Few Michigan politicians in the past half-century have had a more varied, productive life than former state Senator/Congressman John J.H. “Joe” Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), an otolaryngologist whose career in public service was almost an anti-climax to all that had gone before.
Schwarz submitted himself to an hour and half-long videotaped interview on July 8 for the Michigan Political History Society, which has just been posted on the MPHS website and is well worth seeing.
Here’s a sampling of what was left out of the interview, but which Schwarz contributed afterwards in correspondence with his interrogator, Bill Ballenger, publisher of The Ballenger Report:
Ballenger: “President Pro Tempore of the Senate — that’s a position that the general public, and even the news media, has little knowledge or appreciation of. The title is from the Latin, meaning “for the time being,” and it refers to a legislator who acts as “locus tenens,” translated as “placeholder” for a higher official who is supposed to preside over the body. In the Michigan Senate, that would be the Lieutenant Governor, who constitutionally is supposed to preside over the “upper chamber” but often can’t do it because of other responsibilities. I believe you were President Pro Tem, as it’s called. For how long? How does that position operate, anyway?
Schwarz: I was President Pro Tem from early 1994 to the end of 2002. The position had become vacant because Vern Ehlers, a senator from Grand Rapids, was elected to Congress to succeed the late Paul Henry, who had preceded him as a state senator. The President Pro Tem is chosen by the majority party caucus — actually, by the entire senate, but, practically speaking, if a majority of the majority caucus picks someone, it’s a fait accompli.
Ballenger: Was this something you sought? Did you have competition?
Schwarz: I ran for it against another senator, Jack Welborn from Kalamazoo, and got the most votes in caucus. The public doesn’t perhaps appreciate how important, or potentially important, the job is. President Pro Tem is fourth in line to succeed to governor, after the Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General. In the Michigan Manuals, the bible of state government, you’ll find President Pro Tems listed dating back to 1835. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1959 that the standing rules of the Senate provided for the election of a majority leader, but president Pro Tem has always been recognized.
Ballenger: Practically speaking, what percentage of your time on the Senate floor did you spend in the chair? As much as the Lieutenant Governor — I think there were two of them during your tenure, right?
Schwarz: The Lieutenant Governor has the constitutional responsibility to preside over the Senate, but with both Connie Binsfeld and Dick Posthumus, I presided about 75% of the time.
Ballenger: Was there a difference between General Orders, when bills are first brought up for consideration, and Third Reading, when bills were ready to be voted on, as to whether you found yourself presiding, or not?
Schwarz: On General orders, all members take turns presiding. On Third Reading, and other Senate business, the Lieutenant Governor or President Pro Tem presides.
Ballenger: Was it important that you were knowledgeable about parliamentary procedure, or could the Senate secretary and/or her staff “cover” for you most of the time?
Schwarz: Knowledge of procedural rules was important, and if I was at a loss I simply consulted the Secretary of the Senate to get me out of the woods.
Ballenger: Did you have to make any controversial decisions from the chair? Can you cite a few? Did you have to cast a few tie-breaking votes?
Schwarz: I cast a few tie-breaking votes, but none were momentous. I think I was a strong presiding officer. Both parties liked it when I was in the chair, but I never had any compunction about consulting with leadership on a thorny issue.
Ballenger: How closely did you have to coordinate with the Senate Majority leader and/or Majority Floor Leader, or were you allowed to pretty much “do your own thing.”
Schwarz: I had constant communication with the floor leaders, who over time were Phil Arthurhultz, Dan DeGrow, Mike Rogers and Joanne Emmons. I was also on the phone with the Majority Leader not infrequently. On one well-known occasion, there was a Democratic amendment proposed by state Senator Debbie Stabenow to wipe out the ad valorem property tax (Editor’s Note: all property taxes for K-12 school operations). Governor Engler called the podium from his office and said: “Take it.” We did! — and that opened the door for Proposal A.
Ballenger: Changing the subject, although it still relates to when you were presiding over the Senate. I believe you suddenly got the news that U.S. Senator John McCain, who was running for President at the time, was flying into Lansing. What did you do? Had you already arranged to support him and talked to Gov. Engler about it? Or was this a spur-of-the-moment thing where you just decided, “I’ve gotta go meet him!” and things started to happen from there?
Schwarz: On the McCain issue, the episode in question took place in mid-to-late 2000. I had already told Gov. Engler that I was supporting my fellow Vietnam vet Senator McCain. Gov. Engler accepted that — he had the entire Senate caucus except for me in the Bush corner. I learned that Senator McCain would be speaking at Lansing Community College down the street from the Capitol. It was mid-morning; I was in the chair. I handed the gavel over to another, I can’t remember who it was, told Dan DeGrow I was leaving to greet Senator McCain, and headed for LCC. It had been purposefully arranged by the Republicans that NO ONE would officially greet McCain, so he’d know there was no support for his campaign in Michigan. I greeted him and was proud to do so. Yes, I “had” to do it. I never would have forgiven myself had I not done it. McCain got the drift of things in Michigan at the time, and that’s when he advised me, tongue in cheek: “Better have someone start your car for you in the morning.” The next morning, I was asked to chair the McCain campaign in the (presidential) primary, and my answer was an enthusiastic “Yes.” The rest is an interesting and, I think, proud chapter in Michigan political history (Editor’s note: as everyone knows, McCain won). As a footnote, McCain was exceedingly kind and considerate during my abbreviated time in Congress, and I was able to attend events like the Munich Security Conference as part of the U.S. delegation. To this day, of course, I wish I’d won re-election to the U.S. House, but I would not compromise my own principles and be a cloying sycophant to the “whack job” right in the Republican Party. And, today, I wouldn’t — and don’t — fit in at all …”
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