Puerto Rico, Gov. Rick Snyder’s 21st Century Education Commission, and a long-forgotten Michigan Congressman — what could they possibly have in common?
The answer: Alvin M. Bentley of Owosso, whose widow, Billie, endowed the University of Michigan’s famous Bentley Historical Library. Bentley was the only man ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Shiawassee County.
Let’s start with Puerto Rico, the island territory where controversy has raged for more than a century over the enclave’s political and legal status. Should it remain a U.S. colonial possession? Should it become the 51st state? Or should it become an independent nation in the Caribbean?
Four non-binding referenda have been held in Puerto Rico on these vexing questions. This coming June 11, there will be a fifth, although whether the result will have any impact on the island’s status is an open question. Coincidentally, we just observed the 63rd anniversary of the unprecedented attack on the U.S. House of Representatives by four armed Puerto Rican nationalists demanding independence.
On March 1, 1954, five Congressmen were shot when 30 rounds of semi-automatic pistol fire rained down on them from a woman and three men in the visitors’ gallery. The most seriously wounded was Bentley, then 36 years old, who took a bullet to the chest. Another Republican Congressman, the staunch anti-Communist Dr. Walter H. Judd of Minnesota, administered emergency first aid to the wounded Bentley, who was then carried off the floor by House pages.
The four Puerto Rican assailants who attacked the U.S. House of Representatives were arrested, tried, convicted and given prison sentences so lengthy that they were thought to constitute lifetime incarceration. However, in 1979, they were pardoned by President Jimmy Carter and returned to Puerto Rico where they received a hero’s welcome at San Juan International Airport.
Bentley had first been elected to Congress in 1952 after ousting incumbent Republican Fred Crawford in a GOP primary and then winning in the same general election in which Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president. Bentley was heir to his grandfather’s automobile manufacturing fortune. Bentley’s own father had been killed in action in France during World War I when Bentley was just three months old.
After graduation from the University of Michigan, Bentley spent eight years in the foreign service in Latin America and Europe before resigning from the U.S. State Department to seek election to Congress. He was still a freshman MC when he was shot on the House floor. After recovering from his wounds, Bentley was elected to three more terms before giving up his seat to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator Patrick V. McNamara, a Detroit Democrat seeking his second term. McNamara turned back Bentley’s challenge in the same 1960 election in which John F. Kennedy was elected president, carrying Michigan in the process.
But in 1961, Bentley got elected again — this time as a delegate to the Michigan Constitutional Convention. He was appointed chairman of the Convention’s Education Committee. His committee proposed several major changes to the state’s constitution, which had been in effect since 1908.:
— The state Superintendent of Public Instruction would no longer be a partisan elected office;
— The state Board of Education would be expanded from three governor-appointed members to eight members nominated by political party conventions and elected at large on the partisan statewide ballot.;
— The new State Board of Education would then appoint the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Before Con-Con’s changes (approved by the full Convention and ratified by Michigan voters in the spring of 1963), the old three-member SBE board under the 1908 constitution had been responsible for overseeing what were then called the state’s “normal” colleges. Those normal schools by 1961 had evolved into Eastern, Central, Western, and Northern Michigan colleges, as well as what were then Ferris Tech and Michigan Tech. Each of those colleges, which later became universities, were to be given their own governing boards as provided in Article VIII, Section 6, of the state’s new basic charter. The new eight-member elected SBE would have leadership and supervision over all public education in Michigan (including K-12 schools) except those institutions of higher learning that granted baccalaureate degrees.
Bentley’s fellow delegate George W. Romney, who was a Convention vice president, served on Bentley’s Education Committee. Romney wanted Michigan’s governor — whomever it might be — to be a member of the SBE with full voting privileges. Bi-partisan opposition to that idea resulted in a Convention vote to make the governor only an ex-officio member of the state Board without the right to vote.
Flash forward: In Snyder’s 21st Century Commission report issued Friday (March 10), the recommendation has been made to either abolish the elected SBE, or allow for the appointment of SBE members by the governor, or permit the governor to appoint the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Bob LaBrant, an expert in Michigan legal history, points out that any of these steps would require a constitutional amendment.
The Michigan Legislature could place such an amendment on the statewide ballot, but that would require a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Such a prospect is unlikely. Even less likely would be a petition drive to place such an amendment on the ballot unless a group like Business Leaders of Michigan, led by its CEO Doug Rothwell, might step forward to finance the petition drive.
So Al Bentley’s Con-Con legacy is likely to survive, even though it has many critics. But what happened to Bentley after Con-Con?
In 1962, Bentley ran again for the U.S. House, but not this time from his old 8th Congressional District. Instead, he ran statewide. How could that be?
Following the 1960 Census, Michigan was awarded an additional Congressional district based on population growth in the previous decade (Remember those days? The state was actually gaining representation in Washington D.C., with every passing census instead of losing seats as it has over the past four decades). But the Republican-controlled Legislature in 1961-62 and Democratic Gov. John Swainson couldn’t agree on a 19-district map, so the new district was elected at-large in a statewide election just that one time, in 1962 (the only time in Michigan history).
Bentley won the Republican nomination for the at-large seat in the GOP primary, while Neil Staebler won the Democratic nomination. Staebler was a wealthy Ann Arbor businessman who was the longtime Democratic Party chairman and an ally of former Gov. G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams. Together, Williams and Staebler had built the modern Michigan Democratic Party after Williams’s upset 1948 win over incumbent Republican Gov. Kim Sigler. Even while Romney was defeating incumbent Swainson for the governorship, Bentley lost to Staebler, who then served a two-year stint as the at-large Congressman in Washington, D.C.
Two years later, we arrive at the turbulent “political watershed” year of 1964, by which time the Congressional map had been redrawn into 19 districts. With his statewide at-large district abolished, Staebler chose to challenge incumbent Governor Romney. But Romney handily defeated his freshman Congressman challenger even though, on the same ticket, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson was crushing his GOP challenger, Barry Goldwater, by more than a million votes. Down ballot, Democrats swept many of Michigan’s Congressional seats, including the new 19th CD, with Billie S. Farnum, in Oakland County. What about Al Bentley? He lost his third straight statewide election. He had been nominated by the Republicans to run for, irony of ironies, the new state Board of Education, where the Democrats swept all eight seats.
Scarcely a dozen years after it began, Bentley’s career as an elected politician was over, even though he was still a relatively young man. So he turned his focus to education. Still living in Owosso, he earned graduate degrees in history at the University of Michigan and endowed a history department professorship in his parents’ name. When a vacancy occurred on the U-M Board of Regents, Gov. Romney appointed Bentley to fill it.
But Bentley died in 1969 from a mysterious neurological disease when he was only 50. Billie honored her late husband’s name by endowing U-M’s Bentley Library. Today, the Bentley sits side-by-side with the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Ann Arbor.