Keepin' on with Newt gone

Few know it, but if the Democrats win back the House of Representatives next fall – a very real possibility – Michigan could have the most congressional power of any state.

If this happens, U.S. Rep. David Bonior will be House majority leader. John Conyers will chair the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Downriver’s John Dingell, in the House longer than anyone in the nation, will chair Commerce. Dale Kildee could head Education and the Workforce, and Sandy Levin the important Ways and Means subcommittee on trade.

That’s no pipe dream; Democrats now have 213 seats (counting one independent who votes with them) and need just 218 for a majority; the hope is that a lot of folks who voted for tax relief and got the sex police instead are ready to throw the rascals out.

You better believe Dave Bonior knows. The last few years – in many ways, the last two decades – have been pretty rugged for progressives. For the last four years his Democrats have been in the minority, with the institution dominated for most of that time by a man he deeply loathed, former Speaker Newt Gingrich.

"Miss him? No!" he says with a wan smile. What bothered him most were not Newt’s policies; Washington is full of liberals and conservatives whose votes cancel each other out but who get along. Gingrich was nasty. "He changed the whole culture of this place," Bonior says, frowning. For most of that first year, when so much of the nation seemed enchanted by Newt’s crop of white hair and the pseudo-pop Contract With America, Bonior kept up the good fight, wheeling, jabbing, pointing out Gingrich’s ethical lapses and penchant for grabbing a cheap buck.

Gradually, people saw through the paunchy Georgian, whose support finally evaporated after his party lost seats last November. Today, out of office, fast becoming a footnote, Gingrich, recently caught out with a young Department of Agriculture staffer, mostly fights divorce wars with his second wife.

But what must bother Bonior was that so many of his constituents – at least at first – seemed to like Newt and his policies. His district, north Macomb and Port Huron’s St. Clair County, gradually has become somewhat Republican. When Bonior was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, the son of an auto worker, there wasn’t much question about which party represented the working folks of Macomb County.

Even as late as the early 1970s, when Dave came back from the Air Force and was elected to the state Legislature, Macomb County was reliably Democratic. The baby-faced 31-year-old Bonior, Polish-American like so many of his neighbors, was then able to win an open seat in the House of Representatives in 1976, though he had to campaign hard.

He saw himself – still sees himself – as a progressive in the mold of the hero who died two months before he was born, Franklin D. Roosevelt. But when the auto recession hit in the early ’80s, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, and when unemployment hit 22 percent in Macomb County, the solution, all too often, was "move to Texas."

Bonior hung in there. Yet when, after a dozen years, a Democrat came back to the White House, among his first priorities was NAFTA, which Bonior saw as "basically a sellout" of American workers. He was ridiculed as a protectionist enemy of progress, especially by those who wanted to move their factories to Mexico.

Two years later, for the first time in memory, Republicans took Congress.

Bonior, who had just become majority whip, or second-ranking member, now had minority status. One has to wonder if he flirted with just walking away and starting something new.

Especially since getting re-elected is such a hassle. Conyers and Dingell could enter a monastery and still get elected. Every year, Bonior has to fight like hell and raise vast sums. The job pays $136,700; not a fortune when you need homes in two places.

To even have a prayer of hanging on, Bonior has to raise $750,000 every year. Last year, he spent $1,477,749 to eke out 52 percent over a local businessman, Brian Palmer, who, on paper, spent "only" $734,000. "But that’s ridiculous; we were outspent with soft money," Bonior said. That’s money spent by political parties that isn’t officially counted as a candidate’s spending. "We’ve got a bill in to regulate the soft money; we can get it through the House but it gets killed in the Senate," he said mournfully.

"Let’s face it: Republicans have all the money. They don’t want to change."

For a while, I thought Bonior hung in there for the chance at power.

Maybe, but he really thinks he owes it to that out-of-fashion group, the working class. He believes in them, and the environment; even if the famous pine seedlings he hands out every year are politics, he spends a lot of time on programs that sensitize children to the ecology.

Last month, he got a big break when Secretary of State Candice Miller backed away from taking him on. Maybe he’ll be able to get by spending only a million dollars this time, perhaps to beat the rabid ferret David Jaye. "You do the best you can," he told me quietly, when I asked how he coped with the insane life of fund-raising and instant analysis. Which sounds unusually tempting. Especially after a good taste of the worst.