Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

July 17, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: McCotter's costly flame-out

If you didn't think Michigan politics were nutty enough, consider this: Some cash-poor communities are about to have to spend tons of money on an unexpected primary election they don't need, don't want, will probably draw very few voters "¦ and the outcome of which will be close to meaningless.

And all this is because a quirky, erratic, guitar-playing and chain-smoking congressman ran for president, failed miserably, seemed to have an emotional meltdown, and suddenly quit his job.

U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter's bizarre exit couldn't have come at a worse time. Had the Livonia Republican bugged out a month earlier, the special primary could have been held as part of the regular Michigan primary, Aug. 7. No muss, no fuss, and little, if any, extra government expense. Had he left a month later, the state could probably have successfully argued there was insufficient time to have an election before the congressman's term expires in January.

But his resignation July 6 meant the worst of all possible scenarios. What complicates it further is that this is the first congressional election after redistricting. Some of the old territory in McCotter's congressional district won't be there come January.

For example, the blue-collar suburb of Westland is moving to another district. But its 84,000 people are, for now, still in the 11th District, which includes mainly white suburban areas of Wayne and Oakland County. Earlier this week, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, in charge while the governor is on vacation, set a special primary date for Wednesday, Sept. 5, two days after Labor Day.

Westland City Clerk Eileen DeHart estimated that this single-item election would cost her city $60,000.

"I feel sick to my stomach," she told one reporter.

Small wonder. Whoever wins the primary will then be on the national election ballot Nov. 6, to fill out the expired term. But that person will represent Westland in Congress for less than two months. After that, the city — and other portions of the current 11th district — will be in other congressional districts.

Voters in Westland and elsewhere will vote in November in two congressional races.

They'll elect someone to fill the last weeks of the McCotter term, and then vote on another congressman, from their new district.

There will also be a race for a new congressman in the new 11th, and the candidates for that may, or may not, be the same as those chosen to fill the vacancy. Will many voters be confused?

Sure. Apart from that, does it make any sense to elect someone to Congress Nov. 6 for a term that expires Jan. 1?

Probably not. There may be a brief lame duck session, but with divided control of Congress, little is likely to happen. If the same candidate wins the election to fill the vacancy and the two-year term, they will get a slight boost in seniority.

But likely not $650,000 worth, the estimated cost of the special election to both state and local governments.

So why is Michigan holding this special election, anyway?

Sadly, the state may have no choice.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley indicated Michigan has to follow a precedent set in Ohio, when Congress expelled U.S. Rep. James Traficant on July 24, 2002, after the Youngstown Democrat was convicted of numerous felonies.

Then-Gov. Bob Taft refused to set a special election, and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of appeals ruled that violated the law. That would seem to apply here especially because Michigan is in the same circuit, the lieutenant governor said.

However, there is a way that an expensive Sept. 5 primary could be avoided. If only one candidate from each major party were to file for the special election, then a primary wouldn't be needed.

But both Kerry Bentivolio and Nancy Cassis, the main contenders for the full term, say they will try for the vacancy.

Oddly, while Democrats do intend to hotly contest the race for the full term, Dr. Syed Taj, their leading candidate, initially said he had no plans to run in the special election. Their other candidate, Lyndon LaRouche follower William Roberts, couldn't be reached.

All this came following one of the most spectacular flame-outs in Michigan political history.

Thaddeus McCotter made a name for himself as perhaps the only conservative Republican who played in rock bands and could quote Bob Dylan as easily as Ronald Reagan.

He launched a quixotic bid for the presidency last year, but his campaign never got any traction. After receiving a mere 35 votes out of 17,000 cast on one huge Iowa straw poll, he quit.

McCotter then seemed to lose focus, and staff members said he spent much of his time writing a bizarre pilot for a proposed comedy TV show starring himself and featuring raunchy jokes about bodily functions.

When it came time to file the routine 1,000 signatures for renomination, most of his were invalid.

Elections officials said many appeared to have been photocopied from old campaigns. The congressman was disqualified.

He talked about a write-in campaign, but soon abandoned the idea. Next, McCotter said he would serve out his term, but then just abruptly quit, and seemed to vanish, leaving the taxpayers holding a bag with an expensive, and unwelcome, electoral surprise.

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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