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December 12, 2012

Looking back at the 'People's Choice'

It isn’t often that I recommend books to anyone, but then again, it isn’t often there are new books coming off the presses that have things to say about the Logansport area or the people who have lived or worked here or influenced our lives.

One of those rarities is a just-published book from the Indiana Historical Society Press written by one of its own staff members, Ray Boomhower.

I was a bit surprised when I received a copy of “The People’s Choice: Congressman Jim Jontz of Indiana.” For those political junkies out there looking for something they want to ask Santa for this holiday season, a copy of this book would be a timely gift given the recent election.

The book is in no way an endorsement because Congressman Jontz has not been representing the Logansport area since 1992 and he has since passed away in Oregon.

What it does detail is the work ethic of a candidate and former state legislator who simply outworked  his competition – not just during elections but all the time.

What can be found in the book are several local references as well as anecdotes from former Jontz aide and one-time Logansport mayoral candidate Mike Busch. Busch recounts meeting Jontz for the first time when then State Sen. Jontz met with the Busch’s father. It was an encounter that wound up shaping Busch’s life for several years. Busch put his senior year at Wabash College on hold and helped Jontz in what first appeared to be an unlikely bid to win the 5th District congressional seat left vacant when  Rep. Elwood “Bud” Hillis of Kokomo retired. Jontz eventually defeated another state senator, Jim Butcher of Kokomo, and won two more terms before being ousted by Republican Steve Buyer of Monticello.

What’s interesting about the book is the work ethic that was involved in public service in the 1980s and 1990s that has nearly vanished today. Exhibit A is Jontz, who was able to build a constituency in the massive 14-county 5th District of 1986 from a tiny base that included portions of White and Carroll counties. Jontz won the major counties in the  district even though independent polling had showed him trailing throughout, though cutting into the lead progressively.

But the takeaway message from this book is not just his own story, but the story of political victories crafted by using young people fresh out of college, interns, grassroots political connections that aren’t seen in billboards but are evident in parades and at the polls, and the ability of those outside the Beltway of Washington to come from nowhere to represent people like us in the heart of the country. The 1980s and 1990s were a time when representatives actually met with constituents instead of relying on their email. Many of them returned to the district often instead of going on junkets to foreign lands at the expense of corporate giants and fat cat contributors.

If there is a room for a sigh at the end of this book, it is because the kind of work ethic Jontz and his staff had was the exemplar for the era before Super PACs and Karl Rove. It was more about weeding out our political process than wielding the power of the “haves” of society who aren’t connected with anyone in Indiana other than those who send their donations to them blindly hoping to make a difference. To a greater extent, we’ve stopped believing that a Jim Jontz or anyone else will ever get the ball rolling on federal projects at our level.

Some may recall that it was Jontz who secured the initial funding for the twin two-lane bridges over the Wabash River east of Logansport at Lewisburg that became the starting point for the four-lane Hoosier Heartland from Peru to Lafayette. Invest in two major bridges, he reasoned, and the state and federal government authorities in charge will understand how serious its supporters are. “Build it and they will come” was the message.

It was heard loud and clear. Even after Jontz was defeated in 1992, the  Bridge Party in 1996 attracted much of the Indiana General Assembly, both major party candidates for governor and Jontz’s own successor. You won’t see Jontz’s name on either bridge, but the men whose names do appear, both gave credit to him for the success of the project that will be completed in the next three years.

It is the human bridge that Jontz built to constituents that few public officials bother to design or build any more. Our process has become one that relies on money and not the actions or deeds of candidates to succeed. Gone are the days when a former Rep. Andy Jacobs of Indianapolis, for example, could win a congressional race at a cost of $12,000.

Read Boomhower’s book and you can understand why tea party members want to believe in their movement. It’s because a more pure, genuine form of campaigning and public service was once why more people looked to government as a higher calling and not a higher salary.

His book is a good read, and it’s good for thinking about what this country has become, and even what it should become.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at ptnews@pharostribune.com.

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