East Lansing’s New Mayor Sets Goals for City, and for Future Life in Classroom

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Saturday, December 21, 2019, 8:17 am
Ann Kammerer

East Lansing Mayor Ruth Beier outside the chambers of the East Lansing City Council. (Photo by Raymond Holt)

Her dad was an economist. Her mother was a politician. While her career blends her parents’ professions, Ruth Beier is charting a course toward her childhood dream.

As East Lansing’s recently elected mayor, Beier is devoted to solving problems and taking actions to build on the strengths of her adopted hometown. The call to lead reflects her experience as two-term Council member, as well as her service as Mayor Pro Tem. She also brings acumen for public policy and finance to the post as a long-time economist for the Michigan Education Association.

“My mother died before I ran for office,” said Beier. “But she would have been proud. My dad and I are a lot alike and see things from an economic viewpoint. When I decided to do the career I’m doing, we talked about opportunity cost. When I talked about running for office, we talked economics again.”

Beier admits that most people don’t talk economic theory when they visit their parents. But she and her dad usually did — particularly when she was deciding on college and career. And although Beier was drawn to major in education, her dad said she wouldn’t regret majoring in economics at Michigan State, and later, Duke University.

“When I got to college, I started taking economics and really liked it. But I still wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I won’t say that I haven’t enjoyed my career. I‘ve loved it. But I will say that eventually I will get back to where I wanted to be: in the classroom.”

To Beier with Love

Raised in Laurel, Maryland, Beier describes her upbringing in the Washington, D.C., suburb as unusual for its era. Her parents both worked, and her dad’s job with the World Bank often called for overseas travel. That made Beier and her four siblings independent on many occasions.

“We were a pack of kids running around,” she smiled. “It was really fun, but not the best thing sometimes. I like to describe it as ‘Lord of the Flies’ in the suburbs.”

Schools became Beier’s comfort zone. They also became the place that encouraged curiosity and fostered her life-long love of learning. She remembers how that tone was set early by a first-grade teacher who believed in her potential and told her so every day.

“I learned that if you set high expectations for children and if you love them, that children actually change,” she said. “That’s the power of being an elementary school teacher.”

Beier excelled academically and played multiple sports, including swimming, basketball and tennis. Her athletic prowess earned her a spot on the MSU women’s basketball team in the early 1980s. Her love of tennis is evident to this day as she regularly competes on the city’s indoor and outdoor pickleball courts.

“Early on, I wanted to be two things,” Beier said. “I wanted to be a teacher. I also wanted to be an Olympic athlete. Those were my two goals. I’ll eventually make one of those.”

Finding a platform

Although she has spent her career in economics and public finance, Beier has rarely strayed far from the influence of teachers. Her job at the MEA keeps her close to the issues affecting schools, and allows her to play a part in helping educational employees be the best they can be. Recently, her career has run alongside service as an elected public official.

Beier originally decided to run for City Council on the prompting of a friend. The two had been sitting on the back porch, talking about local issues. True to her nature, Beier evaluated what it would take, outlined her platform, and laid out a plan. Soon afterward, her decision was validated.

“A few months after I decided to run, I read an article that said the single thing that convinces women to run for office is someone saying ‘why don’t you run’?” she laughed. “To be frank, that was me.” (Disclosure: The person who suggested she run was ELi's Publisher Alice Dreger, who founded ELi a year later.)

Beier presented a simple platform that consisted of knocking down the blight on a prominent corner, and finding a solution to the City’s financial woes. She also ran on the premise that East Lansing was her home and she wanted to stay and make a difference.

When she was elected for her first term in 2013, Beier set out to solve big picture issues. Before long, she realized she also had a responsibility to address the day-to-day things that affect people’s lives.

Beier admits she didn’t relish the dissonance she often felt in knowing that she couldn’t make everyone happy. An action or solution that satisfied one person or group, she said, would not be equally satisfactory to another.

“You can only chose what you think is the best way,” she said. “I’m willing to do that and I’ve done that all the time. But I can’t say I like it because it’s not pleasant.”

For now, Beier feels good she helped resolve two big issues during her 2013 and 2017 terms to date — that of removing long-standing blight and passing a city income tax. Her next big agenda items, she said, are pushing development that brings businesses and jobs to East Lansing, as well as building a two-way relationship with the university.

“My main goal is to build a powerful relationship with MSU in which we have a partnership that endures past me or any one person on the council,” she said. “I also want to bring more jobs to downtown, and to make it more attractive for people to work and live here.”

Back to school

But Beier still has one more goal to achieve, this one more personal: To teach.

For seven years, Beier has attended classes on nights and weekends at Ferris State University’s satellite campus in downtown Lansing. She’s on course to finish in May 2020, and will be certified to teach K-8, and to teach math and English Language Arts for grades 6, 7 and 8.

Beier is completing a 90-hour internship in Haslett. She goes most mornings for an hour to teach six kids how to read, as well as all day Friday. In January, she will be assuming a larger role in the classroom. In February and March, she will do her student teaching. If all goes as planned, she hopes to retire from the MEA in June 2020, and move into her long-anticipated teaching career.

“I’ve spent my entire life working with adults,” said Beier. “I like working with kids. There is no pretense. You look at their faces and you know what they feel. I can listen to a child talk about the difference between Fortnite and Minecraft and my attention doesn’t waver. I wouldn’t have the same patience with an adult.”

Beier will serve the next two years as mayor and then retire from her work with the city. She won’t run a third time when her term expires in 2021. Her immediate plans are to pursue her dream of teaching, and to enjoy the City she calls home.

“I have a motto,” she said. “No matter how old you are, you should never regret anything you can change. I started to regret not being a teacher about 10 years ago. And I said, ‘Well, I can change that.’ Really, the older you get, the easier it gets to do that. That’s because you made a lot of mistakes, and you don’t have to make them again.”

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