Mayor George Heartwell: why he matters
Mayor Heartwell discusses the city matters in the city council meeting.
He is the chief executive officer in the city of Grand Rapids, yet the majority of Calvin College students do not know his name and most are unapologetic about their ignorance of local politics.
“Why does he matter?” Senior Joanna Shalvoy asks.
Mayor George Heartwell matters a great deal to students, according to the Political Science professor James Penning, who knows the mayor personally. “Think about how many students live in Grand Rapids. What happens in Grand Rapids affects virtually every Calvin student,” he said.
Serving his second term as the mayor in Grand Rapids, Heartwell considers himself “a vision bearer” and sees his task to guide Grand Rapids to a better community.
Starting as a businessman, Heartwell has gone one to become a pastor, a professor and now a mayor. He was the president of Heartwell Mortage, a family company, until in 1985 when he joined the Heartside Ministry, a program for the homeless in Grand Rapids. He is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ.
“During that time, I found myself frequently speaking before the Grand Rapids City Commission, talking about the issues of justice for the homeless poor in our community,” he says. “I was frustrated at the lack of action in the part of the Commission, so I ran for office of City Commissioner in 1991.”
His involvement in the Commission lasted two terms until he decided to leave politics to teach community leadership at Aquinas College. His departure from local politics was only temporary, however, and he returned to become mayor in January 2004.
“I ran for this job because of my passion for the community and my desire to see this city prosper for its entire people, not just for some, but for everyone,” Heartwell says. His vision for prosperity includes college students as well.
Since the mayoral position in Grand Rapids is a part-time position (Grand Rapids has a managerial system of government with a seven-member commission and a city manager), Heartwell keeps his job teaching community leadership at Aquinas College. In this way, he stays connected with the younger generation, an integral part of his vision for Grand Rapids.
“[My vision] really comes out of my theology and my faith practice, but I think the most fulfilling work I do is when I operate in a visionary sphere and hold the vision in front of the people of Grand Rapids and encourage them to work with me to make that vision become concrete,” he says.
Heartwell lays out some obstacles to making his vision concrete, however. “The frustrations come in that there are so many urgent daily matters that come before me and that come before the City Commission that have to be addressed that keep us sometimes from really doing the visionary work,” he said.
He invites young people to join the work of the City Commission to assist it focus on visionary work. "What I would love to be able do with Calvin, Aquinas and Grand Valley, is to use students as interns in the city hall," he says. Heartwell said that internships are available in the Planning Department or in the mayor s office. "Internships are a way the City Commission can better partner with Calvin," he says.
In fact, under Heartwell s leadership, Calvin students are already involved in the city, but he wants to increase student participation. "Calvin has a commitment to the city," Heartwell says. "Calvin students have been involved in tutoring in public schools and in service projects in Heartside Neighborhood where I worked. I think that’s really important."
Another challenge Heartwell faces is the migration of the young people from Grand Rapids. "Calvin students can graduate and stay in Grand Rapids," Heartwell says when asked what Calvin students can do for him. "I want to keep young people in Grand Rapids."
However, he does cite some positive trends in the younger demographics. "We just turned a demographic corner. For decades we’ve been losing our younger people, ages 18-34, who have been moving away, but now they are starting to come back or staying," he says.
Despite this positive trend, the younger people may question to what extent their relationship with the mayor matters. Christine Holst, a Calvin College junior, asks, “Does he consider Calvin students as his constituents since so many of us are from out-of-state?”
Heartwell without hesitation answers “yes.”
This means that although only 663 students of the Calvin student body of 3978, which is roughly 17 percent of the student body, have a Grand Rapids city mailing address as home address, Heartwell still considers Calvin students as his constituents.
"Calvin’s campus is in the city of Grand Rapids, and the students live in the city of Grand Rapids while they are here, " Heartwell says.
Heartwell has many projects that affect young people, whether it is involving a social issue or an economic issue. He has prioritized public education as well as sustainability of the city by boosting the business and service sector.
"Anyone who drives over a pothole should be interested in what the mayor does," Professor Penning says.
Heartwell has jurisdiction over areas that students encounter everyday. He is responsible for services like education, fire and police departments, roads and highways and housing. Penning said that anyone who pays taxes to the city of Grand Rapids, which includes most of Calvin community, should be interested in Heartwell.
Heartwell was also at the center of the debate that arose from a proposal to rename Franklin Street. "I voted in the minority to rename Franklin and lost,” Heartwell says. "There were three of us [in the City Commission] who voted to rename it as Martin Luther King Street." Heartwell believes that the renaming would have been important for bringing people of Grand Rapids together because he believes that racism is at the root of all social problems.
Heartwell bounced back from the loss and partnered with young people to find paths to racial reconciliation. "I appointed a Civil Rights Recognition Commission that consists of 17 people, 15 of whom are under the age of 40,” Heartwell says. The majority of the Commission members are in their 20s or 30s. "The recommendations that came out of that group are very important for not only honoring civil rights leaders but giving us again some opportunities for us to work on racial unity in Grand Rapids and in Kent County," he says.
In addition to the Civil Rights Commission, the City Commission approved giving the Division Avenue the commemorative name of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Even before Heartwell became the mayor, he devoted much of his energy to young voters. In his campaign, he put together a core team of inner circle advisors. "In one of our early meetings, one of our seasoned old politicians said to me, 'You know, you can’t waste your time on the youth vote because they simply aren’t voting. So you have to get the people who are regular consistent voters,'" Heartwell says. "And my 29-year-old daughter [who was part of my inner circle of advisors] rose up in her seat, looked at me and said, 'You aren’t going to abandon my generation, are you Dad?' ”
Taking on his daughter s challenge, Heartwell put together a youth campaign. The youth turnout from what we observed at the polling places was just fantastic, he says.
Since becoming the mayor, Heartwell devotes his time to young people. "I came into the office with a good support from young people, and I want to honor that," he says.
Professor Penning praises the mayor for his accomplishments. “He’s publicly accessible," he says. "I would give him an A."