Remembering Howard Wolpe

Oct 27, 2011

Howard Wolpe died Tuesday night, and even though he wasn’t terribly old, chances are you don’t remember him. That is, unless you follow politics closely, or grew up in Kalamazoo.

He was a good and decent man who ran one of the worst campaigns for governor I can ever remember, and who, oddly enough, was the only man ever to beat Debbie Stabenow.

And his doing so was the best thing possible for her career, which proves how crazy politics can be.

I’ll explain that in a moment, but first -- Wolpe would have been seventy-two next week, but had been out of the spotlight for seventeen years, and moved back to Michigan only recently.

He was one of a once-common political type that has now mostly disappeared: A young, idealistic college professor who thought he could help make this a better world.

Howard -- he invited you to call him Howard -- wasn’t from Michigan at all, but Los Angeles. He arrived in Kalamazoo in his late twenties, to teach political science at Western Michigan University.

He had a PhD from MIT and was an expert on Africa. But it was the era of Vietnam, and a time of turmoil in this country, and  two years after he arrived, he was elected to the Kalamazoo City Council. Three years later, it was on to the state legislature.

He was a solid and unabashed liberal, who, as the Kalamazoo Gazette reminded me yesterday, liked to say, “Our job in government is to care for those who don’t have a voice.“

Howard had an early Beatles mop of hair and big glasses, and his biggest accomplishment in Lansing was something you probably use every day -- he got the law passed that allows drivers to turn right on red. He ran for Congress in 1976 and barely lost.

Two years later he won, and stayed for seven terms, a liberal Democrat winning again and again in a mainly Republican district. In Washington, he devoted himself to fighting apartheid.

His district vanished when Michigan lost two seats in congress in  nineteen ninety two. Two years later, he ran for governor. State Senator Debbie Stabenow was favored to win the primary. But when she sponsored the education reforms that led to Proposal A, the unions turned against her.

Howard Wolpe narrowly won, which, ironically, saved her career. Ninety-four was a huge Republican year.

Stabenow, or any Democrat, would have been smashed by John Engler and labeled a big loser. Instead, she got elected to Congress two years later, and to the senate four years after that.

Howard ran a bizarre campaign. He was stunned when Don Riegle decided not to run for re-election to the Senate, the job he really wanted. Once, running for governor of Michigan, he scheduled a press conference in which he only wanted to talk about Africa. He lost terribly and moved to Washington, where he served two presidents as a special envoy for African affairs.

Whatever you thought of his politics, Wolpe sought to make this world a better place. When Nelson Mandela got out of prison, there were only a few people he asked to meet.  Howard Wolpe was one. There are a lot worse epitaphs a man could have than that.