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The problem with political dynasties

Dec 6, 2017

I’m not running for Congress, even though my congressman and two nearby ones have announced they are going to retire. As I have said many times in many parts of this great state, I am not a candidate for anything; and never intend to be.

I might, ten years from now, consider a temporary appointment to the Charlevoix library board, but that is as far as my political ambitions go.

However, if I were to run for Congress, I would have one big thing in my favor: I don’t have any children. I don’t have any politically inclined relatives. My significant other has a different last name, and in any event has informed me that if I did run for anything, she’s outta here.

Which means I’d have zero possibility of creating a dynasty of sorts, and passing my seat on to my relatives, as though I were in the British House of Lords. What I’ve been talking about is, unfortunately, not merely theoretical. Consider this:

After John Dingell served nearly 60 years in Congress, he was replaced by his wife Debbie Dingell. Congressman Dale Kildee was replaced by his nephew Dan Kildee. Sandy Levin’s son Andy Levin is gearing up to run to succeed him, and yesterday, John Conyers, who is resigning in disgrace, announced he wants his 27-year-old son John the 3rd to succeed him.

That upset his grandnephew, State Senator Ian Conyers, who thought he could be the one to capitalize on the family name. These are, remember, offices that don’t have term limits. I wouldn’t have enough space in three commentaries to list all the Michigan legislators who have tried, often successfully, to hand their jobs off to their spouses or kids. Of course, we live in a nation where Bill Clinton tried to deliver the Presidency to Hillary Clinton.

George Bush the first did hand the Presidency off to son George Bush the second, though the family did fail to get the Oval Office for Jeb Bush.

You may have forgotten this, but one of the reasons for the American Revolution was a dislike of hereditary dynasties. When John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams became president despite losing the popular vote, it helped spur a wave of populist sentiment that swept Andrew Jackson, who some have called the Donald Trump of his day, into the presidency.

Now, of course, the fact that someone has the same last name shouldn’t be an automatic disqualification either. Dan Kildee had an impressive career on his own for many years before succeeding his uncle, and Debbie Dingell was almost a deputy congressperson for decades.

But John Conyers the 3rd’s doesn’t even have a job that I know about, and his only known public achievement is getting in trouble for misusing government property. There are easily a thousand people in that district more qualified than he.

Yet name recognition is a big part of the game, perhaps now more than ever, when fewer people read newspapers and serious political coverage. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we need anti-nepotism laws, but we need some way to help voters to pay attention and make informed decisions about which candidates are qualified for any office.

The state of the state and the nation may indicate we need this now more than ever.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.