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Former Michigan Rep. Vern Ehlers: The Scientist-Politician Who Reached Across the Aisle

Image: Former Michigan Rep. Vern Ehlers: The Scientist-Politician Who Reached Across the Aisle
Former Rep. Vern Ehlers in 2006 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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Sunday, 20 August 2017 11:18 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Following news reports that former Rep. Vern Ehlers died August 15, friends of the Grand Rapids, Mich. Republican almost unanimously agreed it was for the best he had retired from Congress in 2010.

Ehlers was the first research scientist to serve in Congress and, like Benjamin Franklin, he meshed his politics with his scientific curiosity. The moderate-to-conservative Ehlers, who was 83 when he died, was inevitably curious about everything and kept reaching out to colleagues with whom he had fundamental differences.

"And after we both left office in ’10, things got even more partisan," former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R.-Mich., told Newsmax, "Vern would not have liked it. That wasn’t him. He was a kind man who never had a harsh word about anyone."

Having earned a Ph.D in nuclear physics from the University of California, Berkley, the young Ehlers joined the faculty at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., and rose to head its physics department.

But politics beckoned him. He was elected Kent County Commissioner in 1972 and was a co-chairman in Grand Rapids of George H. W. Bush’s winning campaign against Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential primary. In 1982 he was elected State Representative.

When fellow Grand Rapids Republican Paul Henry went to Congress in 1984, then-State Rep. Ehlers seemed their party’s obvious candidate for his state senate seat. But he would face an unusual and very critical special election, as it would determine which party controlled the evenly-split state senate.

So the contest between Democrat Stephen Monsma and Republican Ehlers, both Calvin College professors, attracted national dollars and national reports, including a Page One story in the Washington Post.

"I was on one of two buses going from East Michigan to West Michigan to canvass for Vern," Bill McBride, later Ehlers’ top aide in Congress for sixteen years, told us, "When we got there, it was raining hard. But Vern was out there, calm and smiling, and we walked precincts." Ehlers won with 53 percent of the vote.

Eight years later, Rep. Henry died after a bout with brain cancer. State Sen. Ehlers was immediately considered a candidate. However, he told me at the time, "I’m thinking about it but please don’t print anything. Let’s show respect for Paul’s family."

Ehlers went on to defeat two primary opponents with considerable personal wealth. He then beat Democrat Dale Sprik with 57 percent of the vote and went to Washington.

Suddenly finding himself in a body where his party was the minority, Ehlers began making friends with Democratic lawmakers. When Republicans captured control of the House in ’94, the Grand Rapids man maintained his cordial contacts across the aisle. He worked particularly well with fellow Administration Committee Member and future House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md..

A staunch pro-family conservative on cultural issues such as abortion and traditional marriage, Ehlers generally backed lowering tax rates and reducing government spending — up to a point. The scientist in him led the normally-soft spoken Ehlers to vigorously oppose the Bush Administration’s plan to cut $120 million from the National Science Foundation.

The Michigander also broke with much of his party on the issue of climate change, which he hated to see dismissed by many Republicans. It was not, as Ehlers’ aide McBride put it, "because he was an extreme environmentalist — he certainly wasn’t — but as a devout Christian, he truly believed God wanted us to be ‘good stewards of the earth.’"

When he became chairman of the House Administration Committee, Ehlers had a good rapport with the minority ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Bob Brady.

"Mr. Brady doubled as the Democratic chairman of Philadelphia and was a tough-talking big city pol — about as different from Vern as you can find," said Bill McBride, "After the Democrats won the House back in ’06, Mr. Brady was chairman and he and Vern were asking the superintendent of the Capitol to relocate some statues. This was important to Vern because he wanted room for a statue of Gerald Ford, who once held his seat and whom he admired greatly."

After Ehlers politely asked the superintendent about moving the statues, McBride added, "Mr. Brady said rather directly ‘do what da little guy from Michigan here wants — move ‘em!’ They were moved."

Ehlers’ friend and onetime colleague Hoekstra was recently named as ambassador to the Netherlands and his nomination was endorsed last week by Michigan’s Democratic Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters.

"When I heard the news, I immediately thought of Vern because he put what he felt was right above what was partisan," said Hoekstra, "I’ll really miss him. So will a lot of people."

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John-Gizzi
Following news reports that former Rep. Vern Ehlers died August 15, friends of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Republican almost unanimously agreed it was for the best he had retired from Congress in 2010.
gizzi, vern ehlers, passing
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2017-18-20
Sunday, 20 August 2017 11:18 AM
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