Friday, November 12, 2010

Marv Esch

The third job I had in politics, was with a Michigan congressman named Marvin Esch.  I only worked with him for a year.  But it was an important year for me professionally.   Marv was a consummate optimist with a good sense of humor who did not take himself seriously although he did take his job seriously.  I came to him after the US Senator I was working for  (Winston Prouty) died in office.   In 1970 Prouty was in a very tough re-election campaign which he survived.   Esch was in a similar race in 1972.  He was running against a well financed candidate named Marv Stempien.   We worked hard in that campaign and won it.   Esch came to congress after serving in the Michigan legislature and before that was a professor of speech.

The campaign that year was as tough as the 1970 one had been.  And like the Prouty-Hoff campaign, our opponent had the resources to make it very competitive.  We needed to respond quickly.  At one point he encountered a hit piece put out by our opponent and got it to us in DC within a few hours.  Our AA and I spent most of that evening crafting out a response that mocked the hit piece.  We printed it on the equivalent of a sophisticated mimeo machine and got it back to the district before morning. (No faxes or emails then.)  We only printed a few hundred of the counter-attacks but they were successful enough to make all the ones that Stempien had printed useless.  When I was in the district a few days later and watching a Stempien rally - he tried to hand out the hit piece and one person said - "no not this one, I want the funny one.

Esch was not afraid to take unpopular positions.  He was a strong advocate for the voluntary army.   But he also understood political realities.  For a good part of 1972, the issue of forced busing was coursing through Michigan politics.  Marv understood the destructive nature of the plans that had been adopted in many parts of the country and thus represented his district well.  We argued a lot about whether he should sign a discharge petition to get the issue considered on the floor of the House.  When he finally made his decision he called me in and said "OK, now write my statement supporting the discharge petition."  It was a position that I disagreed with but one that made political sense.

Perhaps the most memorable thing about the year (besides our compelling victory that November) was a visit to Siena Heights College, in Lenawee County.  Siena Heights was a small Catholic College in Adrian, Michigan.  Like many institutions of its size it was struggling.  It also had its first lay president (Siena was founded by the Dominicans).   We visited there in the Spring of 1972 for perhaps two hours.

Marv's district was unique in that it had more college students in it than any other in the country - with the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Livonia Community College and then two independent colleges in Lenawee County.   1972 was the year the Congress did the first reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965.  Marv was the number two member of the Education and Labor Committee and thus would play a leading role in mapping strategy for the GOP members of the Committee.  

In June the Michigan legislature, which was controlled by democrats, voted to move Lenawee county out of the second district.  It was heavily Republican and by removing the voters there, the district would be a lot less favorable to Esch.  But because of the visit and the energy we saw at Siena, all through the conference committee discussions, Marv would turn to me an say "What do you think this proposal would do to Siena College?"   That taught me an important lesson - that impressions in politics are critical.  At the same time, Marv was enough of an idealist to think about the broader questions of public policy should not be decided merely on constituent needs.

One other story bears repeating.  I heard Marv tell a story many times when I worked for him which I thought was funny.  He would be asked to speak to prospective candidates about the role of a politician. He would say there are only three things a politician needs to know.  The eager candidates would write down "Only three things to know" - some would even underline the opening.  He would then say "First, you've got to be for everything that is good."  Most of the crowd would write down "for everything that's good."   He would then say second "You have to be against everything that's bad."  By now a smaller group of the candidates were taking notes.  Then he would deliver the zinger where he would say "The third one is the toughest, you have to understand the difference between #1 and #2."

I got lured away from Marv's office after the 1972 campaign in part because someone offered me a lot more money.  I soon learned that had not been a good campaign move.   Marv went on to challenge Don Riegle in the 1976 Senate race and lost.  Riegle had been a moderate Republican who switched parties.  In almost any other year, Marv would have made a race of it.  Marv went on to work for US Steel and then did some other gigs.  He retired to Michigan.

Marv died in June of this year and for some reason, I did not see notice of it until now.  Over my career I have had the opportunity to work with a lot of smart people - Marv tied intellect with principle.   That combination is all too rare.

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