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Reflecting on Bob Michel's Leadership of the House Republican Minority

Tim Shelley / WCBU
Peoria Journal Star Associate Editor Chris Kaergard, Frank Mackaman of the Dirksen Congressional Center, former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and political science professor Sean Q Kelly at Bradley University's Hayden-Clark Alumni Center

Congress could use fewer showhorses, and more workhorses.

That's according to Sean Q Kelly. He's a political science professor at California State University and the co-editor of a recent book on House Minority Leader Bob Michel, Robert H. Michel: Leading the Republican House Minority. He said the Peoria Republican listened and was willing to do the hard, unglamorous work to get legislation passed.

"That was really what made him stand out. And I think our politics today really focuses on the showhorses. Who's on TV, who's getting the attention? When you do need these workhorses to actually get things done," said Kelly.

Frank Mackaman, the historian for the Dirksen Congressional Center and the co-editor of the book, said Michel was effective not just because of hard work and policy expertise, but also personal relationships with other members of the generation that went through the Depression and World War II.

But as time wore on and younger members rose through the ranks, things changed.

"One of the lenses through which you view congressional history and Bob Michel's career is that generational change. And by the end of Bob's career, I argue that history had passed him by," said Mackaman.

He says that when Michel retired in 1995, the more combative and partisan style personified by successor Newt Gingrich became the norm.

But he says Michel's personal relationships with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are what helped him sustain his influence and affect policy for as long as he did.

Michel, a Peoria Republican, was in the minority for his entire 38 years in Congress. But his support was instrumental in getting President Reagan's 1981 tax cuts, the NAFTA deal under President Clinton, and other major bills passed.

Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was a staffer for Michel before he ran for Congress. He spent 14 years in Washington. Twelve of those years were in the majority, and two in the minority.

He acknowledged working in the minority in the majoritarian House can be unfulfilling, but said he thought Michel got through it due to his role as leader. That allowed him extra leverage to work with other legislative leaders and the president to usher legislation through the process.

Mackaman said being in the minority defined Michel's career. He recalled one favorite quote from the Peoria Republican.

"Every day I wake up and look in the mirror, and say to myself 'Today, you're going to be a loser.' And after you're here for a while, Bob observed to a colleague, you'll start to feel the same way. But don't let it bother you. You'll get used to it,'" said Mackaman.

He said the anecdote is telling not only of the "crushing burden" of being in the minority, but the challenges Michel faced towards the end of his career.

"He says 'you'll get used to it.' Newt Gingrich was not willing to get used to it," Mackaman said.

Gingrich became Speaker of the House after Republicans won a majority in the lower chamber for the first time in four decades in 1994 - the same year Michel announced he was retiring.

Michel was born in 1923 in Peoria. He died in 2017 at age 93.

The book discussion was hosted at the Peplow Pavilion at Bradley University's Hayden-Clark Alumni Center on Monday. Peoria Journal Star Associate Editor Chris Kaergard moderated the discussion with Kelly, Mackaman and LaHood.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.