The suicide death of state Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) on Tuesday (May 9) is eerily similar to the sad story of state Rep. Dennis Dutko (D-Warren), who took his own life 27 years ago.
After years as a Republican volunteer, Dutko switched parties and was first elected to the Michigan House of Representatives in 1974, defeating freshman Republican Warren O’Brien, who had won election in the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential race when the City of Warren was in a frenzy over the issue of cross-district busing. Dutko beat O’Brien in the “Watergate” year, the first election following the infamous scandal that forced President Richard Nixon’s resignation followed by his pardon by his successor, Michigan Gerald R. Ford.
Dutko would go on to be re-elected in Macomb County’s 25th House district seven times. In his final term, he was chairman of the House Committee on Colleges and Universities.
But Dutko had a problem — he was a chronic alcoholic. John Kivela looked like Carrie Nation by comparison. Dutko was arrested for drunk driving six times (and convicted four) while in office, beginning in 1979. After his fourth conviction, Dutko was sentenced to a year in the Ingham County jail. Speaker Lewis Dodak (D-Birch Run) stripped Dutko of his committee chairmanship, but Attorney General Frank Kelley opined that since Dutko had been convicted of a misdemeanor and not a felony he was not required to resign from office. Nor was there any effort to expel him. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which at the time was the pioneering force behind measures to stiffen drunk driving laws, demanded that Dutko resign from the House or that he should be thrown out by his colleagues. MADD also threatened a recall drive, but nothing came of it.
Dutko began his jail sentence on May 27, 1989. He continued to receive his legislative pay, which was then $42,670 per annum. He could use the jail’s payphone to call his legislative office twice a day. Legislative paperwork had to be snail-mailed to Dutko. The only hand-delivered packages he could accept were those containing socks and underwear. Dutko could have one 30-minute visitation each week. Dodak and some other colleagues occasionally visited.
Dutko resigned from the state House in September, 1989, while still in jail. In a special election to fill the vacancy, Republican D. Roman Kulchitsky pulled a shocking upset win to fill out the Dutko term. That brought the Republicans’ deficit in the House up to 60D/50R, the strongest minority the GOP had had in the lower chamber in six years and paving the way for a five-seat pick-up in 1992 that produced the 55-55 “shared power” session of 1993-94. Kulchitsky lost his seat after less than a year in office, but another Democrat from Warren, Dennis Olshove, managed to scrape out a close win to keep his party from falling into the minority. It was the end of 24 straight years of Democratic majority control of the House — the party has never come close to attaining such electoral superiority in the years since.
Dutko served seven months in jail before being released early on January, 1990. He was driving down to Florida when he was arrested at a rest stop near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and charged with cocaine possession and driving without a license.
A day later, Dutko’s mother and sister found him dead in a rented condominium in Fort Meyers Beach when he failed to met them for lunch. An empty pill bottle was found near his body. His death was later ruled a suicide.