Holland City Councilman Brian Burch, up for re-election, chats with Holland resident Catie Hauch. He said foes have threatened to try to get him fired from his private job. (Photos by Erik Holladay / Special to The Detroit N)
Holland— Elections in this quaint west Michigan community are normally stolid affairs.
City Council candidates often run unopposed and, if they’re challenged, the campaigns are unfailingly civil.
Not this year.
Two incumbents are being opposed by challengers who would reverse a vote by the council in 2011 declining to add sexual orientation to a city anti-discrimination law.
Because the 2011 vote was 5-4, with both incumbents in the majority, the election of either challenger would likely lead to protection of gays.
Candidates are sniping at each other. Forums are drawing standing-room-only crowds.
A challenger, worried his opponent was going to make an issue of it, revealed last week he had been convicted of assaulting his estranged wife in 2006.
An incumbent said foes have threatened to try to get him fired from his private job.
“It’s deplorable, despicable, inappropriate,” the incumbent, Councilman Brian Burch, said about the threats.
Such squabbling may be typical in most elections, but it’s unusual in this religious town.
The Holland races are being watched by gay rights groups across the state who believe victory by the challengers in such a conservative place could be a watershed moment for their movement.
Gay rights is a growing issue in the state and country. In Michigan, eight of the 29 municipalities with laws protecting gays adopted them this year, according to a recent report by the state Department of Civil Rights.
Richard Burlingame, 43, who is running against Burch, said he has never seen the community so galvanized over an issue.
“I was born and raised here and have not seen an issue that has caused as much interest as this one,” Burlingame said.
Holland has been a tinderbox ever since the 2011 council vote.
The issue has pitted residents, businesses and churches against each other.
A minister who wanted the council to reconsider its vote was arrested in 2011 for refusing to leave City Hall after a council meeting.
A threat by a gay rights group to boycott the city has evolved into a program that highlights businesses that support changing the law.
Gay rights groups have held marches and protests and taken out a billboard supporting the change.
“It has gotten everybody energized,” said resident Jim Larkin, a retired newspaper editor. Larkin, 60, who is gay, resigned from the city Human Relations Commission after the 2011 council vote.
City of Churches
Founded by Dutch Calvinists in 1847, Holland continues to reflect that heritage in its people, culture and economy.
Known as the City of Churches, its 32,000 residents have 170 places of worship, casting a strong evangelical Christian influence.
The town is probably best known for its Tulip Time Festival in May.
“Holland likes to think of itself as a town unaffected since the ’50s,” said the Rev. Bill Freeman, 59, the minister who was arrested for refusing to leave City Hall.
“Hopefully, on Election Day, it will come into the 20th century.”
In 2010, Holland was named the second happiest city in America by a Gallup poll that interviewed people across the nation about their health, mood, jobs and communities. One year later, the City Council voted 5-4 to reject a recommendation by its Human Relations Commission that gays be added to city laws prohibiting job and housing discrimination based on gender, race, creed and other factors.
The vote came during a session in which 60 of the 250 people in audience spoke.
During public hearings, some residents said homosexuality is a perversion comparable with bestiality and pedophilia.
Others said they should have the right to deny housing and jobs to people because of their sexual orientation.
The Rev. Ralph Houston said this week that homosexuality is immoral and changing the law is an attempt to have such immorality approved by law.
Houston, 72, pastor of Immanuel Reformed Church, said he also believes homosexuality is a choice and that it could be “cured.”
“We’re playing around with delicate issues,” he said. “I wish they wouldn’t make an issue of it. People are better off not to say anything about it.”
The rancor from the festering controversy has carried over into the City Council election.
Burch, 35, a public relations specialist, said changing the law isn’t necessary, that it would be better for Holland residents to take it upon themselves to treat gays fairly.
Councilwoman Nancy DeBoer, 59, a retired teacher, said her Calvinist beliefs made her uncomfortable extending protection to gays.
When DeBoer failed to attend a forum or respond to a questionnaire from gay rights groups, she was criticized by challenger Don Martin.
“The flowers matter more to her than workers, the poor and minorities,” Martin said about DeBoer, who is heavily involved in city beautification projects.
Martin and Burlingame are mounting quixotic campaigns.
Martin, 35, a computer analyst for Johnson Controls, is the first openly gay person to seek office in the conservative community.
Burlingame, a temp worker, outed himself in a different way last week.
On the eve of a candidates’ debate last week, he announced on Facebook he had been convicted of domestic assault “while defending my home, my property and my children’s property.”
According to a police report, a drunk Burlingame had spit in his estranged wife’s face while she was retrieving her and her children’s belongings at his home.
What Burlingame didn’t mention is he also was convicted of two drunken driving offenses that spanned 15 years — in 1995 and 2010, according to arrest records.
He said he had a problem with alcohol but hasn’t had a drink in a year.
He said he decided to disclose the information because he had heard through an unidentified third party that Burch was going to make an issue of it.
“I’m a man of honesty and integrity,” Burlingame told The Detroit News. “Now the whole state knows I have a record.”
Burch said he learned about the assault after accidently running into Burlingame’s ex-wife, who eagerly told him about it.
But Burch said he never planned to raise the issue.