The voters of Flint first sent Dale Kildee to Congress in the year our nation celebrated its bicentennial. He was in his mid-forties then.
Next year, he’ll turn eighty-three, and as last weekend started, he announced next year would be his last in Congress. He’s had a long and honorable career, in politics and beforehand.
Kildee started adult life as a high school teacher who had almost become a priest as a boy, and who, after ten years in the classroom, had gotten himself elected to the state legislature.
He spent a dozen years there, running shoe-leather campaigns during which someone calculated he had to have knocked on every door in Flint. When the seat in Congress opened up in 1976, he jumped into the primary, and won it and the general election easily.
Years ago, I heard Kildee say that he was embarrassed that he wound up spending more on that first campaign than he wanted to.
How much was that? $48,000. In case you need reminding about how much things have changed, a Democratic candidate in another Michigan district spent $8 million trying to get elected last year, and by the way, he lost.
Kildee never lost an election. After that first election, the voters sent him back to Congress seventeen more times.
Michigan has changed a lot since Dale Kildee arrived in Washington, just a couple weeks before Gerald Ford left the White House. Flint was a bustling city teeming with jobs and General Motors workers when he arrived. More than ninety percent of the blue-collar jobs that were there when he came are gone now.
His town has yet to bounce back. Michigan has been battered a lot over the last thirty-five years too. We have four fewer seats in Congress than we did when Kildee arrived, and we’ll lose a fifth seat the day he leaves Washington.
The big three are no longer that big.
We lost the Fairness Doctrine, the Soviet Union, Pontiac and Oldsmobile while he was in Congress; gained the Internet and the I-pad. But as much as things have changed, Dale Kildee didn’t change very much. When he was first elected, he said he wanted to go to Congress to do something for children and for labor. He promptly got a seat on the Education and Labor committee, and has been there ever since. He got a bill passed his very first term outlawing the sexual exploitation of children in movies.
He’s been a stalwart defender of auto and teachers’ unions, but also has been fervently anti-abortion. Critics have said his economic policies were based on a reality that no longer exists.
But nobody ever accused Dale Kildee of the slightest breach of ethics. And unlike most congressmen, he gives thousands in unspent office funds back to the treasury every year. Kildee could have gotten reelected next year with no difficulty. But he decided enough was enough. Michigan has three more congressmen who will also be well into their eighties before the next election.
You have to wonder if they, too, will someday leave with the graciousness Kildee has shown, or allow the voters, or the ravages of time, to make that decision for them in a far less gentle way.