Mayoral candidate forum draws a large, well-informed crowd



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

The crowds fidgeted and socialized while waiting outside the already-packed Wealthy Theatre to get into Wednesday night’s event. Was it a famous film? A popular band? A free product give-away?

No, it was a mayoral candidate forum.

At the question-and-answer event featuring all four candidates for Grand Rapids Mayor, there were very few unoccupied seats in the auditorium, which has a capacity of 400.

The Community Media Center, whose executive director Tom Clinton is an attorney (see Grand Rapids Legal News 11/12/2014), was primarily responsible for organizing the forum. Staff of the CMC’s Wealthy Theatre and The Rapidian — Manager Erin Wilson and Editor Holly Bechiri respectively — took the lead, and Bechiri moderated.

Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the ACLU of West Michigan co-sponsored.

The forum was live-streamed and broadcast over GRTV. Technology loomed large, literally, as the audience and public were invited to tweet questions and comments, which were scrolled on a screen. There was also the traditional method, with a note card and pencil taped to each chair.

In addition, Bechiri shared the stage with four co-moderators, each of whom asked a question in one of four fields: city services, neighborhood and business development, race and our community, and civil liberties. Bechiri then chose another question related to that interest area from the “Twitter wall.”

The candidates first introduced themselves. Rosalynn Bliss, a current city commissioner, said, “Over the past few years, we’ve had a lot of success and as mayor I want to build on those successes. However, ...not everyone has benefited from our economic progress. I want Grand Rapids to be a city where every resident can take advantage of educational and expanding opportunties and where people who have often been excluded can have their voices heard.”

Candidate John George said that he is a retired electrical engineer who got into the race primarily to address eliminating fluoride from the water supply. He countered the notion that he is a one-issue candidate, however, and his answers were consistently small-government, pro-market solutions. He also referred people to his website,, stressing that he felt it was challenging to do a thorough job of responding in the two minutes allowed.

After serving in the military, Willard Lee said, he came back to Grand Rapids to find that not much had changed. He committed to focusing on “our roads, our schools, and finance and wages,” with an emphasis on helping lower-income communities in the city.

Former State Representative Robert Dean, who was also a city commissioner for seven years and Grand Rapids Public School Board member, said, “I’ve seen the renaissance in our city, but there are many areas left behind. That’s why I came to the table. I also see a massive debt looming over the heads of future generations.” He returned to the legacy pension and health care expenses facing Grand Rapids several times over the evening.

The first co-moderator was Jeff Hill of Third Coast Real Estate, former editor of Rapid Growth Grand Rapids. He asked what one or two city service improvements candidates would make if elected. George said he would like to see reduced regulations and possibly privatizing waste collection services; Lee chose work on the transit system so all people could get to work; Dean said he would work on “stopping the bleeding” in the city’s finances; Bliss, though she said it was challenging to narrow it down to two, opted for a comprehensive violence prevention program, working on the “impressive” recommendations from the city’s safety task force, and for keeping the city’s website updated, because communication is critical to encouraging all people to be heard.

The candidates did not vary widely in their responses when Mark Lewis, President and CEO of Neighborhood Ventures, asked what they would do to make sure that neighborhoods were vibrant and thriving, with all agreeing that was a critical goal. Bliss added she was participating in much work being done on tools to help the neighborhoods.

The same was true in response to educator and Grand Rapids Public School principal Rodney Brown’s question about understanding racism and providing leadership in eliminating it.
Almost all the candidates said they thought a key solution was to bring people and organizations together, with Lee adding that the evening’s forum was a good example. Dean pointed out that he had been instrumental in starting the Institute for Healing Racism.

Discussion was all over the place when Cliff Washington, ACLU board member, asked, “What policies will you put in place to ensure that the interests of business, the police, and the City do not trump the rights of vulnerable people in our City?” Bliss talked about voting rights, Lee about small businesses being “bullied,” Dean about his record in promoting that everyone be treated with respect and dignity, and George brought up civil assets forfeiture, which is another core issue for him.

For the most part, audience members were polite in listening to  candidates’ views, tweeters much less so.

Bechiri closed by saying that people who wanted to express their opinions could speak in front of cameras The Rapidian had set up at the back of the auditorium. Afterwards, she also said The Rapidian (, which is based on citizen contributions, would welcome opinion pieces on the race.

There are at least two additional opportunities to find out about the candidates’ views:  at Grand Rapids Public Museum, 6:30 p.m. July 22,  and at Grand Valley State University's Loosemore Auditorium July 30, also at 6:30 p.m.