Wednesday, Oct 17, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

The hereditary politics of Michigan


SOUTHFIELD, MI — It’s hard to know what the legendary Founding Fathers might have made of our politics today, though it is likely that the notion of either a President Barack Obama or Donald Trump would have given some of them palpitations of the heart.

But this much is clear: They didn’t make a revolution in order to install a new set of hereditary dynasties in place of the old.

Read last week’s column by Jack Lessenberry

True, John Quincy Adams did win a single unhappy term as president a quarter-century after his father’s single unhappy term. But that was frowned on, and it would be nearly two centuries before another son followed father into the White House.

But in Michigan today, congressional seats increasingly seem to be becoming a series of hereditary fiefdoms.

Four years ago, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D., Dearborn) succeeded her husband John Dingell, winning election to a seat he had held since 1955, when she was barely two years old.

John Dingell, in turn, got the job when his father, also a congressman named John Dingell, died in office. That seat now has been held by the same family since 1933 — and the 64-year-old Debbie Dingell could easily stretch that into a century.

Flint voters also opted to stay with a familiar name six years ago when they elected the now 59-year-old Dan Kildee to Congress, succeeding his uncle, Dale Kildee, who had been there since 1976.

The younger Kildee flirted with a race for governor this year before deciding to stay in Congress; barring, say, a Cabinet appointment in a future presidential administration, this seat should remain a Kildee fiefdom for years to come.

For nearly half a century, the Levin brothers, Sen. Carl and U.S. Rep. Sandy, were the Castor and Pollux of the Michigan political scene (kids, look that up.) Both served 36 years in Congress, and both could have gone on getting reelected so long as they had a pulse. But Carl retired in 2014, and Sandy is leaving after this year.

Sander Levin’s congressional district consists of a strip of suburban communities not far north of Detroit; two-thirds in Macomb County, one-third in Oakland. Whoever takes the Democratic primary here is certain to win in November.

You might expect this to be a spirited contest between two legislators. State Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren has served in both houses and has shown a knack for winning bipartisan support for his bills. Former State Rep. Ellen Cogen Lipton of Huntington Woods is a scientist and patent attorney who exposed fraud and failure in the EAA, the now-defunct special education district Gov. Rick Snyder created to reform the worst-performing Detroit schools.

But also running is one Andy Levin, a green energy consultant whose only direct experience in elected politics was a losing run for a state senate seat in 2006. Mr. Levin, however, is the congressman’s son and the senator’s nephew — and the odds-on favorite to win.

Why has all this dynasty-building been happening?

Matt Grossman, a political science professor and the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, noted that “in some ways, this is a sign of the decay of democracy.” However, he noted that “historically, this was the only way most women got to Congress,” succeeding husbands who had died.

He added that in some cases, family members; especially spouses, come to office exceptionally well versed in the mechanics of the job. Debbie Dingell, for example, was a close partner with John Dingell in his work for many years, though on a few issues, most notably gun control, they sometimes disagreed.

In other cases, however, those who have used a famous last name to try get elected have turned politics into a squalid farce. Monica Conyers, for example, the wife of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, used his name to win a Detroit City Council seat in 2005.

During her term in office, she was often disruptive, inappropriate, volatile, misused money, and eventually went to prison for accepting a bribe. Her husband resigned from Congress last December after a sexual harassment scandal.

You might think the Conyers name would be tarnished. But among those trying to win the Democratic primary to succeed him are State Sen. Ian Conyers, 29, the youngest state senator in Michigan history, and the disgraced congressman’s son John, 27, who appears to have no qualifications whatsoever for the job.

Voters, however, do have limits to how much they are willing to perpetuate dynasties. Two years ago, the experts expected a national election that would pit the son of a Republican president against the wife of a Democratic one. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton found out Americans had other ideas.

In a recent major academic study on American political dynasties, Stanford University’s Ernesto Dal Bo found that the longer legislators hold power, the more likely their relatives get to Congress.

Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee could have told them that.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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