Born To Run
50 years and dozens of elections,
By Gary Woronchak
George Hart ran for office more than 20 times. He started in the mid-1950s and kept going until just four years ago. Counting primary elections, with some estimating due to lack of detailed records, he weathered somewhere between 30 and 40 elections in 53 years. He ran for positions at the city, county, state and federal levels of government.
He ran for some offices while already holding another. He lost a lot, but won more often. He bounced back, caught a couple breaks, went from one office to another, and he kept going and going.
Along the way, he served 20 years in the Michigan Senate, seven years on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners and a dozen on the Dearborn City Council. That's 39 years in public office in a span of 43 years from when he won his first seat on the council to when he left the state Senate.
There are many George Hart stories. Anyone who's been around Dearborn politics in the last couple generations has one. This isn't one of them. It's not a story of the bright red jacket he would wear in parades, or how he would put his bumper sticker on all the disabled cars at the side of the road along I-94, or how I have a cassette tape he produced as "the singing senator."
This isn't a George Hart story. It's the telling of HIS story, him, the perennial candidate, forever the politician . . . of when he got into politics, when he got out, and how he ran, and ran, and ran for all the years in between.
As reports of his passing on Jan. 31, 2013 circulated today (Feb. 6) and I caught a couple errors in news reports, I started reviewing the details of George Hart's political career, specifically his runs for various offices.
It's amazing how much detail that can be pulled together so quickly with a little internet access (thank you, politicalgraveyard.com), a copy of David Good's book, "Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn," file folders full of election results that I've let clutter my cabinets over the years, and my own recollections of Dearborn political history gathered over 14 years of holding office after more than 20 years as a local newspaper editor and reporter.
Now, to the details.
The short version: Hart served on the Dearborn City Council from 1960-1970 and throughout 1986; he was a state senator from 1979-82 and from 1987-2002; and was a member of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners from 1972-78.
The long version is more interesting.
He actually lost more elections for state Senate than he won. In fact, his first run for office was a loss in a state Senate primary election in 1956 at age 32. Before that, the only political activity I could find in my research was that Hart was active in the unsuccessful campaign to recall Mayor Orville Hubbard in 1951, and he was one of three men charged with vandalizing a Hubbard re-election sign in 1953. The charges were dropped.
After losing another Senate primary in 1958, Hart won a seat on the Dearborn City Council in November 1959. He ran and won as an anti-Hubbard candidate. Before he would run for re-election in 1961, Hart became part of the Hubbard team, and remained as such in council re-election wins in 1961, 1964 and 1967.
He kept running for state Senate while on the council, though, losing in two more Senate primaries in 1962 and 1966.
In fact, it was his drive to keep running for Senate that took him off the City Council. With city office terms lengthened from two years to three in the 1960s, in 1970 the state and city elections intersected. Hart chose to not seek re-election to the council in order for another try for the state Senate, perhaps figuring his 10 years of council exposure would help him get to the Lansing on his fifth attempt.
What resulted was Hart's fifth loss in five Senate runs. He lost in a 3-way primary in which Patrick McCollough, son of state Rep. Lucille McCollough, beat not only Hart but incumbent senator Roger Craig as well.
Hart was not without office for long after the loss in 1970. In December 1971, Joseph Cardinal died while serving on the Wayne County Board of Commissioners (then a 27-member board that evolved into the 15-member Wayne County Commission of today). Hart sought the appointment, made by the remaining commissioners, to serve the remainder of Cardinal's term. It was a split vote and took two ballots, but on Jan. 6, 1972, Hart was appointed to the Wayne County Board of Commissioners.
He won election to a full term on the Board of Commissioners in November 1972, and won re-election in 1974 and 1976. But just as he had passed on a City Council re-election bid earlier, Hart decided to not seek re-election to his county post in 1978 for yet another - sixth - run for the state Senate.
This time, however, there was no incumbent to contend with. After two terms in the Senate, Patrick McCollough passed on re-election to run for governor in a 4-way primary election that he lost to William Fitzgerald, who lost that fall to Gov. William Milliken. That paved the way for Hart to - finally, 22 years after he started trying - become a state senator.
If victory after all that time was sweet, it was also short-lived. McCollough challenged Hart in the 1982 Senate primary, along with county commissioner and future judge James Rashid. McCollough won the primary and Hart, having suffered his sixth Senate primary loss in seven tries, was again without public office. Briefly.
Hart ran in the next city election in 1985 and won a return trip to the Dearborn City Council. But that would only be a short-term stopover on his way back to the office he sought most in his career, state senator.
The Senate seat was again without an incumbent in 1986. Having declined a re-election bid to run for governor eight years earlier, this time McCollough decided to not run again after a particularly rough term that proved historic in the recent era of state government.
McCollough was targeted in a recall campaign after supporting Gov. James Blanchard's 1983 income tax increase. Two other Democratic senators were actually recalled from office over the tax hike, and two Republicans were elected as their replacements, giving the Republican Party control of the Senate that it has not relinquished to this day - and establishing John Engler as the new Senate Majority Leader and rising force in state government.
Despite petitions being filed, no recall election against McCollough was held, but he declined to run for re-election, thus leaving an open seat that Hart ran to fill after just one year back on the City Council.
Hart won the 1986 Senate race in a tough contest with two-term Republican state Rep. William Runco. Hart may have been helped by a Democratic landslide at the top of the ticket, with Gov. Blanchard winning re-election with 68 percent of the vote over Republican challenger Bill Lucas, who had been the first Wayne County Executive and had switched parties from Democrat to Republican to run for governor.
Hart won re-election to the state Senate in 1990, 1994 and 1998. Into the 1990s, though, he knew his time in Lansing was heading toward its end. Michigan voters in 1992 adopted an amendment to the state Constitution limiting the number of terms one could serve in the state House and Senate.
Perhaps in response to state term limits, Hart, while in the middle of a Senate term, ran for the United States Congress in 1996. He ran in a Detroit district, despite not residing in that area, knowing he could move there if he won. He remained in his Dearborn home, however, after losing in a primary election that saw Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick unseat the incumbent Congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins.
After 16 consecutive years and 20 total in the Michigan Senate, George Hart was forced out of office not by an opponent, but by term limits at the end of 2002 at age 78.
As it turned out, that was his retirement, though he wasn't quite ready to accept it as such. Whether he missed holding office, or just campaigning for office, Hart ran two more campaigns.
At age 80, in 2004, he lost in a primary election for the office of Wayne County Register of Deeds.
Five years later, he tried one more time to win a seat on the Dearborn City Council that he was first elected to 50 years earlier. He made it through the 2009 primary election among the top 14 candidates, but was not successful in the November general election.
And with that result, one of the most colorful political characters in Dearborn's history had put up his last campaign sign.