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Some politicians capable of honor

Aug 1, 2017

When I was a child, there were kids whose parents told their children never to have anything to do with government or politics. They said it was a dirty and corrupt business.

Well, I grew up believing that was wrong-headed, that while politics was a bruising contact sport, it was a life, in the words of reporter and novelist Allen Drury, capable of honor. That was easier to believe when the memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman were still fresh and Profiles in Courage was a best-seller.

Anyone whose political experience is limited to the last six or so months in Washington might come to a different conclusion. Well, we do clearly have an administration in chaos, where job security can best be measured with an egg timer.

Lansing often seems pretty screwed up too, to use far milder language than the now-departed White House communications director might have.

Well, things were never as good as we like to remember them, and they aren’t always as bad as they seem now. Despite what you might call the White House horrors, despite Flint and legislative gridlock, there are still people out there making a difference.

Coincidentally, while the craziness was unfolding in Washington yesterday, I met with a couple of them. Senator Steve Bieda, a Democrat from Warren, is something of the conscience of the state senate. He has displayed ability to work with his Republican colleagues, a rare commodity today at either the state or local level.

Bieda was the main architect of the bills that compensate exonerated prisoners for the time they spent behind bars. That doesn’t give them their lives back, but it is something, and may spur communities to provide better public defenders.

He’s also the legislature’s leading history buff, is passionate about the Capitol building, and is one of the few Americans to have designed a coin for the U.S. Mint.

Now a youthful 56, he should be approaching the peak of his effectiveness. But thanks to term limits, his political career will likely be over at the end of next year.

That is, unless the Democratic nominee for governor picks him as a running mate. Bieda also would be a logical candidate for Congress -- except that there are no term limits for federal officials, and the incumbent in his district, Sandy Levin, shows no signs of leaving, even though he will be 87 before his current term ends. Bieda won’t starve. He is a tax lawyer, and probably could make more money than he does now. But he has a passion for public service.

Later, I had a conversation with Dr. Melvyn Rubenfire, a 77-year-old cardiologist who has been working hard behind the scenes to help the Northwest Detroit area where he grew up, with an innovative education and nutrition program called Project Healthy Community.

I talked about them here about six months ago. Rubenfire doesn’t want any thanks and he certainly doesn’t want to be elected or appointed to anything.

But he thinks he and his colleagues have found a way to succeed at what may be Detroit’s greatest need: Saving its neighborhoods, and he wanted my advice on getting the city’s attention.

I decided to talk about these two men today instead of the usual dysfunctional ones.

And I hope you didn’t mind.

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.