President Ford’s hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich. has one newspaper and two TV stations, all of which editorially disagree with his refusal to help New York City. And now Grand Rapids has a new mayor-elect, 66-year-old Abe (as in Beame) Drasin, who says, “Default by New York City would have a catastrophic psychological impact on the whole country, including Grand Rapids. People say if you bail New York out, you’ll have to bail out other cities. Maybe so. But we’re already sending millions all over the world. Aren’t New Yorkers people, too?”
Abe Drasin isn’t just being sentimental about New York. “The ripple effect of a default has to reach Grand Rapids,” he worries. “We can only assume the interest rate on our bonds is going to be higher. It could mean many hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Those are strong words, but Drasin still regards the President as an old friend. Like Ford, Drasin went to the University of Michigan, and Drasin’s wife, Rose, attended South High with young Jerry. As Abe puts it, “If he came here today, I’d say ‘Hi, Jerry’ even though it’s improper. I’d feel odd calling him Mr. President.”
Drasin, who is a lifelong Democrat but ran as a nonpartisan, won his four-year term (salary: $18,000 a year) with a landslide 60 percent of the vote. He has yet to receive congratulations from the White House, whose occupant he best remembers as a superbly efficient congressman. “I can’t believe anyone served his constituents more faithfully,” Drasin observes. “Ask him to get something done for you and, bang, it was done. He is a very honest guy with good instincts.” Yet, says Drasin, “Many of the economies the President is now proposing are at the expense of valuable social programs.”
Drasin has roots in Grand Rapids that go even deeper than Ford’s (the President was born in Omaha). Drasin’s father, a Russian immigrant, was a cabinetmaker, then a grocer. After local schools, Drasin went on to Ann Arbor, where he played freshman tennis. A broken racket and lack of money for a new one ended his college athletic career. He subsequently took a teaching certificate at Western Michigan, spent a year as a social worker and then went to work for his uncle’s leather processing company. After two decades, Drasin was running the firm, its annual sales topped $20 million, and he was rich. At the age of 59, he chucked it all and went into high school teaching. “Rose thought I was crazy,” he recalls. “I took a pay cut of 94 percent.”
Three years later Drasin ran for the city commission, won and became an outstanding member. On Jan. 1 Drasin will be sworn in as the second Jewish mayor in the history of Grand Rapids, a city of almost 200,000 which is heavily Dutch and overwhelmingly Protestant. His own estimate of politicians is surprisingly jaded. “There is much more integrity,” he says, “in industry and education than there is in politics.”
Drasin’s major preoccupation these days is a possible $2 million deficit in fiscal 1977, leaving him little time for golf, tennis or bridge, about which he is uncharacteristically immodest. “I consider myself one of the world’s experts on duplicate bridge,” he says.
In Grand Rapids, Abe Drasin is known as a politician with a fetish about honesty. Since his election as mayor, he has received two parking tickets and insisted on paying them both. When the owner of a Chinese restaurant refused to let Drasin pay for a meal with two reporters, the mayor-elect said, “I’ll let you take care of it this time, so I don’t insult you. But never again.”