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The lone elected Democrat in Ottawa County is a public servant worth imitating

Dec 7, 2016

Ottawa County is a pretty lovely place on the western shore of Lake Michigan, a little south of Grand Rapids. I know it primarily for two things: the tulip festival in Holland, and for being the most Republican county in Michigan.

Ottawa last voted Democratic for president in 1864, when the local farmers decided they’d had enough of the Civil War and wanted their boys home. Since then, it has been as Republican as they come. Franklin Roosevelt couldn’t carry it, nor could Lyndon Johnson.

But times are changing in Ottawa County. Oh, Donald Trump creamed Hillary Clinton here. However, few people noticed, but Trump did worse here than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Clinton got a little more than a third of the vote, and in a shocker, actually carried the city of Holland.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of having lunch with the only elected Democrat in the county, Doug Becker, a Holland Township trustee, who was reelected last month.

Becker is the kind of public servant we seldom hear about. He got into politics to make a difference for his neighbors. This isn’t his day job; he commutes to Livonia in the Detroit suburbs, where he is director of HR technology for Trinity Health Systems.

Nor is he especially impressed with himself as a politician. He told me he’d gotten elected four years ago by luck, when one of the Republican candidates forgot to turn in his paperwork. This year, he said, “I won again because one of our sitting trustees died, and the local Republicans didn’t fill the seat. I hate to win that way, but do my best to serve Holland Township.”

That he does. His wife works for Amway, and they have two little daughters: Arianna, four, and Addison, two. Though he is scarcely rich, he donates his $3,000 township salary to charity. There are times he dreams of being in the legislature, but is realistic.

The best any Democrats did this year in any of Ottawa’s districts was 34 percent, and that’s because they ran an energetic small businessman who campaigned extra hard.

Becker, however, is more concerned about the state than himself. At 42, he is one of those poor Generation Xers squeezed between the far more numerous baby boomers and millennials. He grew up in the small town of Fountain, where his mother and dad owned the lumberyard.

He went to Saginaw Valley and Western, thought of becoming a history professor, but ended up getting an MA in Labor and Industrial Relations from Michigan State. He’s always been interested in technology, and thinks of himself as a sensible fiscal conservative who was a moderate Republican until that wing of the party became extinct.

Being fiscally prudent, however, doesn’t mean not spending to fix our infrastructure and for education.

“I worry about the huge skill gap in our workforce, and how that impacts our competitiveness,” he told me.

He thinks gerrymandering has ruined sensible politics in this state, and wants to find a way to fix this and build a better Michigan for his daughters.

I have a hunch there are a lot of unknown public servants like Doug Becker. If we had a few more in higher positions, we’d probably all be a lot better off.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.