I hear tell former Wayne County Executive and Sheriff Bill Lucas, the first black man to run for Michigan governor, died Monday.
He was 94, and frankly, I didn’t even know he was still alive until today.
Lucas took the bold step of running as a Republican for governor in Michigan in 1986 against incumbent Democrat James Blanchard. His run was so bold that former State Rep. Paul Hillegonds, who served Allegan County for a long time before being term limited, declared to me, “This could change the face of politics in Michigan for a long time.”
Indeed, it could have. But it was not to be. And frankly, the cause was racism, whether we admit it or not.
I met Lucas at an Allegan County Republican Party dinner in Wayland in June 1986, an event that also included Hillegonds and former Congressman Mark Siljander. The really awful musical entertainment for the evening was two women doing karaoke to a taped Christian rock song.
No matter. I found Lucas to be a predictably affable politician while Siljander seemed all too aware that his time in Washington was coming to an end because of an upstart GOP primary opponent in the person of Fred Upton. Lucas talked the talk and walked the walk for the crowd. Rusty Dutkiewicz, wife of longtime Democratic Dorr Township Clerk Dick Dutkiewicz, made an impassioned plea on behalf of this black man very simply because he was Pro-Life. Dorr Township, after Dick died and several other colleagues stepped down, went from being all Dems to all Republicans, entirely because of the abortion issue.
The dinner and GOP event was my first in Wayland since coming back after spending 10 years on the east side of the state. Earlier that week, Ypsilanti Press City Editor David Miller, while consuming beer with me at a local pub, said Lucas didn’t stand a chance.
Miller acknowledged that West Michigan was famous for being staunchly Republican, but flatly asserted that white GOP voters wouldn’t bring themselves to support a black candidate. He was right.
Though the GOP faithful, like those who showed up to the GOP dinner at Wayland High School, publicly demonstrated support, voters, using secrecy of the polling booth, did the near-unthinkable. Not even a TV commercial with Ronald Regan’s endorsement could save him. A majority in Allegan County supported Blanchard.
I found this to be significant because Blanchard in 1983 had shepherded a state income tax increase from 4.6% to 5.8% in order to erase a budget deficit. He promised to restore the 4.6% in later years, and he did, but the damage had been done. Two Democratic state senators were recalled in 1984 and the Senate since then has shown a Republican majority — for 38 years.
My point here was that Blanchard had two strikes against him in Allegan County — he was a Democrat, almost a dirty word in these parts, and he raised taxes. Not to worry, he carried Allegan County and statewide cleaned Lucas’ clock in a landslide.
This was the only time in history that Allegan County went for a Democrat in a gubernatorial election.
So the question had to be, was it because Lucas was black? Does a bear defecate in the woods?