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A former Democratic powerhouse offers advice for his party

Mar 7, 2017

For years, David Bonior was one of the biggest figures in Congress. A Democrat from Macomb County, he served for more than a quarter century, managing to win reelection time after time, even in years when the so-called “Reagan Democrats” voted Republican.

Bonior saw his mission as fighting for the downtrodden, regardless of what toes he stepped on. He tangled with presidents of both parties, sparring with Bill Clinton over NAFTA and Ronald Reagan over his wars in Central America. He rose to achieve considerable power.

But as he wrote in Eastside Kid, a memoir of his youth, “Through it all I pushed myself to never forget I was a son of Detroit’s working class…who grew up loving underdogs.”

Bonior managed to be very effective. He lost on the North American Free Trade Act, though these days members of both parties have come to realize that many of his criticisms were largely right.

But he helped bring about an end to our involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador, exposed Newt Gingrich’s ethical violations, and may have done more for Vietnam-era veterans than anyone in office before or since.

His sainted congressional colleague John Lewis, the man who had his skull fractured during the Civil Rights Movement, once said, “David Bonior never hesitated to take on the powerful on behalf of the powerless.”

Bonior rose to become majority whip. The same position, ironically, that Kevin Spacey, aka Frank Underwood, held when the riveting TV series House of Cards began. But, as Bonior once drolly told Spacey at a party, “I had the same job you did, but I never killed anybody.”

Fifteen years ago, Bonior decided he was getting burned out. He came back home to run for governor of Michigan, but lost to Jennifer Granholm in the Democratic primary. Since then, he’s largely reinvented himself. He and his son own Agua 301, a successful Mexican restaurant in Washington, and he is now completing the second volume of his memoirs, covering his years in Congress.

I’ve read a few of the chapters and can’t wait for the whole book. But I was also curious as to what he thought Democrats and others he cared about now should do.

“They need to use their voices,” he told me. “They need to speak up. We don’t need backbenchers just sitting there and voting.” He thinks the labor movement needs to get more militant and more strident before it is disappears entirely.

Like many others, Bonior finds it hard to believe that Donald Trump was elected President. But despite his tweets and antics, he thinks those who think Trump will somehow be removed from office in a few months are engaging in wishful thinking. “Is there a shot at getting him impeached? I’d say the odds are not very good,” Bonior told me.

He thinks Democrats should be focusing more on Trump’s ethical violations than his personal excesses, but that they also need to find a way to reconnect with those who aren’t sharing in the prosperity, and turned to Trump because he seemed to offer them some hope.

I’ve always admired Bonior for leaving Congress voluntarily at the peak of his powers. But these days, I wish that he hadn’t decided to go quite so soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior 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.