He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but losing his bid for a seat on the Grand Rapids City Commission in the 2006 election may turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him.
Other than having to get up early three days a week to drive to Lansing, Ed Kettle said he enjoys his new post as chief of staff for state Rep. Roy Schmidt, a Grand Rapids Democrat who replaced a term-limited Michael Sak in the 77th District in the last election.
Now, instead of having to take irate calls from constituents who want their alley plowed, garbage picked up or neighbor’s dog muzzled, like Schmidt did during his 16 years as a city commissioner, Kettle has bigger problems to take on.
“Roy didn’t give me much choice,” he said with a big laugh when asked why he took the position.
“Generally speaking, the entire time he was a commissioner I was helping him in some way. I guess I’m a key adviser to him. He said, ‘When I go, you have to go with me, because we’re walking into a whole new deal and neither one of us knows what we’re doing.’”
After working in the state capital since January, Kettle said the first lesson he has picked up is to keep his mouth shut and his head low. Right now, he said, everything is fine because the state House is packed with freshmen and everyone is kind of feeling their way around.
“But I’ve been around long enough to know that when something of substance comes along, the lines are going to get drawn and are going to get drawn pretty deep. Roy has never been in partisan politics before — I’m the partisan one. He doesn’t have a real taste for it; he doesn’t like it, but that’s where he’s at. We haven’t run into anything too weird yet, but we’re ready for when it gets salty,” he said.
Kettle said Schmidt has two outstanding qualities that will help him become a good state representative. He makes friends quickly and is adept at forging compromises to get something done, and he does both quietly.
“He’s not a guy that grandstands. He’s not the kind of guy that purposely puts himself into a mix-up just for the sake of getting on TV. He’s a backroom type of guy who loves to use those relationships in a most positive way. He’s so good at it. It’s fun to watch.”
Before going to Lansing, Kettle said his biggest break came in 1982 when Steelcase Inc. hired him to help coordinate the grand opening of the company’s new headquarters. Back then, he was putting together a lot of big events, including the first few Celebrations on the Grand. He spent four more years working with Steelcase after the building opened.
“I managed all the Frank Lloyd Wright products that went out to all the dealerships, showrooms and colleges. I’d take reporters around. The public relations portion of my job was to hold the hands of a lot of reporters that would come in to do stories about Steelcase. That was fun, and I got to meet a lot of interesting people,” he said.
Before the Steelcase work, Kettle played guitar in a rock band and then managed a few touring groups, most notably Natchez Trace, which took him across the country where he rubbed elbows with stars such as Willie Nelson.
He also started an ad agency with his high-school buddy and fellow artist Greg Kupris. They had lost touch after school but were reunited when they discovered they were working in different departments at the same factory. They both decided it was time for a career change, and Ultra Promo was born.
“Like every young agency, the first work you get is bars and restaurants. We did a bunch of those,” said Kettle. He added that Putt Putt and Thunder Chicken were their biggest early clients; both were owned by Dick Bichler.
“He gave us office space and really got us set up in business. We grew the business from there. We ended up with some pretty good accounts, like the Onion Crock restaurants. We had that one for a pretty long time and several other smaller accounts that kept us busy.”
Kettle has been in the public affairs and relations field since 1973 and has been active in the city for almost as long. The list of associations and boards he has organized and served on number in the dozens and cover every imaginable service area. Schools, neighborhoods, business, city and community are all on his resume, which makes him an involved community citizen of the first caliber. So where did that desire come from?
“Probably my dad, Rupert. My father was the director of social services in Kent County for a long time. He got involved in the welfare business, which is what I think they called it then, right after the (1929 stock market) crash and stayed with it,” he said.
Kettle’s grandfather owned a furniture manufacturing business that didn’t survive the Great Depression. So his father knew that he had to find a new line of work.
“My dad was at Western Michigan Teachers College is what they called it at the time. He said then he guessed he wasn’t going to be in the furniture business and that was the next best thing at the time. He jumped in it and became very successful. He was a very well-regarded standout innovator of ways to help people,” said Kettle.
“He was the director for 25 years, right up to his death. He died at his desk at the welfare department in August of 1970.”
What does Kettle think has been his most satisfying community accomplishment? He couldn’t come up with one immediately because there are many he feels good about. He downplayed his role in saving the annual 4th of July celebration a few years ago. He said he received too much credit, because all he did was package the event correctly.
“At the same token, that event is in peril now because of a lack of sponsorship and also a lack of market. It’s going to be real hard to get a key sponsor because our previous key sponsor, Centennial Wireless, has gone away. Centennial Wireless is being sold to AT&T and they’ve had to cease all other involvement until that sale is final,” he said.
Kettle said chairing the John Ball Park Community Association was very gratifying for him. Homes in the west side neighborhood were turning into blighted rental properties in the mid-1980s, and the blight was spreading. Instead of attacking the trouble spots, Kettle had the association draw a line in the neighborhood to stop the damage from moving further.
“We determined that Marion Street at that time was probably the frontline. We were getting inundated up till then with slumlords, all the way up to about Marion Street from Lexington Avenue on to the west, an area south of Fulton Street. We decided to find incentives for people to fix their homes up, and it worked,” he said.
“We started to move that line back and by the time I was done, we moved that line all the way back to Gold Street.”
Ed and his wife, Betsy, will celebrate their 26th wedding anniversary in June. The Kettles have three sons, Ian, Nathan and Malachi, and a daughter, Audrey. Ed met Betsy, an elementary school teacher, through her roommate at a concert. Four years later they were married, and nearly 26 years after their wedding day, Betsy reminds him that he still doesn’t have a hobby.
“My wife is always kidding me to get a hobby. Jeez, I don’t have time for a hobby. But I love watching movies. I like to just watch a movie and relax a little bit. I like action/spy things, things that are thought provoking. I love the Bourne movies. I just watched ‘Bobby’ again last night, an incredible movie,” he said of the film that chronicled the life of Robert Kennedy.
Kettle sees more of his recent past taking place in his immediate future. He will still get up “way too early” to drive to Lansing. He will still attend meetings of what he called the “kindergarten group,” a gathering for incoming House members and their chiefs-of-staff, where he was told not to trust anyone, including the guy who told him that.
But at the same time, he is toying with the idea of taking on a new task.
“I might lead the fight to get rid of term limits. I didn’t support that when it came up. That is the largest political blunder in our state — just a horrible mistake,” he said.
“People are there for such a short time that they’re either driven by their own sense of duty to leave something behind, so they power things through one way or another. Or they’re just there riding it out and don’t know what they’re doing. It’s just very confusing, and it’s not good government, because by the time you figure the job out, you’re gone.
“It’s real discouraging to me, the transient level of governing that is going on. Everybody has got different agendas other than creating good policy and good government.”