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"It's a new day in West Michigan," Scholten says after historic victory in 3rd District

Hillary Scholten speaks to supporters in Grand Rapids following her victory in the 3rd Congressional District race.
Dustin Dwyer
Hillary Scholten speaks to supporters in Grand Rapids following her victory in the 3rd Congressional District race.

“It is a new day in West Michigan,” Hillary Scholten told a roomful of supporters Wednesday afternoon in Grand Rapids.

The Democrat, who lost in the race for Michigan’s 3rd Congressional district in 2020, won big this time around against Republican opponent John Gibbs. Scholten will be the first woman to represent Grand Rapids in Congress. She’ll also be the first Democrat to represent the area since 1977.

“And, folks it was not close,” Scholten said, to cheers.

Vote totals as of Wednesday afternoon showed Scholten with a 13 percentage point lead over Gibbs for the Congressional seat the Republicans have held since 1977.

“We have made a declarative statement here in West Michigan about who we are and what we stand for," Scholten said.

"I could not sit idly by"

Scholten grew up in Grand Rapids, and got involved in local politics after serving as an attorney working on immigration issues at the Department of Justice. She got into the job under the Obama administration, and left as Donald Trump took office, and she said “chaos” took over in the nation’s immigration policies.

“I knew I could not sit idly by and watch as the foundations of our work crumbled, and human casualties continued to rise,” Scholten said in the summer of 2019 when she announced her first run for Congress in Grand Rapids.

Moving back to Grand Rapids, Scholten served as an attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, working with families facing deportation. She was among a team of attorneys who filed a civil rights complaint against the city of Grand Rapids in 2019 over the detention of Jilmar Ramos-Gomez. He was a U.S. citizen and Marine combat veteran who faced a possible deportation after a Grand Rapids police captain tipped off federal immigration officers. The city of Grand Rapids later settled that complaint for $190,000.

After losing the race for the 3rd district to Peter Meijer in 2020, Scholten decided to run again after the 2020 redistricting process changed the boundaries of the district. The newly drawn 3rd district now includes Muskegon and Grand Haven, and no longer includes Allegan or Calhoun counties, two areas where Republicans have performed well in recent elections.

Scholten also benefited from some Republican voters who turned away from the party because of Donald Trump, and his continued false claims about the 2020 presidential race. Scholten’s opponent, John Gibbs, fully embraced those claims, winning Trump’s endorsement.

“We love our country and we will not tolerate anti-democratic, anti-American extremism here in West Michigan,” Scholten said Wednesday, to more cheers from supporters.

Winning support from Republicans

Early results posted Tuesday night showed Scholten winning strong support in some of the moderately conservative suburbs of Grand Rapids such as Ada and Cascade. In the 2020 race, Scholten lost both to Peter Meijer. But this year, voters flipped to support Scholten.

“My inbox is still full of Republicans who have been texting me saying you’re my first Democratic vote, and it’s such an honor to have you serve us,” Scholten said.

Scholten will be only the second Democrat to represent Grand Rapids in Congress in the past 100 years. The first was Richard Vander Veen, who was elected in what was then the 5th Congressional District, after Gerald Ford left the seat to become Vice President during the Watergate crisis. Vander Veen served out the remainder of Ford’s term, and won one more election before losing the seat in 1976.

"Honor of my lifetime"

Scholten is also making history as the first woman to ever represent Grand Rapids in Congress. West Michigan has had one other female representative in the past - Ruth Thompson, a Republican who served in the 1950s. Part of the newly-drawn 3rd district includes areas of Muskegon County that Thompson represented. But for Grand Rapids voters, Scholten will be the first woman ever to represent them in Congress.

At a Tuesday evening election night event, the campaign highlighted that history, with placards highlighting other women who’ve made history in West Michigan politics. With results delayed, Scholten didn’t get to celebrate her victory among them Tuesday night. But on Wednesday, with a resounding 13-percentage point lead, Scholten and her supporters relished the historic victory.

“It will be the honor of my lifetime to serve as your first ever Congresswoman,” she said.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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