School Trustee, Brandon School Division
Soon after I was asked to contribute an article on leadership to Ecclectica's political issue I learned that one of my political heroes, former U.S. Congressman Jim Jontz, was in the final stages of fighting colon cancer, ultimately passing away on April 14, 2007.
I volunteered for Jontz in each of his four congressional campaigns in north-west Indiana's 5th Congressional District between 1986 – 1992. In an area that was overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, Jontz was able to take positions traditionally dismissed as "liberal" and present them in a way that appealed to both a sense of self-interest and a sense of community for his constituents. His ability to connect with ordinary people culminated in his successful campaigns for Congress in 1986, 1988 and 1990. His defeat in 1992 illustrated how a candidate can lose that connection with voters.
Jim Jontz was first elected as a State Representative in 1974 at age 22 and established himself as a populist with a solid record of support for labour, environmental, consumer and senior citizen concerns. In 1984 he rose to the Indiana state senate in another upset victory. Jontz's trademark was his exuberant riding of his sister's ancient Schwinn bicycle in parades, a habit which allowed him to mingle with spectators while other, conventional politicians rode in convertibles. Through his tireless work on behalf of constituents Jontz promoted a vision that brought together the interests of the middle-class and those of the disadvantaged. Jontz's political beliefs saw seniors and veterans not merely as voting blocks, but as citizens who should be honoured and rewarded for their service to the nation and to the community. Jontz successfully promoted an activist vision that government should "get back on your side" not merely "get off your back".
In 1986 Jontz pulled off a titanic upset in the race for a vacant Congressional seat in the 5th District, defeating an evangelical preacher in the Pat Robertson mould who had been chosen as the Republican candidate. The 5th District, as it was configured in the late 1980's and early 1990's, was a classic midwestern constituency featuring both America's agricultural heartland and declining Rust Belt industries. Jontz's ability to communicate his priorities on jobs, trade and farm aid showed that he could speak to the people on their terms, and take a "liberal" message and make it one of common sense.
Jontz felt that the average citizens of his district were being denied the opportunity of pursuing their aspirations by corporate interests and unresponsive government. When he talked about the privatization of profit and the socialization of risk he did it in a way his constituents understood. Jontz spoke of labour unions not as part of a problem but as a means for people to act together to build their lives and, in so doing, to build their community. Jontz eschewed many of the modern campaign trappings and insisted that his campaign workers strive to hit every door in his sprawling district (an area larger than Rhode Island) twice. While his campaign aides spoke wistfully about "high pursuable precincts" and "get-out-the-vote indexes" Jontz opted for another 20-hour campaign day, putting undying faith in his ability to learn from the voters at their doors and at factory gate entrances.
After his 1986 victory Jontz began his congressional career by amassing an 88% voting record against Ronald Reagan. He commuted to his district every weekend, established a weekly "Dial Your Congressman" program and turned his pay raise into a scholarship fund for college-bound local young people.
In 1988 Jontz won re-election with 56% despite the enormous success of the Bush-Quayle ticket in Indiana. He continued his efforts in Washington, voting against the proposal to ban burning of the flag, winning post-traumatic stress disorder benefits for Vietnam veterans, and opposing the savings and loan bail-out as a subsidy of the financial community by average citizens.
In 1990 Jontz narrowly survived a challenge from a millionaire Republican opponent who poured hundreds of thousands of his own dollars into a TV-based campaign that consistently painted Jontz as too liberal for the area.
Following this election Jontz was increasingly identified with an environmental issue far from his district – preserving the ancient growth forests of the Pacific northwest. Jontz had entered politics as a conservationist and as years passed in Washington, the ancient forest issue came to occupy more and more of his attention. One Republican congressman introduced a bill to proclaim one million acres of the Indiana 5th District as a national forest - a patently absurd proposal meant to ridicule Jontz's perceived meddling in the northwest.
As the 1992 campaign began, Jontz faced his best organized and most telegenic challenger, Steve Buyer. A young lawyer from the heart of the 5th district Buyer played up his service in Operation Desert Storm, though some local residents scoffed that his role as a legal advisor in the Gulf could not be considered combat. Nevertheless, it offered a direct contrast to Jontz, who had voted against the war, and for a time Buyer campaigned in battle fatigues. With six days to go, timber workers were flown in by Buyer to denounce Jontz's forest preservation efforts as a disaster for jobs. Their efforts included a picket line established in front of Jontz's campaign office. Despite Jontz's effort to denounce the show as a timber-industry stunt, the media focus became environment vs. jobs, not economic growth or health care reform as the Jontz campaign had planned.
On election night Buyer upset Jontz 51% to 49%. Jontz, true to his habit from winning campaigns, appeared at 5:30 the next morning at a plant gate in Kokomo to thank the workers for their support.
What led to Jontz's downfall, particularly in a year when the voters ended 12 years of Republican control of the Presidency? I reluctantly concluded that Jontz failed to remain symbolically connected to the everyday concerns of ordinary citizens. Jontz had continued to work spectacularly hard for the people of his district, but he lost the connection with his increasing environmental quest. This was a laudable goal to many voters, but it had little resonance for the farmers and factory workers of Indiana.
Jontz insisted on the distribution of an "environmental canvass piece" in some areas of his district in the 1992 campaign, focusing on preservation of the forests, and blasting his opponent for accepting contributions from a "dirty dozen" timber companies. Even the campaign staff privately derided this literature, referring to it as "a net minus" and the "smell the bark" piece. More tellingly, it was described as the campaign's attempt to educate the voters on the timber issue.
It is tempting to accuse Jontz of losing touch, but in human terms supporters of progressive politics cannot expect their champions to perform super-human feats of endurance. Jontz had come to symbolize many things to many groups, and in the end the pressure to live up to his own image may have led him to pursue his environmental quest as a means of preserving his own identity.
Jontz's political career proves that it is possible to show voters that a progressive agenda can be in their best interest and in the best interests of the country. Some readers would disagree with Jontz's stance on certain issues, such as his opposition to foreign aid and to gun control. But the power of the Jontz message came through his ability to connect with his constituents who saw him as one of their own.
In his farewell speech to supporters, Jontz talked of his pride in having consistently taken political risks that most politicians lack the courage or principle to pursue. Certainly, Jontz made the conscious choice to emphasize the politically risky environmental agenda knowing the potential political implications. While this demonstrates Jontz's ideas and offers solace to the defeated, it overlooks the central truth that politics always involves some compromise and that the best way to pursue your legislative priorities is to keep getting elected.
Jontz ran for the U.S. Senate for Indiana in 1994 and was badly defeated. He moved to Oregon after that defeat and did not seek elected office again. He concentrated on trade and environmental issues, working for several different non-governmental organizations. His passing in 2007 was noted by many environmental groups, and many supporters rallied in his final days to send him a mass email greeting.
His political career offers important lessons about the possibility of victory in unlikely circumstances, and the need to stay connected to the needs and aspirations of your constituents. Most of all, the career of Jim Jontz stands as the triumph of leadership over cynicism. Jontz entered politics for the "right" reasons - a belief in public service and a desire to influence public policy. He was never in it for his own gain. There is no one definitive Jim Jontz story, but from my campaign diary of the 1988 campaign there is one moment that stands out, "canvas in Medaryville... off to Gas 'N Go, check-out lady to Jim 'You're the only reason I go to vote'". More than any other politician I have met, Jim inspired people to believe in democratic process. That is true leadership.
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