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The Republican Party left him

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

I took a trip back in time yesterday, sort of, to Plymouth, Michigan – a tidy, mostly gentrified Wayne County town 26 miles and at least that many light years from the city of Detroit.

I turned on Main Street, and stopped in the law office of John Stewart, who has practiced there for more than 30 years. When I looked around, I expected to see Atticus Finch, or Jimmy Stewart, the folksy yet brilliant country lawyer from Anatomy of a Murder.

The offices were in what had been a comfy private home built nearly a century ago. There were bookshelves everywhere, lined not just with law books but biographies of Lincoln, Jefferson, and other books you might actually want to read.

Stewart sat in the middle of it, in front of a photo of generations of his mother’s family, all of whom had been schoolteachers in Holland. While we talked, the mailman came in and said hello, and a cheerful woman brought us blueberry muffins.

John, now 68, grew up in Wyandotte and went to the former Detroit College of Law before landing here. He was a township trustee, a member of the Presbyterian Church, and a pillar of the local chamber of commerce and Kiwanis Clubs.

For a century, that kind of pedigree automatically included the GOP – and indeed, Stewart served three terms as a Republican legislator between 2001 and 2007. He became chair of the higher education subcommittee, and led a rewrite, praised at the time, of the funding formula.

But Stewart is a Republican no longer, though he is proud of being the only legislative candidate in modern times endorsed by his hero, Republican Bill Milliken, the longest-serving governor in Michigan history.

"They didn't know what to do with me in Lansing."

"They didn’t know what to do with me in Lansing," he said, laughing. "I’m pro-choice. I don’t like abortion-- nobody likes abortion -- but I can’t tell a woman what to do with her body. And I can’t stand all this extreme polarization. I like talking to people, working things out."

He also believes in education. And that made it hard to be in a party that essentially denies the evidence on climate change. He shook his head. "Yeah, I’m with the Dems now," he said.

But he doesn’t think they are perfect either. "We need to be more intellectually honest in order to get something accomplished," he told me.

Stewart thinks the key to making Michigan great again is getting "the majority of the people to come back to a mainstream, progressive center." That’s who we were when we elected governors like George Romney, Bill Milliken, and Jim Blanchard.

He wanted to know what happened, and I said I thought gerrymandering and term limits were a big part of it. But I think we also lost our faith in our future and ourselves.

Today, Plymouth is represented in the state senate by Pat Colbeck, a guy so far from the mainstream his own Republican party just tossed him off every committee.

Stewart is thinking about running for that seat next year, and I hope he does. But I also thought what a gutsy move it would be if Gretchen Whitmer, say, were to choose him as her running mate. True, that would involve thinking outside the box.

But Michigan needs some of that, and 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.

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