Michigan 3rd District
Grand Rapids is Michigan’s second-largest city, the center of its most prosperous and confident metropolitan area. The city’s roots are in trees: It grew as a center for processing and turning into furniture the hardwood forests of northern Michigan. By the early 20th century, Grand Rapids was the leading furniture manufacturer in the nation. The Depression knocked the bottom out of the residential furniture market, and many manufacturers moved to North Carolina, where labor was cheaper. So Grand Rapids had to reinvent itself, and did. It went into office furniture, and today three of the nation’s largest office furniture manufacturers—Steelcase, Haworth, and Herman Miller—are located here or nearby. It capitalized also on a knack for sales. Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel started Amway, the direct-sales empire, which now has half of its sales abroad, and Frederik and Hendrik Meijer started Meijer’s Thrifty Acres, combining supermarkets with discount stores in a way that even Wal-Mart has not been able to equal. Grand Rapids is also the center of a machine-tool empire; the home of Wolverine World Wide, maker of Hush Puppies shoes; and the headquarters of Bissell and its carpet sweepers. Fifty years ago Grand Rapids and its up-and-coming businesses were outshined by Detroit and the auto industry. Today, while Detroit’s Big Three flirt with bankruptcy, Grand Rapids chugs along, although General Motor’s financial troubles in 2009 led to the closure of a 900-employee stamping factory in the city.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
One ingredient in Grand Rapids’ success is its unique ethnic mix. It was founded by New England Yankees, but much of its character was set by the Dutch immigrants who began arriving in western Michigan in the 1870s, and are still coming today; 14% of people here claim Dutch ancestry (probably no other American city has such a high proportion of “V” pages in the phone book). The Dutch brought with them a piety witnessed in their Reform and Christian Reform churches, and a culture of hard work and precision craftsmanship. Their cultural conservatism and belief in market economics run deep. Dutch tradition and entrepreneurial success have been the ingredients of a civic activism that has given Grand Rapids a host of creative civic institutions—and an Alexander Calder stabile—that are the match of any city in the country. Grand Rapids’ downtown has been thick with construction cranes. In 2007 the city opened the first certified “green” museum in the world, the new Grand Rapids Art Museum, with triple the space of the old, as well as a new hotel and medical buildings. Years ago Grand Rapids commissioned an Alexander Calder sculpture for the plaza outside its city hall, and now it has others by Calder, Andy Goldsworthy, and Maya Lin. Other draws for outsiders are the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum and the outdoor Meijer Gardens.
Politically, Grand Rapids has been the center of Michigan Republicanism for much of the last century. It has also produced national Republican leaders. Arthur Vandenberg, originally a newspaper editor, was a U.S. senator from 1928 to 1951; once an isolationist, he provided key support for the bipartisan internationalist foreign policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Another was Gerald Ford, who rose to House Republican leader in 1965, vice president in 1973, and then president after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. The 3rd Congressional District of Michigan includes Grand Rapids and almost all of Kent County, plus Ionia and Barry counties to the east and south. Although it is one of the two most Republican districts in Michigan, it voted only narrowly for Republican nominee John McCain in 2008. He won the 3rd with 49.4% of the vote to Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s 48.8%.