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Making herstory: The women who are changing the dynamics of West Michigan politics

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss.

The women leading West Michigan's cities are making history — or, rather, herstory — by breaking down barriers and charting new courses for politics in our area. As Americans face an increasingly polarized nation, these leaders are unifying residents and building strong communities.
As a young, female city commissioner in Grand Rapids, Rosalynn Bliss says she had to prove herself, build up her confidence and demand respect.

Now 41 years old, Bliss has 10 years of experience behind her and won Grand Rapids’ mayoral race in August 2015, making history as the first woman to be elected mayor of Michigan’s second-largest city.

She took office in January and says it’s been an interesting nine months learning to balance her professional life with her personal life and mayoral duties.

Bliss isn’t the only female mayor breaking down barriers and charting a new course for politics in West Michigan, giving hope and inspiration to young girls and women of all ages that they, too, can make a difference.

Holland, Grand Haven and Muskegon Heights also have mayors who are women, and the city clerk in Rockford has stepped in to help after the sudden death of its city manager. And they’re all leading West Michigan during a unique time in our country’s political history. Nationwide, voters are contemplating whether to elect the first female president as the race becomes one of the most polarizing in recent history.

Here at home, however, West Michigan's female leaders are shattering glass ceilings and unifying communities.

Grand Rapids

A commissioner who represented the city’s Second Ward from 2006 to 2015, Bliss served for several years as the lone woman on the seven-member commission.

“When I was first elected, I had a lot of struggles and it was hard to know if it was related to my age or gender at that time,” she says. “I had to learn to confront issues in a way that was professional, to speak up more, do my homework and feel really well-prepared so I could speak with confidence.”

She hasn’t experienced that so much in recent years and says her biggest challenge as mayor has been trying to find time for everything. While, technically, the mayorship is a part-time job, it ends up taking up far more time than that and Bliss has downshifted her professional life as a social worker and director of Residential Services at D.A. Blodgett-St. John’s, the oldest child welfare organization in West Michigan.

“The first nine months have been extremely busy,” she says. “I think I underestimated the scope and the breadth of the work. The greatest challenge has been time management, not only to react and respond to individuals, but to lay out what you want to accomplish and how you want to get there.”

Bliss, like others, never had a specific plan to enter local politics and says others encouraged her to run, first for city commissioner and then for mayor. For the most part, she hasn’t dealt with feeling ignored, undermined or as though she’s had to confront an old boys’ club mentality. The biggest challenge has been within City Hall and employees adjusting to her as mayor rather than a city commissioner.

“I’m still working at it,” she says. “It’s similar to any other type of promotion within an organization where you have worked for a long time. Mayor [George] Heartwell was mayor for 12 years and people got used to his style.”

Bliss has a list of initiatives either started under Mayor Heartwell or ones she hopes to tackle during her term, including racial equity within city departments and staffing, affordable housing issues, renewable energy and solar power for the wastewater treatment plant. Plus, the city leader is supporting neighborhood business districts through mini-grants and revitalization efforts and the restoration of the rapids in Grand River, which she’d like to kayak someday.

“I love seeing systemic change and problem solving,” she says. “I love working in partnership with other community members and working toward solving goals. There’s a lot you want to do, and it’s a matter of being realistic and looking at the funding piece of it and the nuts and bolts of the internal bureaucratic process.”

She admits the job can be stressful dealing with various complaints, being in the public eye and juggling various obligations. That’s when she tries to slow down, be more mindful and practice good self-care. She also surrounds herself with supportive friends whom she really knows and trusts.  

“Overall, even as we wrestle with challenges, there are so many incredible people in our city who are committed and passionate about issues,” she says. “Even on the really stressful days, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

Bliss says she is grateful to see more women in leadership and elected positions and thinks it will continue to inspire more women to pursue life in the public sphere. In Grand Rapids and throughout West Michigan, there is a growing network of women meeting formally and informally to inspire change, develop relationships and support each other.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” she says. “I really hope I’m a mentor and a model for other women, and I hope other women consider running for office.”


Mayor of Muskegon Heights Kimberley Sims.Muskegon Heights

Before Kimberley Sims thought about running for local politics, she used to drive by a vacant lot near Summit Avenue and Waalkes Street and see a young boy playing basketball. There was a milk crate nailed to a tree in place of a basketball hoop.  

Her work with the Bethlehem Park Neighborhood Association and the bureaucracy involved in trying to transform the area into a park prompted her to run for Muskegon Heights’ City Council. She lost the first couple of times, but she didn’t give up. Creating a better environment for people is her mission, and she doesn’t really see herself as a politician.

“It was like pulling teeth, and I couldn’t understand why at first,” she says of the park that is run by volunteers and doesn’t receive support from the city. “I could either be part of the problem or part of the solution, so I decided to run for council and get elected and represent the people. I’m more grassroots oriented.”

It’s that spirit of community service and a desire to make Muskegon Heights a better place and inspire pride in residents that motivated her to run for mayor. Sims served on the City Council for 12 years, risking her seat and topping three opponents to win the election last November.

“The previous mayor wasn’t going to run again, and my gut was saying, ‘No, you’re not done; there’s more work for you to do,’” she says.

During Sims’ tenure on the council, Muskegon Heights found itself facing a budget deficit that resulted in some hard decisions and citywide cuts. It’s also received bad publicity due to an emergency manager taking over the schools and gun violence an image Sims hopes to change.

She says that’s been her biggest obstacle since taking office, trying to change outsiders’ perceptions and closed-mindedness about the community.

“For myself going in, I have to overcome all these obstacles for the community I represent,” she says. “Many times they already have their minds made up, and I am trying to engage and open their minds. It’s being able to intentionally work hard to establish better and stronger relationships.” 

The Muskegon Heights native is back living in the home where she grew up and is proud of her hometown. She has a degree in communications and studied film production at Grand Valley State University.

One of her goals is to work on a rebranding campaign. City communication with citizens is another priority, along with better relations with police, getting residents to take pride in where they live, and making the Heights a more inviting place to live, work and visit.

Like the other mayors, Sims agrees the time commitment and spotlight has been the biggest adjustment. There’s a lot to do between attending meetings, events, reviewing documents, doing research and communicating with city staff. People see the position very differently, and her goal is to be accessible to residents and empower them to get involved by attending meetings and helping to fight crime and blight.

“There’s a lot of responsibility placed on you, but you only have one vote,” she says. “I tend to be a very private person and this position tends to be more public. The times I grocery shop now are very different than when I used to grocery shop.” 

While there are other women on the Muskegon Heights City Council and the city had a female city manager, Sims says it’s also been interesting being the only woman who attends countywide mayor-city manager functions. She is the only woman in such a role in all of the municipalities and brings a different perspective to the meetings.

As a parent who homeschools, Sims continues to focus on work-life balance by not having city emails go to her phone. She’s also reached out to some of the other female mayors, like Bliss, and leaders for support and advice as she makes her way through the more challenging times.

“You get lonely,” she says. “There are people who don’t understand what we do, but we understand what we do.

“It’s been an adjustment, the different workload,” she continues. “At the end of the day, you’re mayor but you’re a daughter, wife, mom, still a friend and sister. All those other things don’t go away because you’re mayor.”

Sims says women bring a unique perspective and balance to situations and understand that everything is not black and white. She sees that as an asset in government, where decisions can be complex yet nuanced and involve looking at issues from all angles.

"Women can deal in that gray area and be okay, and we need to have that gray area recognized," she says. 

Sims tries to stay centered by spending time in prayer, reflection and meditation every morning and realizing not everyone is going to like her. She has learned to be more intentional and really think about what she wants to say, as well as her delivery, before she says it. 

“You don’t want to come off in the wrong way, but you want to make your point very clear,” she says. “You always want to represent in the best light every aspiration and every dream of every little girl.”

Holland Mayor Nancy DeBoer.Holland

Nancy DeBoer is another woman making history as Holland’s first female mayor. She was in her 10th year as an at-large councilwoman and had no intentions of running for mayor until she received a call from the current mayor saying he wasn’t going to run.

DeBoer says her phone started ringing from people encouraging her to go for it. She had a less than week to collect enough signatures and file, during which time she did a lot of praying.

“I love people and I love community,” says DeBoer, who was sworn in last November. “I love taking a negative situation and trying to have a higher vision. All of those passions come together in serving the community. It’s named government, but my heart is people, and that’s our greatest resource — the people we have in this community.”

DeBoer, an English teacher by profession, first took an interest in local politics after applying for an appointment to fill an open City Council seat and not being selected.

“I was disappointed,” says the now-mayor, who, with encouragement from her husband Jim, ran for an at-large seat in 2005 and won. “I really appreciated having an at-large position because I was able to represent the entire city. I did my best to learn and be involved and make a difference within the council and appreciated the opportunity to serve the council.”

DeBoer, like Bliss, says she hasn’t experienced boys’ club mentality, but says there is a different dynamic between male-to-male and male-to-female relationships. She also appreciates that there is no party affiliation on the council.

“Every one of us brings different gifts, talents, and perspectives to the table,” she says. “After we discuss an issue, there are nine different people around the table and nine different ways of looking at it. I usually feel people left their personal agenda at the door and we’re really coming together to do our best for the city we love.”

The city has some lofty projects DeBoer hopes to see accomplished during her term, including remodeling the Civic Center and the completion of a new natural gas power plant at the $200 million Holland Energy Park, which will include an educational wing, outdoor discovery center and walkways, as well as increase its snowmelt system. It also has developed a community energy plan that helps residents make energy improvements to their homes and attach it to their utility bill, and the city is in the running for a Georgetown University Energy Competition with a $5 million prize.

Running for mayor was never part of her life plan and DeBoer feels honored and privileged to serve in the role.

“Every 150 years or so, it’s good to make a change,” she says. “I think there has been an evolution in people’s thinking. The culture is more open to variety in leadership. I think there was a day people would not have voted for a woman as mayor just because she’s a woman, but I do think people step back and think beyond gender.”

Grand Haven Mayor Geri McCaleb.Grand Haven

There hasn’t been a lot of competition for Mayor Geri McCaleb’s job in recent elections, but that hasn’t stopped her from being a go-getter. For McCaleb, now in her third term as mayor, her straight-shooting style has earned the respect of peers and constituents.  

“No one else was running, so thought I might as well give it a try,” says McCaleb, who’s serving the city that elected its first female mayor, Marjorie Boon, in 1981. “One of the things I’ve learned is they may agree with you or not agree with you, but they appreciate you being straight with them and not all over the board. They know what to expect from you. They know you’re telling them the truth and that what you say is what you mean.”

Born in the Netherlands, McCaleb grew up in Grand Haven as a child and then moved away for a time but found herself drawn back to the water. She focused on raising her family, homeschooling her children, and being involved as a concerned citizen.

She served on Grand Haven City Council from 2001 to 2009, after which took a break for a couple of years before defeating two write-in mayoral candidates in November 2011. She ran unopposed in 2013 and again in 2015 and says she has enjoyed the job.

“This is such a great community,” she says. “It’s been a great learning experience. I’ve just had a lot of fun; a lot of it is because this is such a great city and there are so many cool things that we do.”

McCaleb, who has a bachelor’s degree in earth science from Grand Valley State University, says she was always interested in politics and feels she offered a perspective that wasn’t being represented.

She didn’t let her lack of corporate or career experience stop her or age or gender.

My whole life I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do,” she says. “I didn’t look too much at gender issues. If it was something of interest to me, I did it.”

She was 65 years old when she became mayor and hasn’t tried to reinvent the wheel, but instead focus her priorities on maintaining the city’s streets and other infrastructure to avoid costly repairs and be good stewards of financial resources. The city has planned projects around water and sewer upgrades, as well as street repairs.

She also tries to ask: Does that fit who we are? There’s always going to be change, but you want to keep the good and embrace change without losing your soul, she says.

“You don’t want to sell out what’s most important to you for money,” she says. “You’ve got to maintain who you are as a community.”

Right now, she is the only woman on the five-member council, but she says they all get along and have a lot of respect for one another.

McCaleb has wondered why there isn’t more interest in the mayoral position and says it requires a flexible schedule. Plus there’s not a lot of compensation. The biggest adjustment has been attending ceremonial events for the city and learning to keep an open mind when presented with a complaint or problem.

“I used to think there were easy answers. ‘Oh, that’s a no-brainer,’ and then you hear the other guy’s side of the story,” she says. “‘Well maybe it isn’t as simple and cut and dry as I thought it was.’ You really need to follow up and make sure that you have the whole story.”

She’s also learned that an adversary on one topic may become an ally on another issue, so it’s always best to maintain good relationships with people, even when you disagree. Don’t listen to rumors and innuendos and go find out the facts.

“You should always keep relationships because they’re really what make things work,” she says. “Mutual respect is very important because once you break down communication, it only gets worse.”

Rockford

Although the City Clerk’s position is appointed, Christine Bedford has had a prominent role in City Hall for two decades and stepped in to help after the unexpected passing of City Manager Michael F. Young in January.

Hired as deputy city clerk in 1990 by Daryl Delabbio, the current county administrator for Kent County, Bedford was appointed clerk in 1996 by Young. Three council seats are up for election in November, so the city is waiting to hire a new city manager. The council appointed Chief of Public Safety Dave Jones as interim city manager and Bedford as deputy city manager.

“Life has really changed for us here at City Hall,” she says. “Since Michael passed, we’re just trying to carry on with the philosophy that he taught us. We always have to take a step back and say, ‘What would Michael have done?’”

As clerk, Bedford maintains all official city records, including deeds, contracts and other legal documents, keeps minutes at all the meetings, coordinates Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and maintains voting records and conducts elections for the city. There have been a lot more requests for absentee ballots so far this election cycle, Bedford says.

Some clerk positions, especially at the county level, are elected and Bedford says is glad she didn’t have to go through the election process. It’s been an interesting job, one she got into after working as a paralegal for a real estate developer.  She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public administration.

With the city being so small, all the staff helps out and works as a team and Bedford has always felt respected by city staff and residents. Rockford’s City Council has had some women over the years and, even though all the boards and commissions including the City Council are unpaid, there’s always strong interest in appointed positions. Appointees are selected on their qualifications, not gender, Bedford says, and she’s never experienced the feeling of a gender bias in city government.

“I’ve been here 26 years and every day has been different,” she says. “That’s what I like about my job. I never know what I’m going to walk into every morning. I don’t know many people who can say after 26 years. This has just been a great place to work.”

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer who lives in West Michigan. Connect with Marla on her website or Facebook.
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