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An Incredible Political Saga Still Remembered 50 Years Later

colleen house
Colleen House, elected as Michigan's youngest-ever female legislator (22) in 1974. (Valerie Kegley)

John Gizzi By Tuesday, 25 June 2024 06:27 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

It’s hard to believe how things were before big money came to permeate political campaigns at all levels.

Before high-tech messaging became a fixture in electioneering, and more than a generation before campaigns were run on laptops out of sequestered offices, major political upsets were made possible by “grassroots” campaigns — canvassing homes door-to-door, volunteer phone banks to turn out voters (including offers of a babysitter and ride to the polls) and speeches to small groups with coffee provided, all done out of a storefront headquarters.

And the upsets could be pulled off by eager volunteers, as there were few paid political operatives or consultants on the scene.

One such effort occurred 50 years ago, on June 25, 1974, in Bay City, Michigan.

Republicans vividly remember the election of Colleen House, a political newcomer and Michigan State University graduate, to the state House of Representatives. She became the youngest woman ever elected to the Water Wonderland’s state Legislature, an achievement that remains today.

The year 1974 was the so-called Watergate Year. When voters were increasingly angry at President Richard Nixon over the mushrooming scandal and taking it out on the Republican Party.

On April 16, Democrat state Rep. Bob Traxler won a special election for Congress in Michigan’s 8th District, which had been necessitated by the resignation of Republican incumbent James Harvey to become a federal judge.

In defeating Harvey’s top aide, Jim Sparling, and going to Congress, Traxler resigned the state legislative seat he had held for a decade and thus necessitated a special election for the 101st District.

Area Democrats tapped Bay City Commissioner Fred Voisine to succeed Traxler, and in the 101st District once characterized as “industrial, heavily Polish, and religiously Democratic,” his election seemed a foregone conclusion. Retired Traverse City attorney Mike Gillman, who lost the U.S. nomination to Sparling, wasn’t so sure.

“I felt the right candidate could win,” he recalled to Newsmax. “Colleen had volunteered to be the office manager in my campaign. We didn’t win. At a party I later gave for my supporters, I told Colleen she should run for the open House seat.”

Unsure of her next step after college, she took the plunge.

Bill Gnodtke, then executive director of the state House Republican Caucus, sensed the possibility of an upset. Brian Law, a caucus staffer and Bay City resident, was dispatched to run the campaign. Colleen, her three sisters and one brother were popular in school and had a wide circle of friends eager to canvass and make calls for her. Without argument, the young men eagerly got haircuts before going door-to-door on Colleen’s behalf.

Younger sister Anne House Quinn proudly recalled how she got all her teenaged friends — girls and boys — in school to walk and distribute brochures for her sister.

“We loved it!” she said.

“We looked at the numbers and decided with the right candidate we might be able to ‘steal’ a seat in the special,” John Engler, then 24 and in his second term as state representative and head of the House GOP Campaign Committee, told Newsmax.

“Colleen was that candidate,” he explained noting that she “held many events in every part of the city and townships in the district.”

“Our staff in Lansing figured out other logistics such as brochures, flyers, yard signs etc,” he continued.

“The mailings and voter ID we viewed as ‘training’ and we had many GOP staff and a few legislators helping and traveling in free time to Bay City.”

Engler, who would go on to be state senator and then governor of Michigan from 1990-2002, noted, “We held off on yard signs until late in the campaign so we did not raise too much of an alarm too early. Our mail program was excellent and quite targeted for 1974. We also used local endorsements effectively and had a phone program to get out the vote.”

The yard signs, as campaign volunteer and future Michigan GOP Executive Director Colleen Pero told Newsmax, “actually went up the night before the balloting. The Democrats were ambushed.”

As they were putting up the signs, House and her friends signaled one another by tapping their noses — a gesture Paul Newman and Robert Redford gave one another in the hit movie “The Sting.”

At the time, there were no rules on campaign finance and reporting of donations. But the young GOP contender, who had cashed in a $5,000 life insurance policy to jump-start the campaign, freely disclosed her donations and strongly supported a law requiring full disclosure of campaign contributions to any Michigan office-seeker.

She also came out four-square against higher taxes, vowed to fight inflation, and was against abortion, less than two years after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

On June 25, House embarrassed Michigan Democrats by not only defeating Democrat Voisine but doing so by a margin of 2-to-1.

Coming in what was shaping up to be the worst Republican year in generations, the GOP win from a Michigan legislative district was reported nationwide. From the Chicago Tribune to Glamor Magazine, every news outlet, it seemed, wanted to know more about this improbable Republican candidate who emerged triumphant on Democratic turf.

Republican National Chair George H.W. Bush sought her out and requested she join him in a nationally televised telethon for the party. She even received two anonymous proposals of marriage over the phone. When reporters inquired about her reaction, she replied: “I told them I would put them on my waiting list.”

At 5 a.m. on the morning after her victory, House was at the plant gates to thank workers — an unprecedented move by a Republican in the area.

“I’m going to look like a woman or a cute little girl for a while,” she told The Associated Press at the time. “But they [her House colleagues] are going to find out I have the stamina and probably more energy than most of them.”

She did.

Elected to a full term in the fall of 1974, she was again in the national news a few months later, when the two youngest members of the Michigan Legislature — House at 22 and Engler at 25— were married. (They were divorced in 1987.)

Defeated for reelection in 1976, Colleen eventually moved to another district and in 1982 was returned to the House and served two more terms.

In 1986, she became the first woman to run for governor of Michigan and, after losing the primary, was tapped by Republican nominee Bill Lucas as his lieutenant governor running mate.

In a Democratic year, the Lucas-Engler ticket lost to Democrat Gov. James Blanchard and Lt. Gov. Martha Griffiths.

Colleen went on to work in the administration of George H.W. Bush at the U.S. Department of Commerce and, for nearly a quarter century, at the International Republican Institute.

In working closely with developing democracies and training people abroad for their first experience in electing their leaders, she was frequently asked about her own experience as a young office-seeker who beat the odds.

A Footnote: The saga of Colleen House’s first election 50 years ago has special meaning for me, even though I didn’t meet her until many years later.

She was my wife from 2002 until, following a four-year battle with dementia, her death on Christmas Eve of 2022. It never failed to amaze me how many Michiganders recalled her first campaign and the historic nature of her win.

When I met state Rep. Andrea LaFontaine from Macomb County at the state GOP’s annual Mackinac Conference in 2011, she introduced herself by saying, “I’m 23 and the second-youngest woman ever to serve in the Michigan Legislature — you know, right after Colleen!”

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© 2024 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

It's hard to believe how things were before big money came to permeate political campaigns at all levels. Before high-tech messaging became a fixture in electioneering, and more than a generation before campaigns were run on laptops out of sequestered offices, major...
michigan, colleen house, house of representatives
Tuesday, 25 June 2024 06:27 AM
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