Commentary: What To Learn From the McCotter Mess

Jun 5, 2012

If you want a measure of how politically screwed up things can get, consider the choice for Congress voters in Michigan’s eleventh congressional district could face this fall.

The only Republican name on the primary ballot is one Kerry Bentovolio, a radical Tea Party supporter who wants to launch criminal investigations of leaders in both parties and who trains reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh in parades. And he may well face a Democrat named William Roberts who is a follower of Lyndon LaRouche. You may remember LaRouche; he’s the ninety-year-old conspiracy theorist who thinks Queen Elizabeth leads an international drug-selling cartel aimed at destabilizing America.

You might say, both candidates represent views outside the mainstream. Especially in the leafy suburban Wayne and Oakland County neighborhoods that make up this district, which was tailor-made to reelect the incumbent,
Congressman Thad McCotter.

Well, by now you probably know about the astonishing end of McCotter’s congressional career. Last week we were shocked to learn that the Republican from the Detroit suburb of Livonia didn’t submit nearly enough valid
signatures to qualify for the primary ballot.

Worse, most of those he did turn in seem to have been illegally photocopied from past campaigns. At first, McCotter said he would try to get on the ballot via a write-in campaign, but a couple days later, said forget it. He
was calling it a career at age forty-seven, after ten years in Washington, and wouldn’t change his mind.

I deliberately refrained from commenting till I could try to figure out what happened. I still can’t, except there are signs that McCotter had gotten somewhat bored with Congress, and may have engaged in some form of conscious or unconscious self-sabotage. So now the voters are left with a mess.

Now it is important to note that the rather bizarre candidates I mentioned may not be the congressional nominees. Most politically aware Democrats would rather see the other candidate on the ballot, Dr. Syed Taj, win the nomination. Taj is a legitimate alternative, a native of India who is now the chairman of the Department of Medicine at Oakwood Hospital; he’s also an elected trustee of Canton Township. But his name may look less familiar than William Roberts to many voters. The party clearly needs to work hard to educate people.

Republicans are trying to settle on a write-in candidate to challenge the reindeer trainer in the August primary, though any write-in faces steep odds. And if, as now seems likely, more than one candidate tries to get voters to write in their names, the person whose name is already on the ballot will almost certainly succeed.

Incidentally, whoever does win the GOP nomination will be a heavy favorite in November. The takeaway from all this is simple. No matter how safe any seat seems, political parties ought to offer voters legitimate alternatives. Scandals and disasters happen, and candidates sometimes flame out when least expected.

Years ago, I was in Mississippi when a talented Democrat ran for Congress in a safe Republican seat. He lost, but a few months later, the winner’s plane disappeared into a forest. The underdog then won a special election, and stayed in Congress for 20 years.

Who Livonia area voters now end up with remains to be seen.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. 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.