The Politics of the Polka Fest Parade

I live in a wonderful small town in the ‘Little Finger’ of the Michigan mitten. Cedar sits squarely in the center of the Leelanau peninsula, settled a century and a half ago by Polish farmers, whose names are sprinkled across the landscape on businesses, farms and roads. Holy Rosary Catholic Church, established in 1883, is the conservative spiritual home to many of the residents.

In many ways, Leelanau County—a spectacularly beautiful place, surrounded by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, and marked by blooming orchards, massive sand dunes and rolling, wooded terrain—is a microcosm of American politics. A half-dozen charming resort towns, multi-million dollar lakeside homes, and more modest interior villages where family roots go deep. All of it built on land that was mostly ceded to the Tribes, in 1855, then promptly platted up and sold to white immigrants anyway.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians are still based here, and we’re home to a National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes, dubbed The Most Beautiful Place in America.It’s a fantastic place to live—good schools, clean air and water, friendly people. Lots of snow.

But things are changing.

The population is growing older and richer and whiter, around the edges of the county, as wealthy folks from around the globe, looking to escape the ravages of climate change, snap up properties. We need another 600 affordable homes, both rented and owned, to support a plethora of service workers and young families who would like to share the beauty and opportunity. Internet services have been decades behind the rest of the world (although the current County Commission has recently made great strides). And keeping our lakes and shorelines clean should be Job #1—they are the lifeblood of the local economy.

If this is starting to sound like a political ad, that may be because I just got through a primary election, running for County Commissioner in my (mostly rural, heart-of-the-peninsula) district. I love it here, and think we could do a much better job of protecting our assets, bringing in young families, and building community.

I have loved living in Cedar since the first summer we moved here, and learned that the Big Deal Event in Cedar was the annual Polka Festival. We went our first Polkafest parade in 2011—and found it heartwarming. Vintage farm trucks, a dancing pierogi, accordion players on flatbeds and a group of friendly folks in the 60-ish demographic, carrying Vote Blue! signs.

Aha, I thought. Those are my people.

And it turned out that they were. I have been in the parade multiple times since, in election years, marching with Democratic candidates and stalwarts. Singin’ songs and carryin’ signs. The other side was there, too—we’d wave, and they’d wave back. It’s a friendly local parade, and we’re all neighbors.

There was no Polka Festival in 2020—postponed into oblivion, like so many things– and we missed it. There’s round-the-clock dancing in a big white tent, authentic Polish food in Styrofoam containers and a mass in Polish, at Holy Rosary. Not so much fun with a dangerous virus circulating.

Last year, with the Polkafest on again, the local Dems applied to send a marching unit, and were told that the Polkafest Parade was now apolitical—no campaigning, no partisanship. Just a community event.

The previous presidential election and the Big Lie made it a year like no other, of course, and the new rules made sense to me. With so many community traditions, 2021 was supposed to be a return to normal. A chance to have fun together. Let’s leave politics out of it. I was OK with that.

Except that the current County Commissioner (who’s held the seat almost 26 years, and will be my opponent, come November 8) was in the 2021 parade, riding an old red farm tractor with signs wired to its sides, suggesting we re-elect her. She was throwing out candy, too.

The Dems called the parade organizers, afterward, and asked what happened to the apolitical parade. We were told that the rules now stated that elected politicians were allowed, but by invitation only.

The day after last week’s Primary, I applied to field a polka band for the 2022 parade. I play in a number of local musical groups, including a community band, and knew I could assemble a handful of good musicians and Roll Out the Barrel.

I’d put an “Elect Nancy Flanagan” sign on the side of the truck. It wasn’t an original idea—I was in a small, truck-bed band in the nearby Leland Fourth of July parade, with political signs for a different candidate, and it was really fun.

The rejection came back immediately. No political units, except for (and the organizer made this sentence outsized and bold) “seated official representatives elected by the people, by invitation only”.

There was some back and forth—Did she want a list of seated, duly elected Democrats to invite? No—but in the end the polka band folks I’d recruited, after tossing around the idea of calling ourselves the ‘Step to the Left Polka Band,’ decided to opt out rather than go incognito or risk a public kerfuffle.

Yup. I realize it’s a pretty small slight, an early lesson in politics. Organizers can invite the side they want to be at their event, and turn the other folks away. Those with power win, those without lose. It’s how the game is played. Especially in 2022.

Yet I imagine newcomers to Leelanau County watching the parade, seeing 26-year County Commissioner riding on her tractor, thinking: Why didn’t the Democrats choose to be in this parade? Where is that woman who’s running against her?  

Or maybe they’ll be too busy looking for the dancing pierogi.

2 Comments

  1. 50 year retired teacher here… mostly Title 1 schools and then university after getting Ed.D. I am shocked at the parade story.. so beautifully written… but a horror story! What could be worse than your experience… De Santis, bully, maybe? Take care. Know that so many of us are with you and your terrific blogs.

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    1. Thanks, Catherine. Again–I know this is small potatoes, but it IS possible to let everyone speak, work through policy snarls, represent one’s contituents. Just being shut out of a decidedly non-partisan community event did not feel good.

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