When word came that former Rep. Jack McDonald, R.-Mich. died August 17, it took a while to find those who remembered the good-natured former politician. At 90 and retired to the Outer Bank of North Carolina, McDonald was one of onlyfive living members of the 59 Republicans in the celebrated House GOP “Class of 1966”— in the last 70 years, rivaled in terms of numbers only by the huge classes of 1994 and 2010 that gave Republicans control of the House.
“Sure, I remember Jack,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the much-read, on-line Ballenger Report on Michigan politics, “He was an affable, low-key-guy whom everybody liked. He was a mainstream Republican of the time, and was never seriously challenged in his three terms in the House. But he was finally done in by the 1972 reapportionment plan.”
McDonald was indeed widely liked. McDonald’s fellow Oakland County resident and onetime Michigan Republican National Committeewoman Ronna Rombey recalled to Newsmax that the congressman “was greatly admired by [her onetime father-in-law and late Michigan Gov.] George Romney, even though they differed on some issues such as school busing.”
Ballenger, Romney and any who were around said that McDonald’s swan song was the redistricting plan drawn by a Democrat-appointed federal judge in 1972. It forced him into a contest with a friend and fellow Republican lawmaker and cut short his career 50 years ago.
A graduate of Wayne State University and the University of Detroit Law School, the young McDonald practiced law for a few years. His practice was interrupted in 1960, when he was tapped to oversee the local census for the U.S. Bureau of the Census. A year later, he was elected Supervisor of Redford Township and went on to serve as chairman of the Oakland County Board of Supervisors (later Commissioners) — making him roughly the equivalent of a big-city mayor.
In 1964, Democrat Billie Farnum had won what Republicans called Michigan’s “Five Fluke Freshmen” — five Democrats who swept to Congress on Lyndon Johnson’s long coattails in the Water Wonderland and faithfully supported his big-spending Great Society agenda. Republican opponent McDonald contrasted that with his own record as a fiscal conservative, and also ran as a supporter of law and order and victory in the Vietnam War. With Gov. Romney leading the Republican ticket with a landslide re-election and a campaign appearance from Richard Nixon, McDonald clobbered Farnum with 57% of the vote.
Rated 71% by the American Conservative Union, McDonald was a center-right Republican in a House class that included future President George H.W. Bush (Tex.), future Sens. Robert Taft, Jr. (Ohio) and William Scott (Va.), and future Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler (Mass.).
“It was an exciting time and the real start of what became the Reagan Revolution 14 years later,” former Rep. Jim Gardner, R.-N.C., another “66er” and future lieutenant governor of North Carolina, recalled to Newsmax.
McDonald seemed destined for a long career in Congress. But in 1971, his political fate fell into the hands of a federal judge who would redraw his district. With the legislature unable to agree on new lines for the state’s U.S. House districts, that task fell into the hands of U.S. District Judge (and LBJ appointee) Damon Keith. The part of Oakland County that had been in the district of 16-year Rep. William Broomfield was placed into McDonald’s neighboring turf, forcing Broomfield to move and challenge his fellow Republican.
The issue of court-ordered school busing dominated political debate in Michigan in 1972. McDonald frequently appeared with anti-busing parents and took up their cause. Broomfield went further and offered an eponymous amendment to halt all busing for 18 months.
“I met Congressman McDonald when I was a tiny kid and my folks moved to Farmington Hills [in Oakland County],” present GOP County Chairman Rocky Raczkowski told us. “He was always known as a nice guy and a 'doer'. He was less boisterous than others, but from what I knew of him by word of mouth, you could always count on him to get a job done. Broomfield cleaned his clock because Bill was entrenched in the area and knew everyone.” Broomfield defeated McDonald by about 7,000 votes out of more than 43,000 cast.
McDonald lobbied and practiced law in Washington for many years before retiring to North Carolina. Often, he would be seen at the Capitol Hill Club where he and former colleagues from Michigan dined with their wives. Among them would be his former foe Broomfield and his wife Jane.
Jack McDonald is a distant memory a half-century after he left Congress. But those who did know him speak of a congressman who got along well with those with whom he disagreed, and knew about liking and being liked. In an age when Congress often appears fractious and debate incendiary, it’s not a bad way to be remembered.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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