Should Robert Jones have been running for the state Senate?

Oct 19, 2010

State Representative Robert Jones was an enormously popular former mayor of Kalamazoo who was in an intense battle to win a seat in the state senate. Intense, but not nasty.

But two days ago, Robert Jones suddenly died in his home, throwing the race into chaos and elections officials into a tizzy.

Legally, dead people’s names aren’t supposed to appear on the ballot. The ones that will be used two weeks from today can perhaps be reprinted, at what I imagine will be considerable expense.

But absentee ballots have gone out and, in some cases, already have been returned. What’s to be done about those?

The Democratic party has to scramble to name a new candidate, who then has to try to make her or his case to the voters in less than two weeks’ time.

Journalism is sometimes about telling unpleasant truths that nobody wants to hear, and here’s one of those. Tributes have been flooding in, praising Robert Jones as a lawmaker, friend and leader.

But the truth, as I see it, is that he had no business running for office this year.

Jones had esophageal cancer; he had been fighting it for more than a year. I do not know for certain that this is what killed him, though two days before he died a friend said he appeared to be in pain, and that it was difficult for him to speak.

But he knew he was gravely ill. Being a state senator is a full-time job, and he had to have known that even in the best case scenario, fighting cancer would take up time and energy.  Sadly, Robert Jones is far from alone.

Throughout history, candidates have campaigned, sometimes even when they were dying, sometimes going to great lengths to conceal their true condition from the voters.

When the late Paul Tsongas ran for president in 1992, he and his doctors repeatedly said he was cancer-free when it fact he was not. He did not win the Democratic nomination that year, but if he had been elected, he would have died in office during his first term.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a dying man when he was last elected president during World War II. Within three months, the leadership of the nation fell to a vice-president who had no preparation whatsoever for the enormous responsibilities of the job.

Fortunately, that turned out all right. But it wasn’t fair to the voters. In recent years, we’ve been treated to the spectacle of a senile Strom Thurmond and a dying Robert Byrd holding down seats in the U.S. senate.  Public office requires responsibility to the public.

Robert Jones was a fine mayor, state representative, and man. But he did his district and his party a disservice by running for office when he was gravely ill. It’s  not to much to ask that our elected leaders be honest with us, and be physically up to the job.

Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.