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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Bonior’s House of Cards

March 17, 2017

DETROIT – David Bonior, once a top powerhouse in Congress, recently ran into Kevin Spacey, star of the television sensation House of Cards at a party in Washington.  The fictional Frank Underwood and the very real Bonior had two things in common: Both were Democrats who came from hardscrabble backgrounds, and both rose to become House Majority Whip.  But as Bonior teasingly told Spacey: “I had the same job you did.  But I didn’t kill anybody.”

That much is true – though over the years, it’s safe to say that Ronald Reagan and more than a few GOP leaders might not have been heartbroken if the Democratic leader had been pushed in front of a subway train, in true House of Cards style. 

These days, Bonior is retired from the political wars that once consumed him, and is putting the final touches on his memoir of his political career, a book tentatively called “Whip: Leading the Progressive Battle in the Era of the Right’s Rise.” 

Otherwise, at 71 he is busy running a popular Mexican restaurant, Agua 301, in Washington.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have strong opinions about what Democrats need to do.  “They need to speak up.  I get angry when people don’t use their voices,” he said of a party that seems poleaxed in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning upset victory last November.  Whatever anyone ever thought of him, David Bonior never hesitated to speak up—or speak out.

As majority whip until Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, he was all about killing bad policy and exposing ethical corruption.  He fought with some success against Reagan-era policies of supporting right-wing regimes in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and thinks he may have prevented American troops to being sent to help fight Central America’s wars.  Later, he played a leading role in exposing a series of financial and other ethical abuses that led to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R, GA) falling from power.

Bonior was, however, anything but a partisan hack.  He didn’t hesitate to take on a young president of his own party, Bill Clinton, over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Act.   Bonior insisted it would be bad for manufacturing workers in states like Michigan and Ohio.  He lost that battle, mainly thanks to GOP support for NAFTA.  Today, however, an increasing number of people in both parties, most notably Donald Trump, agree that Bonior, the grandson of an immigrant autoworker, was right about NAFTA. 

Throughout his political career, he was consistent – and never forgot where he came from.  Even when he was in the inner circles of power, “I pushed myself to never forget I was a son of Detroit’s working class.”  He remembered all too well what it was like when his father, a union printer, was out of work for a year.  U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) the civil rights activist who famously had his skull fractured on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, may have put it best: “David Bonior never hesitated to take on the powerful on behalf of the powerless.”

Had he remained in Congress, it might well have been Bonior, not Nancy Pelosi, who became Speaker of the House in 2007.  But, eventually, the job and the pressure of running every two years in a competitive district got to be too much.  After a quarter-century in Congress, he ran for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2002, but finished second to Jennifer Granholm.  Following that, he became a professor of labor studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.  Bonior founded American Rights at Work, an organization designed to bolster the dwindling labor movement, and then served as chair of U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ ill-fated drive for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2008. 

Friends said Bonior, who was attracted to the senator because of his economic message, was shocked and disgusted by the revelations of the senator’s personal betrayal of his dying wife. That was his last political foray, but not the end of Dave Bonior’s passion.  Though he may agree partly with President Trump on NAFTA, he is generally horrified by his administration’s policies on everything from the poor to the environment, a cause he has long championed. 

He compares what’s happening now to the situation the Democrats were in after Richard Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972.  “We were back to square one, just as we are today, and we needed to reorganize,” he said.  He helped lead that effort in Michigan, something that led to his getting elected to Congress in 1976 when he was just 31.  There, he first made his mark by crusading on behalf of Vietnam War veterans (Bonior served in the U.S. Air Force from 1968-72, but was not sent to Vietnam). 

Sadly, he told me, many veterans today are facing many of the same problems: “suicide, PTSD, lack of job opportunities, and too-often an inattentive VA bureaucracy.” 

Nevertheless, he thinks these are all causes worth fighting for – and since he slew a dragon or two in his day, he decided to write his story partly as a road map for the next generation of progressives.  My guess is that, given Bonior’s uncompromising honesty, it may be one hell of a read.     

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

March 16, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry



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