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Commentary: Joe Schwarz, former Republican now Democrat?


Back in the 1990s, if you were in the legislature and wanted to know about higher education in Michigan, you went to see State Senator Joe Schwarz, who understood it best of all.

What’s more, though he was a natural fiscal conservative, Schwarz was a supporter of higher education. He knew it was the path to future success for millions, and hope for a better future for Michigan. Over time I came to realize that Schwarz was somewhat of a Renaissance man. He was a railroad expert. He’d had distinguished careers in the CIA and the U.S. Navy before becoming an ear, nose and throat specialist in his native Battle Creek.

But he never had tunnel vision. He knew instinctively what the ancient Greeks said -- that an idiot is one who takes no part in civic affairs. Schwarz served on his city’s commission, then as Battle Creek’s mayor before serving 16 years in the state senate.

He wasn’t a perfect politician. He didn’t suffer fools and phonies very well, and sometimes had a volcanic temper. He lost several runs for higher office, but in 2004, got elected to Congress.

He was in his late 60s then, and was seen as the outstanding freshman in his class. But after a single term, he was defeated in the primary by Tim Walberg, a Republican far to his right.

A shadowy group called the “Club for Growth” spent more than a million dollars attacking Schwarz for his alleged “liberal” policies, including his belief that education was worth spending on and that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

Despite appeals from both President Bush and Senator John McCain, Walberg beat Schwarz, and then narrowly beat a Democratic non-entity in the general election. Two years later, however, Walberg was ousted by Mark Schauer.

But two years ago, Walberg beat Schauer in a rematch, in what turned out to be the worst year for Democrats in modern history.

The legislature redrew the district lines last year, essentially swapping out Calhoun County, where both Schwarz and Schauer live, for Monroe County. Though there is no requirement that a congressman live in the district, the idea was to eliminate Walberg’s competition.

Schauer is sitting this one out. But the Democrats are doing their best to recruit another prominent candidate:

Joe Schwarz, who feels he doesn’t really have a home in the Republican Party anymore. He tells me he is tempted, in part because he thinks he is much closer to the mainstream thinking in the district than Walberg, whose views he doesn’t much respect.

For years, Schwarz has been thinking of buying a condo in Ann Arbor, which is in the district, and where he spends a lot of time.

He would love to be back in Washington. But there’s a lot to consider. Could he win? Would the Democrats come up with the kind of money it will take to make the race competitive?

And would it be worth all the aggravation, in the hope of becoming a 75-year-old freshman member of what is likely to be the minority party in the House?

Only Schwarz can decide that. But he is clearly the best possible challenger the Democrats could find. And it would be an act of citizenship to give the voters a legitimate choice.