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Published: Friday, 5/11/2012

Election process bodes ill for Michigan physician

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

ANN ARBOR -- You might say that Dr. Joe Schwarz's decision not to run for the U.S. House seat in southeast Michigan's 7th District provides a perfect example of what's wrong with the way we elect members of Congress today.

It would be hard to imagine someone better qualified than Dr. Schwarz. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam conflict. He returned to Vietnam as a member of the CIA, where he treated villagers and delivered babies in a remote region of Laos.

He is a physician who, throughout his long political career, has maintained a practice as an ear, nose, and throat specialist in his hometown of Battle Creek, Mich.

Over the years, he served on Battle Creek's city council, then as the city's mayor. He served four terms in the Michigan Senate, where he became the Legislature's top expert on higher-education funding.

In 2004, he was elected to Congress as the Republican representative from the 7th District, which stretches along much of Michigan's southeastern border, from Jackson to Monroe. Within two years, he was rated one of the outstanding congressional freshmen.

When he got a GOP primary challenge in 2006, he was endorsed for re-election by both then-President George W. Bush and his onetime rival, Sen. John McCain.

But in a shocker, Dr. Schwarz lost the primary to a fundamentalist conservative, Tim Walberg, after the New York-based Club for Growth poured money into the district to defeat him. Why? Though a fiscal conservative and a military hawk, Dr. Schwarz refused to rule out all tax increases.

Worst of all, the Roman Catholic widower believed that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." So he was tossed out in a low-turnout primary. Mr. Walberg went on to win narrowly that fall.

Two years later, Mr. Walberg was tossed out himself during the Obama wave. But he got back to Congress in the GOP landslide of 2010.

Dr. Schwarz never made any secret of his disdain for the man who defeated him. This year, Democrats came to him with a stunning suggestion: Switch parties and run for his old seat as a Democrat.

Dr. Schwarz was intrigued. He was, he confided, "itching to get back in the game."

For some time, he had felt that he had not left the Republican Party, but that it had left him. He was close to announcing. He wanted to take on Mr. Walberg again. Local Democrats were excited.

But at the last moment, Dr. Schwarz said no. He told me it was a case of forcing common sense to stifle his ego.

For one thing, he no longer lives in the 7th District. The Legislature removed Calhoun County, where Dr. Schwarz lives, and added Monroe County.

That's not a legal barrier. This year, three incumbent Michigan congressmen -- Democrats Hansen Clarke, John Conyers, and Gary Peters -- are running in districts in which they don't live, thanks to redistricting.

Dr. Schwarz spends considerable time in the 7th District. He toyed with the idea of establishing a legal residence there. But he concluded: "My primary job [practicing medicine] is not in the district. I'd be fooling no one by renting something … and using that as an address. Virtually everyone knows I live in Battle Creek."

But that wasn't the main reason he decided against running. Dr. Schwarz thinks he could have won this year, though it would have been a close, tough, and expensive battle.

Still, he notes candidly: "In 2014, a nonpresidential year, it will be a dogfight." That means a lower turnout of voters, and, as he says: "Republicans historically win those races."

Additionally, he admits: "I am not a good fund-raiser. Right or wrong, I find it demeaning to cold-call someone and ask for a campaign contribution." If he wants to be in Congress, he knows that means raising millions of dollars every two years.

There were other factors. The physician-politician will turn 75 this fall. That's not too old to serve effectively; many congressmen who chair key committees are older. But it is too old to acquire effective seniority.

"A second-term member of Congress has approximately zero public-policy impact," he wrote to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when he decided not to run.

"It's great fun, but other than constituent service, a second-termer is pretty much along for the ride," he added.

Perhaps saddest of all, he said: "I don't candidly know if there is a place for someone like myself in today's congressional milieu. I'm a pragmatist, not an ideologue. Party means far less to me than achieving satisfactory results."

Contrast that with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who continued his GOP presidential campaign -- at a cost of $40,000 a day to taxpayers for Secret Service protection -- long after he clearly had no chance.

It may be legitimate to ask what sort of person the Founding Fathers had in mind when they invented Congress. Would they have preferred an accomplished man, successful in multiple areas, who wanted to represent his neighbors for a few terms?

Or would they want a political apparatchik who sees the House as a next logical career move?

It isn't hard to imagine that they might have thought Dr. Schwarz's decision not to run showed that he is exactly the sort of man who should be in Congress. Or that they would fear that the twin effects of ideology and money are threatening democracy for us all.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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