former US Ambassador to Italy is quoted saying that he doesn’t like the word power – “That’s a bad word. I don’t think I have any ‘power.'” However, the biography then talks about how he gets calls from Karl Rove and has been involved in planning visits by President George W. Bush to Grand Rapids. Certainly, that implies “power” and a level of power that has largely been attained by his political contributions and connections.
Terri Lynn Land – A Republican who is currently Secretary of state, Land is included for her work in both establishing the Van Singel Fine Arts Center in Byron Center and as chair of the county Republican Party.
Harvey Gainey – Gainey–who has been involved in the Broadway Theatre Guild–is the chairman of Gainey Corp. and is a supporter of the religious right. Of course, nothing was said about that.
Dick Haworth – The chairman of the board at Haworth Inc., he is included for his business successes–primarily in growing his company into an internationally known office supply manufacturer.
Dick DeVos – The former governor and former CEO of Amway–who is currently the president of Windquest Group and a co-chair of Grand Action–is included because of his philanthropy at the local level. Not included is his substantial support for the Republican Party and his use of philanthropy to advance his rightwing political agenda.
John Wheeler – Wheeler–the CEO of Rockford Companies, a construction firm–is praised for his efforts in redeveloping downtown. There is nothing said about how much money he has made off these projects or what he has used his money for.
Fred Keller – As CEO of Cascade Engineering, Keller is included because he has worked to advance sustainable business principles. The article cites Cascade Engineering’s work with International Aid as an example of its commitment to social issues.
Doug DeVos – DeVos is currently co-president of Amway with Steven Van Andel and is included largely because of his role in running Amway. There is no discussion of his, his family’s, or Amway’s involvement in politics.
Steve Van Andel – As co-president of Amway, Van Andel is praised for his work ethic and role in running Amway, as well as his involvement on various boards in West Michigan.
Mike Jandernoa – Jandernoa–a somewhat lesser known figure on the list–is a former CEO of Perrigo and former accountant at Seidman & Seidman (now BDO Seidman) who worked with influential clients such as Amway and Old Kent Bank. He is now a board member of the Michigan Economic Development Corp, a supporter of the anti-casino “23 is Enough” coalition, and a supporter of Catholic schools.
Betsy DeVos – Betsy DeVos was included for her philanthropy and former role as a political leader. However, there is little substantive mention of her involvement with the national religious right or her financial contributions to rightwing political causes. There is also no mention of her being the child of Edgar and Elsa Prince of Holland who have their own history of supporting the religious right and Republican causes.
Peter Cook – Peter Cook is included for his philanthropy, but there is nothing said about what Cook’s philanthropy has funded beyond projects in Grand Rapids. He has also funded religious right organizations.
Sam Cummings – Cummings is included for his role in developing Grand Rapids through his Second Story Properties, but there is nothing said about how he has benefited financially from these projects or whether or not his projects have been aided by tax breaks.
Richard Lacks Jr. – As CEO of Lacks Enterprises, Lacks is included for his role in building the Lacks Cancer Center. Little else is included about him.
J.C. Huizenga – Huizenga–who founded National Heritage Academies–is included because of his success in opening fifty-five charter schools in six states. His biography does mention his role in Teach Michigan–a rightwing effort to legalize charter schools in Michigan–but there is little said about how charter schools fit into a larger rightwing project of privatizing public services and challenging public schools.
Dan DeVos – DeVos is included for his efforts in bringing sports to Grand Rapids, including the Grand Rapids Griffins and the Grand Rapids Rampage. The two teams are touted as beneficial to Grand Rapids in the article, although there is no attempt to verify that idea.
Reading through the list, it is obvious who is missing. There are only three women and no people of color. There are no community organizers, no teachers, and none of the countless people who work to improve Grand Rapids on a daily basis–from block captains to mentors–who will not be recognized because they do not bear the names of the elites and do not have wallets overflowing with cash.
Beyond who is missing, the article–perhaps unintentionally–cultivates the idea that to have power, one must have money and existing status. Nowhere is there any mention that people can build power with their friends, their neighbors, or others in their community by working together, instead, power is seen only something that one can have if they are a rich, white, and male, and if they have other rich, white, and male friends.