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A bike, a suit and a dream: How I lost a race for Congress 50 years ago

I still have the T-shirt (and empathy for dreamers)

As an antiwar graduate student in the 1970s whose only vehicle was a three-speed bicycle, Walter Shapiro did not fit the mold of typical political striver. Above, demonstrators in Washington protest the Vietnam War in 1970.
As an antiwar graduate student in the 1970s whose only vehicle was a three-speed bicycle, Walter Shapiro did not fit the mold of typical political striver. Above, demonstrators in Washington protest the Vietnam War in 1970. (Stuart Lutz/Gado/Getty Images file photo)

This week marks the 50th anniversary of my failed congressional race in Michigan. I sought to be the youngest member of the House while running to the left of George McGovern — the 1970s equivalent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Now, during this golden jubilee week, I am intrigued by the lessons that I have absorbed from this long-ago campaign and how my views of politics have been partly shaped by this crusade fueled by my anti-Vietnam War passions.

As a graduate student in history at the University of Michigan whose only vehicle was a three-speed bicycle, I did not fit the mold of an ambitious young political striver. In fact, I resented those who got an early boost in politics from a famous last name or inherited wealth. 

So I set out to prove that in America you could get elected without them.

Beyond Vietnam, the impetus for my campaign was the 1971 ratification of the constitutional amendment enshrining the 18-year-old vote. I realized that there were more college students in my congressional district (home to both the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University) than almost anywhere else in the country. 

That was the theory. But I had not figured on two major obstacles. 

The Democratic primary was in early August, when college campuses were empty save for haggard grad students struggling with the third drafts of their theses. 

The other surprise was that a powerful Democratic state legislator, Marvin Stempien, had redrawn the district lines with his own congressional campaign in mind. The new district combined Stempien’s hometown of Livonia, a middle-class Detroit suburb, with the left-liberal enclave that was Ann Arbor. 

In contrast to the professionalism that surrounded Stempien, my campaign at the beginning was the equivalent of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland putting on a backyard musical. The campaign manager, Jill Berkeley, had just graduated from Michigan and had no experience, but she boasted natural political talent. As she recalled in an email this week, “It was a time when we thought anything was possible.” 

There are campaign memories that make me cringe from their youthful cluelessness. 

I drove in a borrowed Volvo (made in Sweden and not Detroit) to my pro forma endorsement interview with the United Auto Workers. Speaking at a Rotary Club luncheon, I tried to convince the conservative small businessmen that what they needed was a congressman who believed in aggressive government action to break up large corporations. 

The central plank in my campaign was a pledge to “filibuster war appropriations.” I had worked for, yes, Congressional Quarterly out of college, so I knew I couldn’t emulate Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” without being gaveled down under House rules. But I also naively believed that there were hidden procedural wrinkles that current antiwar legislators hadn’t taken advantage of because they were careerist rather than a purist like me. 

If there was a symbol of my campaign, it was The Suit. Told that I had to dress the part, I used my lone credit card from Saks Fifth Avenue to purchase a wide-lapeled double-knit suit, which tells you something about both my youthful taste and the era. 

Since the suit became my indispensable campaign wardrobe, I found a while-you-wait dry cleaner that would refresh the outfit while I hid in my underwear behind a changing curtain. But working the crowd in the heavy suit during an oppressively steamy Memorial Day parade, I almost collapsed from heat prostration. 

Desperate for summer garb, I drove to a different Saks Fifth Avenue branch to complain about the wear and tear in a suit that I had just bought three months earlier. A minion of tailors examined the battered garment. Since they couldn’t imagine anyone wearing the same suit daily, they concluded that it was a flaw in the material. My reward: a store credit that I used to buy a more subdued lightweight suit.

For all my misadventures, there was an earnest seriousness about the campaign that appealed to antiwar adults, especially in Ann Arbor. Suddenly, I won the endorsement of a former Democratic congressman and a glittering array of renowned professors. I held my own during a lone public television debate against Stempien, who waffled on the war, and four other minor candidates. 

In fact, I might have won the primary if it were not for a staunch liberal position on another issue — an issue with special meaning for Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. 

During the summer of 1972, the dominant story in close-in Detroit suburbs like Livonia was court-ordered busing across district lines. I unequivocally supported busing, which was the orthodoxy opinion in Ann Arbor, a city too far from Detroit to be covered by the court order. Mine was a theoretically admirable position, but it caused me to lose Livonia by a 10-to-1 margin. 

That was the difference — even though I carried Ann Arbor in a landslide. (As sensual thrills go, winning a precinct 80-to-2 ranks right up there.) I still have a T-shirt that friends made celebrating my overall vote total: 8,015, about 1,500 behind Stempien. 

As a campaign reporter, my long-ago political career has given me empathy for candidates, especially the long-shot dreamers, who are out there with a shoeshine and a smile propelled by an abiding faith in American democracy. Too much cynicism in covering politics is a crippling malady for reporters and pundits. 

Even now, the remnants of my half-century-old race for Congress remain embedded in my psyche. About once a year, I have a version of the classic anxiety dream. Instead of being unprepared for an exam, I dream about politics. My subconscious tells me it’s Election Day, I’m on the ballot and I forgot to campaign.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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