I knew Third District Congressman Vern Ehlers, who died earlier this week, and as Jeff Smith of the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) so insightfully wrote, “In the past few days there has been a number of news stories reflecting on the life of the former Congressman, with virtually every story communicating nothing but respect and admiration for Vern Ehlers.
As the expected kudos were pouring in from Democrats and Republicans alike, Smith noted Ehlers and his predecessor, Paul Henry, were “almost canonized in the news coverage without any critical perspective on what these politicians stood for, not what their track record looked like.”
I had my own ax to grind with Ehlers because he had a hand in getting me fired, but there was both good and bad in the man.
Ehlers won a seven-candidate special election in early 1994 after the death of Henry of a brain tumor. He served until 2011, when he retired. He was almost annointed by the Grand Rapids Press and in these parts, if you’re a Republican incumbent, you are virtually invincible.
Ehlers was regarded as a classic moderate Republican, but the way I saw him was a fierce defender of the status quo. He supported Bill Clinton’s NAFTA proposal because he subscribed the GOP mantra that “The purpose of gummint is to create a healthy bidness climate.” He very likely also supported the replea of the Glass-Steagall Act.
He used to hold annual town meetings in Hastings, and I heard him make two startling comments. One was that he was a lot more afraid of left-wing terrorism than right-wing terrorism, right after the Oklahoma City bombing. The other was his steadfast assertion that you can’t run government like a business.
Another startling comment was that he often liked to remind his audience that he was “a nukular physicist.”
Ehlers apparently took umbrage with the opinion piece I foolishly published independently on line, complaining about politicians who drop in unannounced and force working stiffs to stop what we’re doing and listen to him pontificate on issues for between a half hour and an hour when I’m on deadline. I said one time I sneaked out the back door and went to lunch before he showed up at the front desk. I was shown the door not long afterward.
Ehlers without hesitation voted in favor of invading Iraq in 2003, despite the largest world-wide demonstration ever tried in vain to stop it. So he joins GW Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice and many others, including Hillary Clinton, in having blood of 4,500 dead Americans on his hands.
Smith, in his latest column for GRIID, said, “Ehlers, like most politicians, practiced business as usual politics. On the economic front, Ehlers consistently voted to continue massive corporate subsidies that were in the billions, while millions of families were struggling to make ends meet. Ehlers voted for the Clinton administration’s policy to end welfare as we know it and he voted for the massive bailout of banks after the economic collapse of 2007-2008.
“These policies expanded the gap between rich and poor in the US and had devastating consequences particularly on women and communities of color.”
“After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Ehlers voted for the Patriot Act and everyone of the subsequent policies after that to renew or expand domestic US government surveillance programs. The Patriot Act targeted the Arab American and Muslim American communities and should be seen as what it is, a racist policy.”
But Ehlers was impossible to defeat at the polls in West Michigan’s one-party system, and anybody foolish or daring enough to do that picked up the customary paltry 35% of the vote.
So I still have to admit the GOP sign’s slogan in the Grand Rapids area was ingenious: “We like the way things are around here. Let’s keep it that way. Vote Republican.”