Thursday, July 14, was a seemingly normal day for Randy Meppelink. It was 19 days before the August primary election in Ottawa County, a busy time for elected officials seeking a new term, particularly when they face a challenger in their own political party.
Meppelink, a Republican, was hard at work campaigning in his quest for a third term representing the Fifth District on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners.
What he didn’t know was that the county Republican party’s executive committee, of which Meppelink is a member and officer, was taking a vote that evening to censure Meppelink and five of his colleagues for what it called “publicly embracing Democrat interference in the Republican primary.”
“I knew there was a discussion on the agenda about elected officials interacting with Democrats to influence the election,” Meppelink said. “I thought, ‘OK, wow. That’s interesting.’ The next day, I got an email from the Republican Party with an announcement that I was censured. Nobody called me. Nobody asked a question.”
In total, the committee censured six Republican incumbent commissioners — all seeking re-election in the Aug. 2 primary and all of whom face challenges from far-right candidates, including:
Matt Fenske, District 11 and board chair
Roger Bergman, District 10
Al Dannenberg, District 4
Greg DeJong, District 8
Randy Meppelink, District 5
Phil Kuyers, District 9
In a statement explaining the unprecedented move, the party said “many of those same commissioners were endorsed by two political groups with apparent ties to George Soros.”
Although not detailed in the statement, the Ottawa GOP was referring to the six commissioners taking part in forums and events not sanctioned by the party — specifically those organized by Vote Common Good: West Michigan and Ottawa Integrity.
The problem? The commissioners say the accusations aren't true.
“It’s an absolute lie,” said DeJong, also an officer of the party’s executive committee. “I was completely blind-sided.”
Meppelink wanted answers.
“I called up Keith den Hollander,” Meppelink said, referring to Ottawa GOP’s interim chair. “He said, ‘We heard you were going to a forum hosted by Vote Common Good.’”
Den Hollander did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.
“I said, ‘Yes, I was,’” Meppelink continued. “He said, ‘You’re not allowed to do that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m not allowed to do that?’ He said, ‘You’re not allowed to go to any event where Democrats might be present where they could be swayed to vote in the primary.’”
Meppelink wasn’t having it.
“There’s only two people who tell me what to do, and that’s God and my wife. In that order.”
It's the latest indication the Ottawa GOP faces a major fracturing, as its traditionalist past clashes with far-right ideologies emboldened by a volatile political landscape and a pandemic-weary nation. It begs the question: What is the future for Ottawa County conservatism?
How we got here
In a county that has historically been conservative since its founding in 1831, Republicans have long had a commanding presence in West Michigan politics.
“This county has a tradition of being conservative. But it is not a county that has a tradition of being outrageous,” said John “Field” Reichardt, a Grand Haven resident and well-known local politico.
Traditional Ottawa County Republicans have developed a reputation as a party that promotes limited government and fiscal responsibility, often citing Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan as forefathers of their guiding principles.
But the rise of Donald Trump in 2016 brought far-right ideology to local politics, exacerbated in 2020 by a global pandemic that resulted in divisive statewide shutdowns and mask mandates.
And with that came a new local group called Ottawa Impact, claiming to defend “the constitutionally protected rights of parents to make health and education decisions for their own children,” according to the group’s website.
“It all started with the mask mandate,” DeJong said, referring to when the Ottawa County Department of Public Health announced a mask mandate in 2021 for the upcoming school year.
At the time of the mandate, DeJong thought it was an overreach.
“I thought parents and their kids should make the decisions regarding their health,” he said.
However, DeJong respected the authority of state and county health departments to enact the guidance.
Ottawa Impact didn’t see it that way.
“I’ve gotten calls from people, saying, ‘Greg, if you vote for masks, I hope you burn in hell.’ That’s the face of Ottawa Impact. It’s mean.”
The group has been linked to lawsuits against the county regarding the mask mandate, most notably one seeking an injunction to suspend Health Officer Lisa Stefanovsky's August 2021 mask mandate for pre-K-6 classrooms and challenging the board of commissioners' position it didn’t have the authority to undo the mandate.
The case was dismissed in December, and is currently pending appeal.
One of the attorneys who filed the suit, Adam Tountas, would again play a role nearly one year later, making the motion at last week’s Ottawa GOP meeting to censure the six incumbent commissioners.
“It’s pretty clear what’s going on here. These individuals no longer have support from actual Republicans in our community,” Tountas said in a statement released by the party.
In their response to the GOP censure, all six incumbent commissioners said the move was to pander to the far-right segment of the party.
“As long-standing members of the Republican Party, we support the values and policies which have made Ottawa County strong,” the commissioners said in a prepared statement. “We are disappointed that a small, vocal minority has infiltrated the Ottawa County GOP to serve its own narrow political agenda rather than address Ottawa County as a whole and serve everybody.”
What is Ottawa Impact?
Ottawa Impact is a Jenison-based political advocacy group formed in 2021 by parents and residents critical of the state and local government’s response to containing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Simultaneously, the nation was gripped with the aftermath of several high-profile deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police, pushing race-related discussions to the forefront.
Ottawa Impact was founded “to preserve and protect the individual rights of the people in Ottawa County,” according to the group’s website, including “freedom of speech, freedom of association, religious liberty, due process, and sanctity of conscience. These are essential qualities of liberty and freedom.”
One of principle founders of Ottawa Impact, Joe Moss, is a parent of children who attend Libertas Christian School, a private Christian academy that notably bucked the pre-K-6 mask mandate and COVID-19 reporting rules in 2020, suing the state and county health department and challenging their authority to enact such measures, particularly over religious institutions.
Libertas failed to win the injunction it sought to stop enforcement of the mandates, but the lawsuit has not been resolved. The state filed a motion for summary judgment in the case in June, arguing the matter is now moot because school mask requirements expired in January.
Moss is executive director of Ottawa Impact PAC, the organization's affiliated political action committee, and is running against Meppelink for the District 5 commissioner seat.
In addition to masking mandates, the group has protested other issues, such as employee vaccine mandates, schools teaching critical race theory and the justification for Ottawa County’s Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion.
The group typically does not respond to media inquiries and isolates itself from the traditional processes of a local election cycle. Ottawa Impact PAC hosts its own political forums with only its endorsed candidates at a local church that aligns with the group’s politics.
Ottawa Impact and its endorsed candidates did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The group often seeks to make itself and its members known, attending board of commissioners and school board meetings across the county; meanwhile, members have made their views known at Ottawa GOP meetings.
After several months of these meetings, former GOP chair Rett DeBoer stepped down. It was speculated her decision was due to pressure from Ottawa Impact and its members.
At the time, DeBoer denied the rumor to the Grand Haven Tribune, saying she stepped away because of internal issues happening within the party. She declined to comment further.
“What has happened to our party, I barely recognize it,” Fenske, board chair and one of the censured commissioners, said. “It’s pretty heavily loaded with Ottawa Impact folks, instead of elected officials.”
Ottawa Impact raised more than $70,000 through December 2021. The group and its candidates failed to meet the state's financial disclosures deadlines for the August primary, which was 5 p.m. July 22.
"This is part of their effort to hide themselves from the public," Dannenberg said Saturday after the deadline. "They do not respond to reporters asking questions. They do not participate in public events such as League of Woman Voters forums. They lie about the commissioners’ positions on issues such as the rights of the unborn. And now, they want to hide who is financing their campaigns.
"As a traditional, conservative Christian, I am appalled by their arrogance. I hope the voters of Ottawa County are aware of the secret effort of this group to dramatically change our county government," Dannenberg said.
“It’s changing the dynamics of the party altogether,” DeJong echoed. “If you don’t look like them and don’t act like them, and don’t worship like them, you don’t belong. You’re not part of the family anymore. We didn’t reach out to Democrats and independents; Democrats and independents are reaching out to us because … they’re concerned about the Ottawa Impact agenda.”
According to several officials who spoke to The Sentinel, that agenda includes, among other things, eliminating the county’s DEI office, firing the county’s public health officer, drastically reducing the health department’s budget and putting more oversight over the county clerk’s office — specifically how elections are conducted.
Ottawa Impact PAC makes political candidates sign a contract in order to earn the group’s endorsement. The contract specifically asks candidates to pledge their votes to further the group’s goals.
“I would never want to vote for a politician who couldn’t make their own choice,” Meppelink said. “I would never swear my allegiance to how I need to vote. I don’t think the people want that. I believe in a society where everyone makes their decision of their own accord. I feel people are educated enough to make their own decisions.”
This year, the group put up candidates to challenge nine of the board’s 10 Republicans.
“It’s a stealth campaign,” Reichardt said. “I believe that these people have a very extreme Christian agenda that they intend to try to impose on the county.”
“I believe Ottawa Impact is grasping at straws to influence people by any means possible and it doesn’t have to be the truth,” Meppelink said. “As a Christian, it’s tough when I see fellow Christians doing this. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be done. We’re told to turn the other cheek and, boy, is that hard sometimes.”
“It just breaks my heart that we can’t come together and agree to disagree,” DeJong said. “To force people out of the party? That’s just crazy. We represent all of Ottawa County, not just Republicans.”
What’s fact and what’s fiction
Claim: The six incumbents are “trying to get Democrats to decide who the Republican nominees should be.”
“Republicans, not Democrats, should choose the Republican nominee,” interim GOP Chairman den Hollander said. “While we welcome individuals who are abandoning the Democrat Party because of the failed agendas of Joe Biden and Gretchen Whitmer, those who seek to cause mischief and play political games are not welcome. Our primary process needs to be protected.”
Fact: Because Michigan voters don’t have to register as members of the Republican Party or Democratic Party to be eligible to vote in primaries, they can cross over and cast a ballot for a person they might not vote for in the November election. It’s a well-worn tradition in Michigan politics and a way to give your preferred candidate the best chance to win in November.
There is some indication that voters intend to do just that.
"I've never put a campaign sign for a Republican in my yard, but that's about to change," tweeted Karen Obits, of Sprint Lake. "I've been shouting warnings about Ottawa Impact from every soap box I can find. Are you aware of Ottawa Integrity? I'm also supporting them to counteract Ottawa Impact. All hands on deck!"
I've never put a campaign sign for a Republican in my yard but that's about to change. I've been shouting warnings about Ottawa Impact from every soap box I can find. Are you aware of Ottawa Integrity? I'm also supporting them to counteract Ottawa Impact. All hands on deck!
— Karen Obits (@KjObits) June 20, 2022
What’s unique to the commission races this year, however, is the primary will determine a large part of the board’s makeup. Of the 11-member commission, 10 are Republicans; Ottawa Impact is fielding candidates for 9 of those 10 seats. Primary-race victors will face Democratic opponents in only three of those nine races, meaning the primary will decide the winner of at least six commission seats.
The lone Republican not facing any challenger is Kyle Terpstra, of District 6. The remaining seat, District 3, is currently occupied by the board’s only Democrat, Doug Zylstra, who is set to face off against former state representative Daniela Garcia in the general election.
Claim: Vote Common Good and Ottawa Integrity have “apparent ties to George Soros.”
Fact: False. Neither organization is affiliated with the liberal billionaire philanthropist.
Although Ottawa Integrity is a political action committee, it calls itself a nonpartisan organization dedicated to providing voters with information. Vote Common Good: West Michigan is attached to its national counterpart, Vote Common Good, a nonpartisan 501c4 nonprofit, the same classification as Ottawa Impact.
Ottawa Integrity PAC is supporting most of the embattled incumbent county commissioners with the exception of District 1 commissioner Frank Garcia, District 2 commissioner Joe Baumann and District 6 commissioner Kyle Terpstra. The group has endorsed Democrat Danielle Smith in District 1 and has made no endorsements in the other two races.
“I can categorically say we are not funded by George Soros,” said Angela Maxwell, Ottawa Integrity’s executive director. “As far as being extremist and progressive, we are very transparent on what our goals are. We are nonpartisan. I generally hope we can appeal to people of all parties.”
The claims are not new to Vote Common Good and its local affiliates.
“That is something that has been linked to Vote Common Good in the past. It’s been denied again and again and again,” said Nick Brock, executive director of Vote Common Good: West Michigan. “There are no ties to George Soros. In my opinion, they’re trying to attach something that makes us look more partisan than we aim to be.”
The goal, Maxwell said, is simple: Give voters as much information as possible to have an educated electorate.
“We endorsed people who are interested in dignified political participation. We’re not interested in swaying people’s votes, just providing information,” she said.
Soros, a Jew, is often invoked in antisemitic tropes as a symbol of Jewish wealth and power, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee and Jewish Community Relations Council.
“This antisemitic language has no place in our political discourse,” Lopatin wrote in an email to The Sentinel. “It should never be normalized. When Soros is used as a symbol for Jewish control, wealth and power, the criticism loses value and manifests into traditional antisemitic tropes. We call upon the Michigan Republican Party and Ottawa County Republican Party to immediately refute these statements.”
Meppelink didn’t even know who Goerge Soros was when den Hollander explained the Ottawa GOP’s censure decision.
I am a member of one of the mentioned groups. George Soros never makes the meetings.
More seriously, connecting a local group to an ignorant, racist trope reflects the quality of the thinking of the Ottawa Impact candidates.
Not one deserves your vote.
— David Barnosky (@BarnoskyDavid) July 20, 2022
“He said, ‘I did research on that group and it’s funded by George Soros. He’s a guy who is funding these groups.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who cares? I’m there to talk about the issues of Ottawa County.’”
“He’s used as a dog whistle,” Reichardt explained of the Soros claim. “It’s an appeal to people’s baser instincts. That was a very antisemitic statement. As if George Soros even has heard of Ottawa County.”
What’s at stake
If Ottawa Impact is successful in attaining a majority of the county board, the county DEI office, county clerk’s office and health department could face scrutiny and markable change.
“They want to cut the health department’s budget in half,” DeJong said. “They’re mad about mask mandates, but the department does so much more.”
In fact, the department has many services it provides, including dental programs for low-income families, nutrition programs for infants and children as well as oversight over restaurant inspections and monitoring communicable diseases.
Stefanovsky declined to comment on this story. “As a nonpartisan, appointed official, I cannot respond to political issues relating to an election,” she wrote in an email to The Sentinel.
“The health department has taken an extreme amount of criticism,” Fenske said. “Folks don’t realize we haven’t had a pandemic in a hundred years and we just wanted to make sure everyone felt safe — believers and non-believers. You can’t say, ‘Good luck, you’re on your own.’”
He worries what will happen if the far-right faction of his party wins a majority of the board.
“They will strip funding for the health department, which is doggone scary to me,” he said. “It always hurts the little guy. This will hurt some of the folks who need those services. The sign of a good community is taking care of its most vulnerable citizens.”
As for local elections, several officials said Ottawa County Clerk Justin Roebuck has their full confidence.
“He’s trying to make it secure and fair and folks still think the election was rigged,” Fenske said about Roebuck. “And folks are still stuck there.”
Roebuck said his office is open to anyone.
“Our office serves every resident of Ottawa County. We’re trying to be open and honest with everyone to ensure all parties, political or otherwise — we’re not afraid to talk to folks.”
The DEI office is also a target. Ottawa Impact opposes diversity training programs that have become common in the public and private sectors.
“Today people are often expected to share a single viewpoint on hotly debated matters like the meaning and significance of diversity, the definition of social justice, and the impermissibility of ‘hate speech,’” the group says on its website.
“Mandatory diversity training, in which students or employees are instructed in an officially approved ideology, is common. Some institutions have enacted policies that require students or employees to speak approved attitudes on these matters or face consequences.”
Robyn Afrik, the county’s DEI director, said the goal of the office is to further the county’s own goals.
“The reality is, I was hired to continue the vision of Ottawa County: ‘A place where you belong.’ To continue thriving.”
Afrik said her office works with all groups to help promote inclusion — which could affect ages, economic backgrounds, gender — far beyond just the issue of race.
She also said DEI is critical to the business community's ability to attract a diverse talent pool.
“We know if those people don’t feel or access things in such a way, they aren’t going to want to stay or be a part of the community, which translates into economic consequences,” Afrik said. “It’s really hard to attract and retain talent to continue being a leader in these spaces.”
It’s important to embrace diversity, DeJong said.
“How does Ottawa County look … if minorities aren’t welcome?” he said. “Our farm community is really nervous. If these people aren’t welcome, it will be an embarrassment and an economic disaster for the county.”
“Democracy means giving all residents social equality,” Fenske said. “I hear others say (DEI is) a waste of money. ‘What is it doing for us?’ Then why are the CEOs coming in talking about diversity? They all have DEI departments. They deal with people all over the world. Those folks want to know you have a DEI office and adhere to principles.”
Meppelink said the goal should be to bring people together.
“A true leader is someone who can make a decision, who can work with all races and creeds,” he said. “I get beat up over this DEI stuff all the time. Why would anyone be against an office that works for diversity and inclusion for all? All of those people exist in the world and in Ottawa County. We want an environment where women can feel comfortable in the workplace, or wages can be equal.”
Afrik said, if the makeup of the board changes, she would hope conversations could continue.
“The fact that all of that might be taken away, what does this mean to the community at large?” she said. “We need to have more conversations with both parties. And much more conversations with the stakeholders and who is affected.”
Meppelink said Ottawa Impact attaining a board majority would mean a step backward for the county.
“I believe the Impact group is very structured in some of their religious zealotry. I don’t want to go back to a time where businesses can’t be open on Sunday or alcohol can’t be sold. We don’t want to go back to the dark ages.”
Are county political groups still relevant?
When a county political party publicly withdraws support of its own members, does it mean a fracturing of the party?
The moderates say yes.
“I believe Ottawa County’s GOP is searching for an identity. They just don’t know if they should be far-right or moving that needle more towards the middle,” Meppelink said.
Reichardt said the new wave of far-right ideology has taken over the Ottawa GOP, forcing moderates out.
“I think the county party spends most of its time debating how many AK-47s can dance on the head of a pin,” he said. “… I speak of this group as extreme Christians.”
That’s indicative, Reichardt said, by the homogenous messaging all the Ottawa Impact-candidates promote.
“Their primary issues are all national issues,” he said. “None of their candidates comment on county issues.”
Fenske said it can be challenging to talk with residents when they have been exposed to the glossy branding of Ottawa Impact’s marketing.
“When I go door to door, it takes me quite some time to explain the situation,” he said. “This is happening so fast. … If you’re only hearing from one side, sometimes the first person that gets to you, it sticks. Their campaigns all say the same thing. Our messages are different and unique.”
Meppelink said Ottawa Impact’s tactics are the very reason he’s still fighting to remain on the board.
“This is the kind of politics that turns me inside out," he said. "This kind of smoke-filled-room, back-door politics — that shouldn't happen. This is exactly why I was running. I’m ashamed of my party.
“We don’t need nationalism. We are a country where we should have freedom from religion. We don’t want to be told what we have to believe. I have to believe my God would want that. He wants you to choose by your own free will to follow him.”
Zylstra — the lone Democrat on the board — said, in some ways, this was bound to happen, given the board’s all-Republican history prior to his own election in 2018.
“When you look at 11 commissioners representing 300,000 people, that structure can’t hold,” he said. “Nationwide, cities are becoming bluer. There’s going to be fragmentation and there’s good and bad things about it.”
One of the positive outcomes of the controversy, Zylstra said, is residents paying closer attention.
“Before, people didn’t pay attention to local politics. People are slowly starting to see they can have more influence locally,” he said. “You spend your dollars at home; it’s where you pay your taxes. It’s important to see what city and county bodies do.”
Zylstra said, despite their differences of opinion, he still supports the incumbents.
“I’m supportive of my colleagues and even though we’ve disagreed at times, they are working to represent all the people in the county. I was definitely saddened to see the censure because reaching out to as many people as possible is what we all should be doing.”
Meppelink worries this will have a chilling effect on future local elections.
“Where have we gone where it’s gotten this bad? You’re not going to ever get good people to run, because who would want to put themselves through this?”
It’s not over
Even when the dust settles and the board is decided, the battle for what conservatism means in Ottawa County is far from over, as the next rumored battleground will be local school board races.
“They’re targeting school boards in the fall. This is a fight that’s going to continue,” Reichardt said.
But is Ottawa Impact winning over voters?
Reichardt believes most residents aren’t buying what the group is selling.
Ottawa county resident there. It is a great place to live, thanks in part to the leadership we have had. I hope reasonable citizens will see through the fear-mongering of the Ottawa Impact cult and vote accordingly.
— Deb B (@DebBeamish) July 19, 2022
“I think most of the people in this county are true in their Christian beliefs and this group isn’t resonating,” he said. “The Ottawa Impact people have been so arrogant in their approach. They’re saying there’s fake news, but they’re the ones putting it out there.”
He thinks the complacency of being the dominant party of the county for generations has inspired moderate Republicans to be more engaged.
“Most of the incumbents have never really had to campaign hard before. They have been highly motivated,” Reichardt said. “The candidates will still run … and I think the moderate candidates will prevail and county parties will become less relevant. If we can basically hold it off, the electorate becomes more educated and aware.”
Reichardt said he hopes this is a wakeup call for moderates.
“If they’re smart, they will realize it’s a different game now.”
— Sarah Leach is editor of The Holland Sentinel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sentinel reporters Carolyn Muyskens and Mitchell Boatman contributed to this article.
This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Ottawa County GOP's future uncertain amid censures, in-fighting