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Commentary: Joe Schwarz's decision not to run for Congress

For weeks, former Republican Congressman Joe Schwarz seriously considered running for the job again, this time as a Democrat. He talked to me about that several times.

He was actually very close to actually getting in the race, for a congressional district that stretched along Michigan’s southern border, from Monroe in the east to Jackson. But then last week, Schwarz finally decided against it. I had been convinced he would run, and as a journalist, thought it a fascinating prospect.

Schwarz, whom I came to know when he was in the state senate, has long been a pragmatic moderate. He was a military hawk, which stemmed from his background as a Navy officer and a CIA agent in Southeast Asia. But he was also a strong believer in funding higher education. He knew a strong university system was essential for our state’s future. Schwarz’s lifetime “other” career as an ear, nose and throat specialist led him to see the flaws in our health care system.

Though a pretty conventional Roman Catholic widower, his knowledge of the world made him basically tolerant of other people’s social values. He loved being in Congress the one term he served, and bitterly resented being beaten in the primary six years ago by a hard-line social issue conservative.

He wanted to get back in the game, and felt he still had a lot to contribute. But in the end, he said no. That caused him some scorn from the media. One columnist said Schwarz plainly just flirted with running for the ego satisfaction of seeing his name in the papers.

But I know him well enough to know that wasn’t true. After he made his decision, he shared his reasoning with me. Yes, he felt he could have won this time, though it was probably a fifty-fifty shot at best. But that would have cost millions.

And while Joe Schwarz is a pretty good campaigner, he hates raising money. Even if he could have done so this time, he would have needed millions more two years from now.

Two years from now, in a non-presidential year, turnout will be down, and it would be harder for any Democrat to hold the seat. Plus, Schwarz noted, he will be seventy-five this fall.

That’s not too old to serve effectively in Congress. There were and are many older committee chairs. But it is too old to acquire any effective seniority, and, as he told me, “a second term member of Congress has approximately zero public policy influence.”
When he weighed everything in the balance, Schwarz decided to stifle his ego and regretfully say goodbye to his dream. I couldn’t help contrast that with Newt Gingrich’s staying in the presidential race long after his candidacy had any relevance. His Secret Service protection cost the taxpayers a reported forty thousand dollars a day.

I’d guess that the Founding Fathers had read Schwarz’s memo on why he isn’t running, they would have thought it proved that he was exactly the sort of man who should be in Congress. The tragedy is that the effects of  ideology and money on our system are probably keeping many good people from serving us all.

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