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West Michigan residents join forces to combat right-wing extremism in local government

West Michigan residents join forces to combat right-wing extremism in local government

Ottawa County commissioners listen to public comment during a meeting on Jan. 10. (Photo by Evan Cobb for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By Kyle Kaminski

November 7, 2023

Ottawa County residents have formed a new advocacy group to help safeguard democracy and fight back against the right-wing extremists who took over their local government.

MICHIGAN—A group of Ottawa County residents are teaming up to oppose the right-wing, Christian nationalists who were elected last year to take over their county government. 

Their ultimate goal: “Be ready at the ballot box” to unseat commissioners in the next election.

A press release announcing the newly formed Ottawa North Tri-Counties Action Committee (ONTRAC) states the group was formed to “restore ethical conduct, transparency, fiscal responsibility, and inclusion” to county government after a crew of far-right Republicans known as “Ottawa Impact” unseated seven Republicans on the County Commission last year.

“We have watched and listened as our county commissioners dismantled the good governance our community is known for,” co-organizer John North said in a statement. “We joined their meetings and spoke of our concerns, but they did not listen. Instead their ideology is spreading into our municipalities and cities, our libraries and schools. Now we are joining together to plan and act to restore ethical conduct, transparency, fiscal responsibility and inclusion.”

As candidates, the Ottawa Impact commissioners reportedly pledged to “recognize our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage and celebrate America as an exceptional nation blessed by God.” And after taking office this year, they wasted no time putting their extremist agenda into action.

At their first meeting this year, the board voted to fire its longtime county commissioner and hire failed congressional candidate and election denier John Gibbs in his stead. They’ve also since voted to replace the county’s top health officer with an anti-masker who peddles conspiracies about COVID-19, dissolve the county’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department, and change the official motto of Ottawa County from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.”

READ MORE: Everything you’ve heard about John Gibbs’ anti-women screed is true

More recently, the Commission reportedly banned county employees from offering services at Pride festivals and has threatened to withhold funding for the county’s health department. The commission’s actions have earned national attention as an example of the real consequences that can arise when voters elect far-right politicians to take control of a local government.

ONTRAC is reportedly staffed by volunteers, with the stated “primary goals” of safeguarding democratic processes, communicating factual information on issues relevant to local residents, promoting responsible voting, and recommending alternative candidates to fill the county board.

In a statement, the group said it intends to monitor Ottawa County government—as well as leaders in Grand Haven, Ferrysburg, Spring Lake and Spring Lake Township—for the influence of extremist groups, and then “promote peaceful, responsible, citizen action to counteract it.” 

More than 70 people attended a recent meeting hosted by the group, which is expected to grow.

Commissioners elected last year are serving two-year terms that expire at the end of 2024. Those will shift to four-year terms beginning with the candidates elected in next year’s election. 

Ottawa County is one of the most consistently Republican counties in the state, Michigan Advance reports. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate won there was in 1864 in the election between incumbent President Abraham Lincoln and challenger George McClellan.

Larry Jackson, a Holland resident who unsuccessfully ran as the Democratic nominee for the 86th Michigan House District in last year’s election and now serves as the treasurer for the Ottawa County Democratic Party, has also said that he and other Ottawa County activists are working to build a similar, countywide coalition called the Unifying Coalition of Ottawa County.

Anyone who opposes right-wing extremism has been invited to volunteer with or donate to the ONTRAC. Visit the group’s Facebook page or email [email protected] for more details.

READ MORE: Ottawa County faces sanctions for delaying opioid payouts in Michigan

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Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

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