Those who worked with former Rep. Howard Wolpe agree: The Michigan Democrat did serious work, but he never took himself too seriously.
Wolpe died Tuesday at his home in Saugatuck, Mich. He was 71.
While he served in Congress, Wolpe sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee and chaired that panel’s Subcommittee on Africa. He wrote legislation against apartheid in South Africa and, after President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, he got Congress to override the veto.
But he was also the man who would lean back in a chair and fall over during a committee hearing, only to sit right back up, laughing at himself.
“He had a reputation as someone with a quick wit and a self-deprecating humor. … But he also had this commitment to social justice,” said Keith Laughlin, president of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and a former chief of staff to Wolpe.
He represented Michigan’s 3rd district for seven terms after he was elected in 1978. After redistricting divided his district into four sections, he decided not to run for re-election in 1992.
Wolpe was born Nov. 3, 1939, in Los Angeles. He spent his childhood in California before attending Reed College in Portland, Ore.
He then received a doctorate in African studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Soon after, he moved to Kalamazoo, the area he would end up representing in Congress, to teach political science at Western Michigan University.
It was in Michigan where he got his start in politics. He ran for and was elected to the Kalamazoo City Council in 1968.
During this election, he met 16-year-old Jim Margolis. Margolis saw a guy who not only wore a powder blue leisure suit with green stitching (“That wasn’t OK, even back then,” Margolis said with a laugh), but someone who saw the fundamental goodness in people.
“He was in it for the right reasons,” said Margolis, who later served as Wolpe’s chief of staff and is now a political consultant in Washington, D.C.
After serving for four years on the city council, he was elected to the Michigan state Legislature in 1972. He unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1976, but this didn’t deter him from trying again in 1978. That time, he won and headed to Washington.
Wolpe was eager to put his African studies background to use in Congress, something senior Members discouraged him from since he was from a heavily Republican district.
“You didn’t go to the Foreign Affairs Committee if you were in a tough district,” Margolis said. “You went for Commerce. But Howard would respond, ‘I guess it’s kind of novel to have somebody who knows something about the topic on the committee.'”
While he was passionate about African issues, he balanced that well with working for his district, said Marda Robillard of Van Scoyoc Associates, who served as Wolpe’s chief of staff from 1987 until his retirement.
He went home every weekend and provided excellent constituent services, which resulted in him being re-elected six times in the conservative area.
After leaving Congress, Wolpe ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in Michigan in 1994. He then served as the special envoy to the African Great Lakes region under President Bill Clinton until 2001.
He became director of the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2002 before leaving to once again serve in Africa as the special adviser for the Great Lakes region under President Barack Obama.
“Howard contributed most of his life to bringing civility to government relations and making this world a better place,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said in a statement.
In 2006, tragedy struck when his wife, Judy, drowned off the coast of Guatemala while the couple were on vacation.
According to a report from Roll Call, Wolpe wrote in a letter, “Judy was my love, my partner and my anchor. She was a very special human being — in love with life and with people. She made all of us feel good just to be around her.”
Wolpe eventually remarried. He is survived by his wife, Julie Fletcher, and a son, Michael.
While he was in Congress, Robillard recalled how Wolpe didn’t vote on a party line — rather, he stuck to his moral compass, voting for what he believed in what was right.
“He had friends on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
Indeed, one of his last public acts was an open letter to Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), published in the Battle Creek Enquirer, a local Michigan newspaper. Wolpe said in the letter that he had been friends with Upton for many years and had known him “to be honest, moderate, reasonable and conscientious” but that he was now disappointed “to see you morph into a right-wing extremist.”
“Show some backbone and do the right thing,” Wolpe wrote. “We simply must regain a sense of civility and rationality in our politics, and you have a chance now to make a significant contribution. I hope you seize it.”
Upton’s spokeswoman Meghan Kolassa said in a statement: “The paper back home ran Fred’s written response to Howard’s letter but more importantly, Fred reached out to Howard and they were able to have an open and honest conversation just as they have had throughout the many years they served as close Michigan colleagues. Howard never stopped working to make this world a better place. That will be his legacy throughout the world and right here in Kalamazoo.”