Most seem unaware of the laid-back congressman, who melds in with the small crowd. He is clad in khakis, a plain shirt and loafers, a practical shoe for a guy who’s had three back surgeries after injuring himself playing soccer with his kids.
Bonior hugs and greets the Rev. Bill McCullum. The minister belongs to Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES), a grassroots group of religious leaders that has been pushing since 1998 for adequate mass transportation in metro Detroit.
“He came to our meetings,” says McCullum of Bonior, a staunch supporter of mass transit. “He was with us from the beginning.”
McCullum and his wife, Sharon, who volunteered to host the barbecue, have been by Bonior’s side since he entered the governor’s race about 19 months ago.
“We need to get him past the primary,” says McCullum, wiping his damp brow with a napkin.
“Be sure to get yourself a hot dog,” Bonior announces, and bites into one doused in mustard and relish.
When the crowd swells to about 30, he stands before them on the concrete driveway.
Small, intimate gatherings have been a cornerstone of each of his campaigns. Some days, he’ll attend as many as four. “This is how I’ve campaigned my whole career,” he tells the group. “You can talk to me, you can criticize me.”
Before launching into a 15-minute speech, he thanks the McCullums for opening their home. He also thanks Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Scott, who sits at a picnic table.
“She called me and said, ‘I want to help you out any way I can,’” says Bonior.
“That is our next governor!” declares Scott.
Considering Bonior’s track record, she may be right. In 30 years in politics — two 2-year terms as state representative and 13 as a U.S. representative — he has never lost an election, even though he is a staunch liberal in a district that has given big majorities to such conservative Republicans as Ronald Reagan and John Engler. But this is the first time Bonior has tried to take his message beyond the mainly blue-collar county where he grew up and has resided most of his life. Both his competitors started with far more name recognition. Yet since beginning his TV ad campaign, underdog Bonior has essentially caught up with ex-Gov. Jim Blanchard, though both trail Attorney General Jennifer Granholm. (A recent independent poll gave Bonior 26 percent of the vote, Blanchard 27 and Granholm 34 percent; the margin of error was 4 percent.)
Bonior is used to challenges. Like any good politician, he thrives on them.
After his mother died unexpectedly while he was in high school, he says, he earned his best grades. Told that he could not win his first bid for Congress, he won and ascended to a series of House leadership posts. When the GOP swept the House in the 1994 election, many Democratic colleagues warned that he would ruin his career by taking on the ascendant House leader Newt Gingrich and his ultraconservative “Contract with America.” Bonior became instrumental in rallying the opposition. Michigan Republicans paid him back in redrawing his congressional district. To stay in the House, he would have had to run against another seasoned Democrat representative, Sander Levin, in the primary. Some speculate that this triggered the gubernatorial bid. Ed Bruley, Bonior’s campaign manager, says otherwise.
“If he ran against Levin it would have been a big race, but do you think this one isn’t?” asks Bruley.
It is a big race, one that Bonior doesn’t plan to lose.
But big questions swirl around his candidacy.
Will his anti-abortion stance — born of his devout Catholicism — alienate Democratic primary voters?
Will he be done in by the huge sums of money that Granholm is pouring into the race? Should Democratic voters, with their best chance at the governorship in years, bet on such a die-hard liberal in a state that thrice elected John Engler?
Bonior’s primary chances are “slim,” says political analyst Mario Morrow: “He has been running on his record in Congress, and most people don’t know congressmen and -women and their records.”
Neighborhood gatherings like the one in the McCullums’ backyard are a chance to bring that record to Detroiters, whom Morrow says are pivotal in the primary.
And while a group of current and former council members recently rallied behind Blanchard, Scott says she backs Bonior because he is a “true environmentalist” and intends to reduce prescription drug costs for seniors. “I think he’ll make a wonderful governor,” she says.
It will be quite a feat if he gets there. These obstacles do not seem to faze the 57-year-old Bonior. As in the 335-mile walk that he and his wife, Judy, set out on in 1997 from their Mt. Clemens home to Mackinac City — falling 14 miles short because of his badly blistered feet — Bonior plods on with quiet intensity.
He’s no backslapper, unlike his late friend and mentor in Congress, the legendary Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, and unlike his father, Edward Bonior, who was mayor of East Detroit (now Eastpointe). This Bonior sometimes seems shy. At barbecues, he often looks at the ground when speaking. With the press, he is brief and reserved.
Yet, Bonior and those who know him agree he is very competitive, methodically charting a course and charging ahead. That competitive spirit made him a splendid athlete and compelled him to practice shooting hoops late into the night when he played basketball at Notre Dame High School, says longtime friend Gary Lytle.
“He will not be outworked,” Lytle says.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt describes this quality as a “tour de force.” It is what made it possible for Bonior, as House whip, to gather enough votes to approve Clinton’s balanced budget in 1997. “He worked with every member, and when it went to the floor we eked it out by one vote,” says Gephardt.
Surely he will need the same “tour de force” — and a lot of hot dogs — to win the primary election Aug. 6.
The early years
Bonior begins nearly every backyard chat with a story. The best one is about his dad, who, when mayor of East Detroit, got a call at 3 a.m. from a resident who complained that a streetlight was out. His dad politely took down the man’s address, hung up and griped from the kitchen to his bed, recalls Bonior. After the streetlight was repaired, “He set his clock for 3 a.m., called the man and asked, ‘Is your streetlight working?’”
Bonior is proud of his working-class roots. His grandparents immigrated from the Ukraine and Poland and settled in Hamtramck. His maternal grandfather worked at Dodge Main there for 30 years. His dad’s dad worked at the Ford Rouge foundry before starting a printing business in his garage. Bonior remembers the pungent smell of ink and his father and uncles feeding paper into presses. In 1953, his dad moved the family to East Detroit, where Bonior and his younger sister and brother were raised. Bonior became an altar boy for St. Veronica’s Church, rising some mornings at 5 a.m. to help serve mass. Bonior says that witnessing the full cycle of life — baptisms, weddings and funerals — anchored and impressed him.
He considered becoming a priest and attended Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary his freshman year. But he transferred to Notre Dame High School because he missed competitive sports.
Bonior became a star quarterback and earned a four-year scholarship to Iowa State University, where he met his first wife, Sybil Vera, with whom he had two children. He finished college with a bachelor’s degree in general liberal arts, and worked a year for Macomb County as an adoption case worker and then a parole officer. He enlisted in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. While stationed in California for four years, he earned a master’s degree in history, and returned to Michigan in 1972.
Back home he quickly followed his father into politics. He ran for state representative and won. During four years in the House he wrote the first law in the country to ban the manufacturing, sale and use of the highly toxic industrial chemical polychorinated biphenyl (PCB), which at the time was killing Michigan’s fishing industry. The law served as a model for other states and a federal law which was eventually passed.
“Bonior was ahead of the public on this,” says Alex Sagady, who has been an environmental activist for 30 years and who manages the Enviro-Mich e-mail list service. “Most politicians don’t do anything until it is perceived by the public as a problem.”
Bonior also co-sponsored a bottle-recycling bill despite strong opposition from unionists who said it would put beverage can makers out of work.
“That’s one reason it never got out of committee,” says Sagady. It eventually passed by a voter initiative, which Bonior helped lead, in 1976.
That same year, he set sights on Congress, and, coincidentally, an ice storm destroyed thousands of trees in southeast Michigan. As part of his campaign, Bonior and his supporters put pine seedlings and Bonior stickers in baggies. They gave away 70,000 of them going door-to-door that year, and he has stuck with the gesture, recently giving away his millionth seedling-sticker package.
Whipping it up
As a young congressman, Bonior attended whip meetings to learn how the House operated. The No. 2 party-leadership post, the whip is responsible for updating members on important legislation and keeping tabs on vote totals. In the game of legislation, each party’s whip is part strategist, part sheep dog. During meetings, Bonior became friends with House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Eventually, Bonior invited O’Neill to his district. But the young congressman didn’t have a big enough car to greet him at the airport. Bonior’s dad had an undertaker friend pick up O’Neill in a hearse. O’Neill loved it. Bonior believes the hearse — and his ability to name Northern Dancer as the winning horse of the 1964 Kentucky Derby during that drive from the airport — got him appointed to the House Rules Committee, a leadership-track position.
In 1986, former House Speaker Jim Wright named Bonior chief deputy whip to bridge the gap between older and younger House members.
“I looked the group over carefully and decided Bonior was the most respected and nearly universally liked,” says Wright. “He also had the courage to stand up for things whether they were popular or not.”
Bonior’s Democratic colleagues elected him whip in 1992, a post he held until this year. When Gingrich became House speaker following the Republicans’ stunning 1994 House victories, Bonior counterattacked with a tenacity that the Almanac of American Politics compared to Ahab chasing Moby Dick. Even some of colleagues said he was obsessed and distanced themselves. Although the Almanac characterizes some of Bonior’s attacks and charges against Gingrich as frivolous, he helped expose the speaker’s misuse of political money; Congress made Gingrich pay a $300,000 fine, and he resigned in 1998.
Bonior also challenged and angered President Bill Clinton on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which passed in 1994. Bonior’s said it would cause good union jobs to leave the States and make Mexican workers vulnerable to exploitation.
Worker exploitation is a major issue for Bonior. He marched with United Farm Workers in California to protest deplorable living and working conditions in 1997. That same year, he and six others were arrested for refusing to leave the office of Thomas Bray, then Detroit News editorial page editor. Bonior and his cohorts, who included Bob King, UAW vice president of labor relations, wanted to draw attention to the bitter labor dispute between the News and striking unions. When Bonior called the press to report his arrest, Bray grabbed the cell phone, breaking the antenna.
That incident, along with his refusal to talk to either of the daily newspapers during the five-year dispute, may have contributed to his failure to get the Detroit Free Press endorsement, which went to Granholm.
Bonior, whom the UAW, Service Employees International and several other unions have endorsed, is often accused of being in labor’s pocket.
In response, he notes that he inspired the wrath of the Teamsters and building-trade unions last year by opposing drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge. “That may be why the Teamsters didn’t endorse me,” he says.
On the other hand, he broke with environmentalists when it came to fuel-efficiency standards. The UAW opposed the bill, and so did Bonior.
“The other 90 percent of the time he is with us, which is an outstanding record,” says Dan Farough, political director of the Sierra Club, Michigan Mackinac Chapter, which has endorsed Bonior for governor.
Show me the money?
When the McCullum barbecue concludes, eastside resident Karlene Trump says she is surprised that no one asked her for a penny.
“I was prepared to contribute to his campaign,” she says.
Bonior doesn’t ask for contributions at the barbecues, but a cousin, who helps with fundraising, gladly takes a $50 check from Trump.
Bonior, who says he supports campaign finance reform, agreed to spend no more than $2 million on the gubernatorial race, making him eligible for matching funds. But he had to raise $495,000 from individual voters, who contributed $100 or less, to get the maximum state match of $990,000, which he did, according to his treasurer, Darlene Kaltz. (He has about $240,000 in his congressional account, but that money cannot be used for state elections.)
His opponent Blanchard also agreed to the $2 million limit, but has not raised enough money to receive the maximum amount of matching funds. Granholm did not agree to the limit and as of this month has raised twice as much money as Bonior.
Though Bonior agreed to the spending limit, that does not preclude supporters from giving “soft money” to groups such as the St. Clair County Democrats, who have been running ads supportive of Bonior and critical of Granholm. Since the “issue” ads do not specifically say, “Vote for Bonior,” the group does not have to publicly report how much it raised, what it spent or who contributed to it, says Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group that is critical of soft-money spending.
St. Clair County Democrats attorney Chuck Kelly would not tell Metro Times how much the group raised or spent on the ads.
“It’s an independent group and they do their own thing,” says Mark Fisk, Bonior’s spokesman
Bonior finished fundraising the first week of January, according to Ed Bruley, who has managed nearly all of Bonior’s campaigns since 1977.
“We got that piece out of the way so we could focus on campaigning,” he says.
Bonior says he spends 14 to 16 hours a day campaigning. A recent Wednesday morning found him at 6:15 a.m. outside of a National Steel plant in Ecorse, during shift change. He pats each worker on the back as he stretches out his hand and introduces himself. His trademark soft sell.
Afterward, he eats eggs over easy and rye toast with decaffeinated coffee at Norma’s Café on Jefferson. He spends about 40 minutes talking about what he will do if elected governor.
The biggest challenge facing whoever takes office January 1, 2003, is the state’s projected $1 billion deficit.
Bonior says that for at least two years he will postpone a major tax cut for businesses, the Single Business Tax (SBT), and the income tax cut, that were approved by Engler. However, with the current problems, Engler already paused the SBT for this fiscal year and next, which is expected to shore up about $156 million. Postponing the income tax cut will generate about $539 million, according to budget experts.
Bonior also says taxing Internet purchases will generate as much as $300 million, and he’d raise the diesel-fuel tax. But there are no easy answers, he says.
Looking beyond the current shortfall, Bonior talks about saving money by constructing roads built to last, and about helping seniors by having the state take bids for bulk drug purchases and passing on that savings.
As for the $300 million in tobacco settlement money that the state receives annually, he plans to use about 75 percent for health care programs and 25 percent for higher education such as scholarships and to forgive student loans for nurses and teachers. The Engler administration has used tobacco money to fund National Merit Scholarships for high school students.
Some progressives are troubled by Bonior’s anti-abortion stance, although it could help him with the more conservative general election voters. Would he appoint anti-abortion judges as governor?
“It’s not a litmus test for me,” says Bonior. “It’s an important issue, but there are a lot of important issues.” He opposes funding abortions with tax dollars, but supports RU-486 — the morning-after abortion pill — stem-cell research and family planning. He thinks doctors should be allowed to inform patients of all options, including abortion, and he chose a female African-American running mate, Alma Wheeler Smith, who is very pro-choice, as is his wife, Judy.
“That’s probably the only thing we don’t agree on,” says Judy, who met Bonior at Iowa State University, where she was an activist for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights group. They met again when both were divorced and she was working for another congressman. Bonior hired her for his staff and two years later asked her on a date.
Judy is hyperactive in contrast to her husband. But she says she is shy and at times was phobic about attending events in D.C. Her shyness sometimes haunts her on the campaign trail.
“There are moments when I’m scared to get out of my car,” she laughs.
But like her husband, she has no trouble standing her ground. When a man berates her as a “figurine” during a union rally, she shakes her head. When he repeats it, she shouts, “Bullshit!”
Bonior is far more sedate, so sedate as to raise concerns in some quarters.
“I would have liked to have seen a more aggressive campaign,” says Morrow, the political analyst. “He should be more fired up and out there … so that people recognize him as a household name.”
“He’s not a rabble-rouser, but he is passionate,” says Lytle, the childhood friend who has known Bonior for 50 years.
His passion, particularly for Michigan, comes through most clearly in his book, Walking to Mackinac, which chronicles the trek he and Judy made five years ago. Judy had the arduous task of typing his manuscript.
Besides introducing a surprisingly good writer, the book shows Bonior is terrified of dogs — he was mauled as a tot — loves maps and wildflowers, hates chain stores and suburban sprawl, is intensely introspective, romantic and self-critical, adores his wife and mother-in-law, and is a voracious reader.
He hopes to write a second book, about Hamtramck.
“Don’t tell my wife,” he says.
She needn’t worry just now. There’s little time for reading or writing, and if Bonior’s biggest gamble pays off, it will be that way for years.
Investigative reports on James Blanchard and Jennifer Granholm are included below:
Ex-Gov. Blanchard — Michigan Democrats' darling of the '80s — says he's older, wiser and re-energized.
With a lead in the polls and a huge war chest, the self-made Granholm is poised to transcend humble roots.