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Not everyone who runs for office is an egomaniac

It would be easy to watch the terminal narcissism unfolding in Cleveland this week and conclude that politics have nothing to do with real life. I was half-tempted at one point to call Dr. Mona, the hero doctor of Flint, and ask her how important the question of Melania Trump’s plagiarism was to the poisoned children and desperate parents of Flint.

Then I realized I couldn’t justify wasting even a few seconds of her time that way. But that doesn’t mean everyone who runs for office is an egomaniac.

This year, a man I highly respect is campaigning for the first time. He isn’t in Cleveland, even though he is a Republican, and regardless of whether he wins, his name won’t be on the front page the day after the November election.

His name is Jack Dempsey, he’s a lawyer and author whose passion is Michigan history, and he is running for township trustee in the fairly well-off Detroit suburb of Plymouth.

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When I heard he was doing this, I was at first puzzled. Dempsey is a modest man who is a partner at the prestigious law firm Dickinson Wright, and an author whose work includes two excellent books on Michigan in the Civil War. Local politics, in my experience, tend to be nasty and petty, and somehow I don’t think Dempsey needs the less than $12,000 salary.

Nor, at age 64, is he aiming his sights on the White House. No, Dempsey is running, he told me, because he really felt he could and should make a difference where he lives.

“When the suggestion (to run) first came, I laughed,” he said. “This year of all years? With the mood of the electorate so disenchanted and the toxic nature of the political debate being so repugnant?

But his wife thought he should do it – and, he told me, “not to go all spiritual on you, but I believed I received guidance to run.”

So he decided to run a campaign “only on a positive basis and founded on publicly-spirited ideas that I’ve held for years: Government is instituted of men and women for their benefit, that our American form of democracy at the local level is the best and should be the most open, and that public service means the office-holder should be the public servant, not the other way around.”

If someone running for national office said that, I might roll my eyes. But if you are a township trustee, you don’t get headlines in even the local papers. You get residents calling you at home. to complain about trash in the parks.

Dempsey knows this, but he told me “I’m excited by the prospect of not just arguing and litigating … but (being) on the inside and try to effectuate truly open and connected government.” And he worries “about being too full of myself.”

I have no doubt he means it. But I had to ask – how does he feel about running as a member of the party that just nominated Donald Trump, a man recently denounced by David McCullough and a group of other normally non-political historians?

Dempsey’s reply was straightforward: “I’m a Lincoln man,” he said. Which made me think he might be better at this political game than he realizes.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's 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.

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