2013-05-18 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

The Comeback Second Acts of Wayward Politicians
By George Weeks

South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who in 2011 left the governor’s office in disgrace amidst an extramarital affair but last week won a congressional seat in a special election, is the latest wayward politician to rebound in some manner.

A young woman companion died in 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), drove a car off a bridge. But he was repeatedly reelected. Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) won a second term in 2010 despite press accounts of his visiting prostitutes in pre-Senate days.

The Wall Street Journal cited Kennedy and Vitter among examples of voters growing more accepting of redemption tales like those of Sanford’s. It also cited second acts of ex-President Bill Clinton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia).

Clinton was impeached by the House in 1998 for lying about an extramarital affair with a White House intern, but is “now a popular Democratic fundraiser and campaigner.”

Gingrich faced ethics charges in 1997 and later admitted an extramarital affair, but “ran a credible primary race for president.” He’s a frequent guest on national TV shows.

There will be no political rebound by ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick after his March conviction in federal court on 24 counts of 30 assorted public corruption charges, including racketeering and extortion. A likely extensive prison sentence is pending.

Kilpatrick, already incarcerated, is not Detroit’s first mayoral jailbird after leaving office. Two years after 1938-40 Mayor Richard Reading lost re-election, he was indicted for scheming to run a protection racket with about 80 Detroit police officers and was sentenced to nearly five years. He was known as “double dip Dick” because he took payoffs from gamblers in addition to his city salary.

Louis Miriani, the 1957- 1962 mayor, later as a city councilman was convicted of income tax evasion and served nearly a year in prison.

At the time of Kilpatrick’s conviction, the Detroit Free Press said of Charles Bowles: “The only big city mayor to be recalled, after serving seven months as Detroit mayor in 1930. Those were some pretty notorious months—crime soared and charges of corruption spread rapidly. Never indicted, Bowles tried and failed at political comebacks.”

That’s not to say there has been no upward mobility for Detroit mayors. Two ex-Detroit mayors were among the most interesting governors in my “Stewards of the State: The Governors of Michigan,” published in 1987 and 1991 by The Detroit News and the Historical Society of Michigan.

Four-term Mayor Hazen S. Pingree had two terms as governor (1987-1900) and wanted to also remain as mayor but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled against it. After 1930-33 service as mayor, Frank Murphy was the top U.S. diplomat in the Philippines, 1937-38 governor, and the U.S Attorney General and then U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Writing in the Michigan Historical Review in 1987, Melvin G. Holli called Murphy an “overachiever.” He noted that 13 other Detroit mayors unsuccessfully sought the governorship.

Michigan commentary on wayward politicians would not be complete without reference to 1961-62 Governor John B. Swainson, who, after losing a re-election bid, later was elected to the state Supreme Court.

It all came tumbling down in 1975 when he was convicted by a federal jury of perjury during an investigation into a charge that as a justice he had accepted a bribe to arrange a new trial for a convicted burglar. He was acquitted of the bribery charge, but served 60 days in a Detroit halfway house on the perjury conviction.

Because of the conviction, he resigned from the Supreme Court, and had his license to practice law suspended. Twice during the suspension, he pleaded guilty to drunken driving charges.

He rehabilitated himself through an alcoholism treatment program; had his law license restored; became a mediator and arbitrator; and the Supreme Court on which he served assigned him to hear a medical malpractice case.

One night years later, in a den above the garage at his 165-acre farm southwest of Ann Arbor, I asked him went wrong.

“Obviously, I got into the sauce,” replied the Eagle scout who went astray.

Swainson, who lost both legs in World War II and long had worked quietly with amputees who were trying to rehabilitate their lives, wanted alcoholics to know that they, too, could come back.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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