Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

May 13, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Joe Schwarz and Congress

You might say Joe Schwarz's decision not to run provides a perfect example of what's wrong with the way we elect congressmen today. It would be hard to imagine someone better qualified. He served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam conflict — and then went back as a member of the CIA, where he treated villagers and delivered babies in Laos.

That's because he is also 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.

Over the years, he served on the city council, then as Battle Creek's mayor. He served four terms in the Michigan state Senate, where he became known as the Legislature's top expert on higher education funding. Then, in 2004, he was finally elected to Congress from Michigan's Seventh District, which stretches along much of the state's southeastern border, from Jackson to Monroe.

Within two years, he had been rated one of that year's outstanding freshman congressmen. When he got a primary challenge, he was endorsed for re-election by then-President George W. Bush and onetime rival, John McCain.

But in a shocker, Dr. Schwarz lost the GOP primary to a fundamentalist conservative, Tim Walberg, after the Manhattan-based Club for Growth poured money into the district to defeat him. Why? Though a fiscal conservative and a military hawk, Schwarz refused to categorically 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. Walberg went on to narrowly win.

Two years later, Walberg was tossed out himself during the Obama landslide. But he managed to get back to Congress in the GOP landslide of 2010. Schwarz has never made any secret of his disdain for the man who beat him.

This year, Democrats came to him with a stunning suggestion: Switch parties and run for his old seat as a Democrat. Schwarz was intrigued. He was, he confided, "itching to get back in the game."

But at the last moment, Schwarz said no.

Why? Frankly, he told me afterwards, it was a case of forcing common sense to stifle his ego. For one thing, he no longer lives in the district; the Legislature removed Calhoun County, where Schwarz lives, and added Monroe County instead.

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

But he notes candidly, "in 2014, a non-presidential year, it will be a dogfight," with lower turnout, and, as he notes "Republicans historically win those races." Additionally, the good doctor candidly 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 every two years.

There were other factors too. The physician-politician will turn 75 this fall. That's not too old to serve effectively; there are many congressmen chairing key committees who are older. But it is too old to acquire any 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, "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," he said, That wasn't an easy decision, though it logically made sense.

Contrast that with Newt Gingrich, who continued his presidential campaign — at a cost of $40,000 a day to the 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? Or would they want a political apparatchik who sees the House of Representatives as merely his next logical career move?

It isn't hard to imagine that they might have thought Joe 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, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News.

He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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