Following the news that Jack Welborn died Sunday at age 88, veterans of Michigan politics recalled that the former Republican state senator was a “conservative populist” years before Pat Buchanan and Donald Trump made the term part of the political lexicon.
Welborn is perhaps best recalled among national conservatives as Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign chairman in the Michigan primary — which was no easy task, as Reagan '76 campaign operative Gary Hoitsma told us.
"It took a lot of courage for Republican elected officials at any level to openly buck the party establishment and back an upstart primary challenger to the incumbent Republican president," said Hoitsma. "And nowhere more so than in the home state of that president, Gerald R. Ford. In stepping up to be Reagan’s Michigan chairman, Jack epitomized those patriotic grassroots activists across the country who paved the way to the Reagan presidency four year later. Jack was a true conservative trailblazer."
A Kalamazoo dairy farmer who never went to college, “Proudly!” he liked to tell this reporter, Welborn relished combat with teachers’ unions and championed charter schools and vouchers.
Like Trump, Welborn was an occasional churchgoer who nonetheless fought hard for the pro-life cause and carried the cudgel of the “values voters” in the days when they were known as “the church folks” or “the Moral Majority.”
But Welborn was most clearly associated with the causes of smaller government and minimal taxation. Inspired by a regimen of reading the durable libertarian publication “The Freeman,” Welborn was one of the earliest proponents of smaller government and minimal taxation.
As the “ax-the-tax” movement took off nationwide in 1978, Welborn and other Wolverine State conservatives worked tirelessly for enactment of the Headlee Amendment. Crafted by Alexander Hamilton Life Insurance Company President Dick Headlee and passed in a statewide initiative, the amendment mandated that from all of its taxes, fees, and other sources, the state’s total revenue cannot exceed 9.49% of personal income in Michigan.
Moreover, the measure required local governments not to add new taxes or increase existing ones, or increase certain bonded indebtedness, without securing approval of the voters.
In 1980, Welborn and other anti-taxers tried to go a step further.
Along with mandating across-the-board tax cuts, the controversial measure, according to the Oakland Post, “would require any change in state tax to have a voter approval rate of 60 percent in special referendums. This would include licenses, permits, and most importantly, changes in tuition.”
With strong opposition from the academia and much of the business community, Tisch went down to defeat in November.
Recalling Welborn, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist called him “one of the early leaders of the taxpayer movement that was epitomized by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann of California. But many states provided crucial leadership that allowed Ronald Reagan to lead a national campaign to move the Republican party from being the tax collector or the welfare state to becoming the party of lower taxes, job creation, and economic growth.
“That growth funded Reagan’s defense buildup and led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Jack Welborn helped make that possible.”
Welborn felt that the conservative grass-roots movement built up from the campaigns for Headlee and Tisch and Ronald Reagan’s presidential bid, of which Welborn was state chairman in 1976, gave him an excellent chance of unseating liberal Republican Gov. William Milliken in 1982.
But Milliken — once referred to by Welborn as a “skunk” — suddenly announced he wasn’t running and thus left the Kalamazoo conservative without his desired target. Three other candidates jumped in the gubernatorial primary and the nomination was won by Welborn’s old ally Dick Headlee. Running as an unabashed conservative, he narrowly lost to Democrat James Blanchard.
Welborn found himself out of the senate, on the sidelines, and incongruously quiet. In 1985, following the death of his successor and brother Bob Welborn, Jack handily won back his old seat. For the next nine years, he embraced the issue of prison reform, helped Republican Gov. John Engler enact a major property tax cut, and even worked with arch-liberal Democrat Rep. Perry Bullard of Ann Arbor on a bipartisan crime package.
Welborn began his political career in 1966 by unseating longtime Cooper Township Supervisor Willard Doster. So upset was Doster with his loss that he piled up all of his official documents in the middle of his office and left them for Welborn to sort out.
In 1972, Welborn was elected to the state House of Representatives. That same year, in a state where there is no party registration, Michiganders ask for the primary ballot of choice at the polls, he helped lead fellow Republicans to support Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the Democrat presidential primary. Days after he was critically wounded by an assassin, Wallace handily won in Michigan.
In reminiscing with this reporter in 1985 about his first primary victory in a Northern state, Wallace warmly recalled Welborn and, as the Democrat governor of Alabama that year, he endorsed his Republican friend’s return to the Michigan senate.
“Jack Welborn spoke his mind, sometimes irritated people. and could be contentious,” former State Attorney General and 2018 Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette told Newsmax. “ I liked the guy, although he didn’t always agree with me, nor did I always agree with him. But you always knew where he stood and what were his guiding principles.”
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