With a Democrat-majority governing board, is Leelanau County trending blue?
Over the past few decades, Leelanau County voters would occasionally elect a Democrat at a time to its Board of Commissioners.
But a change started being noticeable in 2014 when voters elected three Democrats to the seven member commission. Then in 2020, Leelanau chose Joe Biden, after previously picking Donald Trump and Mitt Romney.
Now with the recall of the Board of Commissioners Chair William Bunek, the county board has four Democrat commissioners, transitioning it to a Democrat majority.
The change shocked some Republicans.
Lake Leelanau resident Arloa Edwards votes Republican and has lived in the area for 35 years. She says until recently no one dared run as a Democrat in solidly red Leelanau County.
“If you were a Democrat and you wanted to run for an office you didn't say you were a Democrat because you couldn’t get elected,” she said. “Now [they can say,] ‘oh I’m a Democrat,’ and they can get elected.”
Edwards says it’s her experience that Democrats run successful grassroots campaigns, even though she thinks Republicans outnumber them in the county.
“They go door to door and just work harder to get elected,” she said.
Door-knocking was a big feature in last week’s election, when one woman, with no political experience, spearheaded a recall campaign.
The recall started late last year.
It dated back to an election two years earlier, when Leelanau voters passed a millage funding the county’s early childhood development program. In September last year, Republican Commissioner William Bunek suggested setting the 2022 tax rate for the program at 0.000 mills.
Asked why he wanted to cut funding to the program, Bunek said he thought the program was unnecessary and the millage a burden to taxpayers.
“When the people make a wrong decision, we’re here to make sure that doesn’t go on, and that’s the idea of a Republic,” Bunek told commissioners at the September 14 meeting.
Suttons Bay homemaker, Jackie Anderson, watched that meeting and the following one and became incensed.
“I came home that night at about midnight and told my husband we were going to recall William Bunek,” she said.
Last Tuesday, Bunek was recalled and replaced by Democrat Lois Bahle.
Anderson said 60 people helped her collect signatures in Bunek’s district.
“I had people from both sides of the political spectrum excited to sign this,” she said. “I met people who weren't listening, who didn’t know what was happening and explained it to them. They were like ‘oh yeah I’ll sign this petition.’”
Leelanau County voter turnout is usually among the highest in the state for midterm elections, but May election turnout is typically low.
So it was surprising when 44% of registered voters showed up at the polls this time, up 12% compared to the year before.
Bob Sutherland, who volunteered for the recall campaign, said the turnout shows people want a more balanced government.
“I think the board majority for the last four, five years has been pushing more to the extremes. I think this election resets us more toward the center,” said Sutherland.
Voter demographics are hard to track at the county level.
According to the 2020 Census, Leelanau County’s population numbers have stayed about the same since the last census. Leelanau voters are older and whiter, compared with the state and the country. The picture of who may be moving to the area, and their key voting issues, is made up of unscientific anecdotes.
Sam Getsinger is the leader of the liberal grassroots group Leelanau Indivisible. She says this election people were motivated more to punish a commissioner for ignoring the voters’ decision.
“I think people are realizing they want their representative to actually honor the vote, more so than political party,” she said.
Kyle Melinn, the editor for the Lansing-based politics publication MIRS, said he also wouldn’t read too much into why Leelanau voters picked another Democrat.
“If [voters] don’t feel like their representative is doing what they’re supposed to be doing they have no hesitation about throwing them out and putting party politics aside,” he said.
Still, he said recent state elections seem to show voters won’t choose controversial candidates, even if they reliably vote for the party. He pointed to last week’s West Michigan state house race, where a Democrat unseated a Republican in a red district. The Republican had made anti-Semitic comments and disparaged rape victims.
“Voters [have] kind of hit the end of hyperbolic rhetoric and are starting to use their head a little bit,” Melinn said.
Whether or not Leelanau Democrats can keep the majority will be decided in the fall, when a potentially more palatable Republican will be up against Bahle on the ballot.