At a Michigan high school football field, impeachment is the political line of scrimmage for a suburb in flux
EAST GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Football players hurried across the field at East Grand Rapids High School on a chilly afternoon as families settled onto seat cushions on the cold metal bleachers, bundling under heavy wool blankets to watch the freshman team take on West Catholic High School.
Sitting atop the stands, you could see Reeds Lake shimmer in the sun. An American flag flapped in the breeze and the tips of tree canopies burned bronze, orange, and burgundy. The view was so timeless Americana it could have been the fall of 1973, when impeachment was brewing around another president in a scandal that would vault the area’s most famous resident, Gerald R. Ford, into the Oval Office.
But it was October 2019, hours after acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted — before he tried to take it back — that the Trump administration had withheld money from Ukraine in a bid to investigate Democrats. And in this rapidly growing western Michigan suburb, like in others across the country, support for an impeachment inquiry into President Trump has been growing while the area shifts politically to the left after decades as a Republican stronghold.
For many, the question has become not whether to get rid of Trump but how: Force him out through impeachment or vote him out next November.
“He lies and lies and lies,” said Larry Varcheski, 71, a retired coach and registered Democrat who came with his son to watch his great-grandson play in the mid-October game. Trumpets from the student band blared across the field.
But a few seats to the right, the political view shifted in that direction.
Crystal Balulis, 40, grew up nearby in a strict Christian reformist family and voted for Trump in 2016. She planned to vote for him again, saying business was booming at the carpet and furniture business where she works as an office manager.
To her, the House Democrats’ impeachment push was a waste of taxpayer money.
“They should be focused on other issues,” Balulis said, during a pause from cheering for her son, number 22.
The game was just beginning.
On the day before the 2016 election, John Truscott, a public relations executive from Lansing who has worked in Republican politics, was in town for a luncheon at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids and sensed something extraordinary might be happening.
Trump was holding his final rally of the campaign that night, in Grand Rapids. Truscott remembers that people began to line up outside of the DeVos Place Convention Center hours before the event, settling into lawn chairs on a sunny day wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and brandishing Trump signs.
A Republican presidential candidate hadn’t won Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988, but Trump managed to eke out a victory by fewer than 11,000 votes. His upset in the state was a key to his victory.
Truscott said he had been as shocked as anyone to see Trump take Michigan. But thinking back now to that scene outside the rally, he said, “you could tell there was something going on.”
Political analysts have been locked in debate ever since over just what that something was, how much support for Trump exists in Michigan, and whether his win here was a fluke or a new normal for the Republican Party.
Trump’s victory in 2016 — he defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 0.3 percentage points — came as almost 3 million, or roughly 37 percent, of voters stayed home. Yet in the 2018 elections, Republicans lost two House seats and the governors race to Democrats as turnout surged and Trump’s popularity dropped with suburban voters.
The shifting political landscape has made for precarious terrain on impeachment.
Representative Justin Amash, whose congressional district covers Grand Rapids, is fighting for reelection after he denounced Trump, switched from Republican to independent, and came out in favor of the impeachment inquiry.
In a swing district to the east, where Democrat Elissa Slotkin won a House seat in 2018 that Republicans had held for nearly 15 years, voters are so divided on impeachment that she refrained for months from joining fellow Democrats in calling for the inquiry. She came out in favor of a formal probe last month after the Ukraine scandal broke.
Like the rest of western Michigan, this community of roughly 12,000 people snug against the city of Grand Rapids was once a bastion of conservatism.
Ford, who became president after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate investigation, was a classic establishment Republican. The Grand Rapids area also was home to the late Richard DeVos, the billionaire co-founder of direct-selling giant Amway, who was a prominent philanthropist and major Republican donor. His daughter-in-law, Betsy DeVos, is Trump’s education secretary.
But political analysts say the area has undergone a change in recent decades similar to one taking place in other parts of the country: Shrinking rural communities have moved from Democrat to Republican while fast-growing suburbs are headed in the other direction.
Many here were surprised when Barack Obama won traditionally Republican Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids, in 2008. They were surprised again when Trump — the antithesis of an establishment Republican — won the county in 2016 by roughly 3 percentage points, even as the city of Grand Rapids went for Clinton.
“People tend to think of West Michigan as very conservative,” said Kurt Metzger, a demographer and the mayor of Pleasant Ridge near Detroit. “They paint it with a broad brush.”
It is easy to see this area is in flux.
In recent years, the city of Grand Rapids has experienced a burst of hip breweries, restaurants, and coffee shops opening up, though the names of longtime wealthy benefactors — the DeVoses, the Van Andels — still bedeck hospitals, schools, and event spaces.
The region, with about 1 million people, has attracted white millennials to downtown Grand Rapids and diverse families from the coasts to its suburbs in search of affordable homes. When Ford was president in the mid 1970s, African-American, Latino and Asian-American residents made up not more than 15 percent of the city. These days, the number is closer to 30 percent.
The city’s growth has spilled into East Grand Rapids, a cozy community dotted with affluent homes and several imposing McMansions that were elaborately decorated in mid-October for Halloween. Most adults have a college degree, and the median income is about $125,000.
Some call the suburb a progressive bubble. But it is likely more purple than blue. On a recent afternoon, some activists gathered in prayer near a church to end abortions while others walked the streets with signs supporting a women’s right to choose.
Still, there is a lot of vocal disdain for Trump. A day before the football game, children swarmed the streets tossing and collecting candy at a parade during the annual Hearts of Gold fund-raising campaign. Several parents watching the mayhem said they keep the television news off so their children won’t pick up Trump’s racist rhetoric and poor grammar.
Jennifer and Dennis Bruce, who were helping one of their sons dismantle a “Sophomore Safari” float after the parade was over, said impeachment could not happen soon enough.
But some said they would rather see Trump voted out of office next year than removed through impeachment, fearing the process could further divide the country — or backfire on Democrats.
“It’s unfortunate that now we are using money, resources, and everything else for impeachment,” said Natalie Bernecker, 47, a mother of three who has lived in the area for roughly 20 years. “I am just trying to find people running for office who can understand what is going on, who have a better picture in mind for Middle America, and I am not sure we are doing the right things right now.”
In a very real sense, impeachment helped put Grand Rapids on the political map. Ford was born in Nebraska, but his family moved to the area when he was an infant. He first made his name as an all-state football player at South High School in Grand Rapids on his way to becoming the local congressman, a House leader, and then vice president.
Around the community, he is remembered and revered, his legacy memorialized at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, where visitors can walk through exhibits with photos of his childhood, a replica of his Oval Office — and, of course, a section on the Watergate investigation and Nixon’s near-impeachment.
Looking over a giant black-and-white photograph of Ford, Harold Winegarner, 76, and his younger sister, Rosemarie, discussed whether he would have won the 1976 election had he not angered many voters by pardoning Nixon.
“It’s unfortunate that now we are using money, resources, and everything else for impeachment.”Natalie Bernecker
Winegarner, an accountant who lives near Ann Arbor, considered himself more conservative than his sibling visiting from Oregon. But the two joked they had brought each other closer to the center in their political beliefs.
“He probably should be impeached,” Winegarner said of Trump, drawing comparisons between now and Watergate. “His actions are far more far-reaching.”
Few were looking for parallels between then and now at East Grand Rapids High School, where the freshman football game was finished and fans sipped hot chocolate as the junior varsity team took the field.
The Nixon impeachment proceedings captivated the nation in 1974, with all three broadcast networks rotating coverage of the congressional hearings. Now, with a drastically changed media landscape of talk radio, cable TV news, Facebook, and Twitter, people here said it was difficult to keep up or know what to trust.
They also had never seen a president quite like Trump, they said, and were surprised more Republicans were not coming out against him as they had against Nixon.
The days of bipartisanship seemed to be as outdated as leather football helmets. Members of the same family now can listen to the same facts and come to different conclusions based on the news channels they watch. The local newspaper, the Grand Rapids Press, has dwindled in size, and through one of the most chaotic weeks in Washington — Mulvaney later contended his admission about Ukraine aid didn’t amount to the quid pro quo Democrats were alleging — barely mentioned the impeachment investigation.
“I have four boys. I am just trying to get a feel for it,” Matt Bertke, 45, said of why he did not have time to follow the ongoing inquiry and remained undecided on impeachment.
Sarah Rose, a 47-year-old physical therapist sitting just below him, cut into the conversation.
“I have four kids,” she said, “they should definitely impeach him.”
The question for Kathleen Miller, 74, was what had happened to the Republicans. A retired state administrator and Detroit native, she was once a loyal Republican and met her first husband at a Young Republicans meeting when she was 19. But Miller said she no longer recognized the party.
“I hate him so much,” she said of Trump, protected from the autumn chill in a navy blue sweatshirt and a necklace knitted in the school’s colors of blue and gold as she watched her great-nephew run the ball. “He’s not presidential material.”
Others were quieter about their leanings. Inside the press box to escape the cold, a pair of grandparents, both retired teachers visiting from a nearby city, shared a bag of popcorn. They refused to give their names to a reporter, saying they try not to discuss politics with anyone — not pollsters, surveyors, and certainly not their liberal children.
“But it’s a bunch of bunk,” the grandmother said of the impeachment probe. “I believe he is doing a wonderful job.”
As the sun set, the game lost any tension as the East Grand Rapids junior varsity team clobbered their opponents 43-8. Afterward, Kathy Larkin, a 60-year-old retired food service worker, sat on a bench in the stadium waiting for her grandson to emerge from the locker room. In 2016, she was sure Trump would win Michigan, she said. But in 2020, Larkin confessed she did not know which way the state would swing.
“People on both sides are more energized,” she said.