Following two deadlocked votes, the Grand Rapids City Commission on Tuesday swore-in Elias Lumpkins to replace a 3rd Ward seat vacated by former City Commissioner Robert Dean. Earlier, a field of 19 candidates had been narrowed down to two—Stephen Deem and Elias Lumpkins—in a process that had achieved considerable media and public attention. The replacement of Dean brought out questions from both the public and the City Commission about the Commission’s ability—and the City government’s—ability to relate to some of the most vulnerable residents in the city.
For Commissioners Rosalyn Bliss and Jim White, as well as Mayor George Heartwell, the candidate selection brought up significant questions about how the Commission related to the community and how it responded to the desires of the community. During Tuesday’s night’s first public comment session, numerous African-American residents of the 3rd Ward described the deep roots Lumpkins has in their community and the ways in which he had touched their lives. Residents described how Lumpkins had positively impacted the community with his work in education as a Grand Rapids Public Schools principal, as a dean at Grand Rapids Community College, as a coordinator of the Upward Bound program at Calvin College, and in his work with prisoners transitioning into the community, with many speakers describing how Lumpkins had personally intervened to help them. Speakers also touted his record of community involvement and familiarity with both community leaders and residents in the third ward.
While Lumpkins supporters generally praised Deems and caution against calling the selection process a “race game”—race, as it should, played a role in the selection process. Residents speaking at the meeting were clearly in favor of Lumpkins, a fact that was not surprising due to Deems response to questions about regarding his connections to the African-American community. In response the aforementioned questions, Deems essentially “name-dropped” African-Americans that he knew yet said relatively little about his relationships with ordinary people in the third ward. Commissioners Bliss, White, and Mayor Heartwell raised concerns about racial representation on the Commission and explained how Lumpkins had substantial connections to the 3rd Ward, and more importantly, was being endorsed by both resident of the third ward and fellow third ward Commissioner White. Moreover, Mayor Heartwell described how he was willing to “stake his seat” on the issue of racial representation and on this vote, just as he had done in 2000 when he quit the City Commission in order to prevent it from becoming and all white body.
Opposition to Lumpkins candidacy was centered largely on fiscal issues, with three Commissioners believing that Deems work as a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) would be invaluable for the Commission to work on the city’s fiscal problems. The focus on Deems work as a CPA—while legitimate on some levels—almost rose to the level of absurdity when his supporters felt compelled to describe his mathematical abilities and when Lumpkins described his familiarities with pensions and calculators. Commissioner Schmidt explained his support for Deems by stating that sometimes as a Commissioner you have to “make tough decisions,” while Tormala and Jendrasiak expressed their support for Deems in terms of budget issues. Tormala described his “obsession” with the budget and explained how having a CPA on the Commission might help the Commission get better results from city staff so that they could begin to help marginalized populations in the city. Bliss criticized the idea that people had to be CPAS to be good commissioners, arguing that the people of the third ward and their wishes have to come before the city commission’s politics. Similarly, Commissioner White pointed out that he once managed a $400 million budget despite the fact that he was not a CPA and Mayor Heartwell pointed out that the Commission has not had a CPA on the body since the 1960s and since that time the city has gone through a variety of ups and downs. Heartwell went on to say that the budget has more to do with philosophy and priorities than it does with arithmetic, echoing comments made earlier by Comissioner White.
Following the end of the Commissioners’ discussion in which it was clear that none of the Commissioners were going to change their votes, the Commission again deadlock on a vote. While the process of choosing a replacement was by drawing lots was prevented after an earlier deadlocked vote, just as that process was to begin Deems stood up and announced that he was withdrawing his name from consideration because if he were to be selected by lots he would lack the “moral authority to govern.” Moreover, he went on to state that he hoped Lumpkins would take him under his wing and help him develop stronger connections to the third ward, a statement that elicited three standing ovations from the audience.