February 10th, 2010 at 9:46 pm by under News

dome_1As you know by now, Congressman Vern Ehlers of Grand Rapids is not running for re-election.  He’s held one of the most respected seats in Congress… the one Ehlers told me is still referred to as “Jerry Ford’s seat.”  Since 1948, when Ford first won election to what was then the 5th Congressional District, that seat has remained in Republican hands, except for a short period of time.

When Ford relinquished his stronghold on the office to become Vice President of the United States, it was the bitter era of the Vietnam War and Watergate.  And it grew into an anti-Republican movement with President Richard Nixon the top target.  I was reporting here at the station when Richard VanderVeen shocked the community and seized the seat as it fell into democrat hands.  The shrewd democrat campaigned against Nixon rather than his opponent.  VanderVeen  pulled off an upset that echoed through the halls of Congress and around the nation.  If Jerry Ford’s old seat, a seat that was occupied by republicans since 1912, could fall, then what republican was safe?  Vander Veen, an attorney who had challenged Ford for the seat way back in 1958, was not destined to hold onto it for long.  Three years later, then Kent County Prosecutor Hal Sawyer, a lion of a lawyer,  wrested the office from the democrats and put it back in the republican aisle where it remains today.

After Sawyer came Paul Henry, a Calvin College professor of political science, a former state rep and senator.  With redistricting required after the 1990 census, the 5th Congressional District became the 3rd, covering Kent, Barry, and Ionia Counties. In 1993, Henry died of a brain tumor while in office.  His Grand Rapids funeral was attended by a large contingent of lawmakers from Capitol Hill.

Following Congressman Henry’s death, a special election was called.  Vern Ehlers, himself a former Calvin College physics professor, Kent County Board Chair, state rep and senator, decided to throw his hat in the ring.  So did nine other republicans, many of them well known today: the first female Chair of the Board of the Kent County Commission, Marge Byington, a sharp businesswoman and community visionary; Glenn Steil and Ken Sikkema, both former state lawmakers, businessman and political consultant.

  I remember that hotly contested race 17-years ago, and I can tell you, we’re probably in for a similarly contentious battle this year…and it may not be reserved for just the republican primary.  The democrats are expected to do their fair share of sparring too. Just like 1993, 2010 is going to bring out the top guns.  Ambitious politicians wait a long time for an office like this one to open up.  And once they win the seat, they’re often wedded to it for a decade or two or three and even more.

There’s much speculation about who will run.  I just received a phone call at my home taking a poll of what party I support and which candidate I’m likely to back.  I hung up.  I always do.  I’m a reporter and I never share that information.  But I’ll be working and watching this race as stories of it will fill our newscasts and website, facebook and twitter.  And it’s only just begun.  Bring it on candidates.  Show us what you’ve got.


  1. It seems many elections as of late are hotly contested, but not just for democratic or republican control. They seem to focus on who can best help their constituants and the concerns being faced. Perhaps this is a good thing. Having a politician run with real solutions in hand, not just party line opinion. Either way, we’ll be watching.

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