[Editors’ Note: Against the backdrop of today’s divisive political atmosphere, we asked historian Ray Boomhower, author of The People’s Choice: Congressman Jim Jontz of Indiana (2012), to write a personal remembrance of the late Jim Jontz’s years as a liberal Member of Congress and state representative in conservative Indiana. Many long-time ADA members are familiar with Jim’s service as ADA President and as the founding director of ADA’s organizing project in the nation’s heartland, Working Families Win.]
In the fall of 1982, I had been employed for a few months in my first job after graduating from Indiana University in Bloomington with degrees in journalism and political science. As a reporter for the Rensselaer Republican newspaper in Jasper County, Indiana, I covered everything from school board meetings to volleyball games and county fairs, as well as taking and developing photographs and pasting up the newspaper before it was printed. It was a great learning ground for a budding reporter, but the pay was nothing to brag about. I still remember covering the distribution of some surplus government cheese for low-income families, only to discover that I was also eligible! I ate a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner over the next couple of weeks.
An assignment I particularly enjoyed was covering anything related to Indiana politics, a subject of interest to me from an early age. I remembered the nervousness I felt, however, when Liza Janco, my editor, asked me, to interview the candidates in the race to represent the Twenty-fifth District in the Indiana House of Representatives. The first candidate I interviewed was the Republican, Dave Diener, who replied to my questions in his office at his supply company in Monticello, Indiana. A member of the Monticello City Council, Diener advocated local control on several issues, but spent the majority of his time blasting his opponent, the incumbent Democrat, Jim Jontz of Brookston. Diener said it appalled him that voters in the district, “for some reason or another,” kept electing him to office.
My interview with Jontz occurred at a Monticello pancake house where the veteran legislator impressed me with his enthusiastic knowledge of a wide range of issues, such as supporting synthetic fuels to provide jobs for Hoosiers, establishing home care for the elderly, and strengthening regulatory laws covering utility companies. During our discussion he did not mention his opponent’s name once.
My meetings with Jontz during my days at the Republican left me impressed with how hard he worked on behalf of his constituents and his dedication to understanding the complex issues facing government. Before I met Jontz, I had been inclined to agree with a quote by famed journalist H. L. Mencken that the “only way for a reporter to look at a politician is down.” After getting to know Jontz, however, my view of politicians changed for the better, although I realized not every politician was like him.
Eventually my career path changed, and I started working in Indiana history. I lost touch with Jontz after he served three terms in Congress and, after his defeat in 1992, worked for a variety of environmental groups. My last communication with him was an e-mail exchange for a book I was writing on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign in Indiana for the Democratic presidential nomination. Jontz seemed pleased to hear from me, and I was shocked to learn just a few months later that he had died at the age of only fifty-five.
Jontz’s service to the citizens of Indiana inspired me to write about his life and career in the pages of the Indiana Historical Society’s popular history magazine Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, and my article about him appeared in the Fall 2010 issue, followed by a full-scale biography, The People’s Choice: Congressman Jim Jontz of Indiana. I continue to marvel at his ability to win office as a liberal Democrat (he preferred the term progressive) usually running in conservative districts with a majority of registered Republicans. Phil Loy, a Taylor University political science professor, observed that Jontz at first appeared to be a “sort of rural country bumpkin. And then you stand back and realize that this is one incredibly complex individual who defies all the normal rules of politics.” Jontz even won the grudging respect of his GOP foes, with longtime Indiana Republican state chairman Rex Early humorously noting, “He [cuts] everybody’s lawn. He rides his bicycle backwards and he knows everybody’s lost grandson.”
Political pundits routinely predicted Jontz’s defeat in every election only to see him celebrating another victory, surrounded by happy supporters, and always wearing a scruffy, hooded plaid jacket from his high school days for luck. “I always hope for the best and fight for the worst,” said Jontz. He noted that voters appreciated that he worked for “the public interest, not special interests.” While voters sometimes pigeonholed the positions of Democrats as being for more government and Republicans favoring less government, Jontz described his philosophy as reorienting “government to serve the interests of the average citizen.”
U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a longtime Jontz friend, called him a “bridge builder.” While one school of politics said the way to win elections was to divide people into groups and set them against one another, Jontz, “wanted to build bridges and understanding between groups that too often saw themselves as enemies: organized labor and environmentalists, and family farmers and environmentalists. He was always trying to find some common ground.” For example, Durbin noted that Jontz believed one of the ways to preserve family farms was to help farmers to be better guardians of the land. “That seemed like a strange idea to some people twenty-five years ago,” Durbin said. “Today, it surely makes sense.”
Each election season, voters in Jontz’s congressional district could count on hearing a knock on their front door and seeing the rumpled, tousled haired. Democrat ready to promote his candidacy and talk about whatever issue that might concern them that year. “I campaigned on the personal attention idea,” Jontz said. “Issues are important to people, but more important to them is feeling that government is responsive.” Tom Sugar, a longtime Jontz aide who later in his career served as chief of staff for former U.S. Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, said that during a campaign Jontz “believed in knocking on every door that was knockable.”
On a typical campaign day, Jontz began knocking on doors on one side of the street at three in the afternoon, while an aide took the other side of the street. The usual conversation began with introducing themselves, telling a homeowner that Jontz was campaigning in the area, and giving them material on his candidacy. If someone was not at home, Jontz left behind literature about his candidacy with a note signed, “Sorry I missed you.” Sugar said that the rule of thumb was that the campaign did not “stop knocking on doors until people started showing up [dressed] in robes.” The candidate also made it a habit of scanning newspapers in his district to find such events as fish fries and pancake breakfasts to attend and interact with voters. “He joked to me that he campaigned door to door just to keep his weight down,” Perdue recalled.
Jontz remained in Washington only when he had to, spending the rest of his time in Indiana attending to a packed schedule of events; his staff had to create specialized computer software just to keep track of where he had to appear each day. Whenever a community in his district hosted a parade, Jontz (who had begun his two-wheeled campaigning during his days as a state representative) could be found peddling up and down the street on his sister’s rusty, old blue Schwinn bicycle with mismatched tires, waving to the crowd lining the curb, his tie flapping in the breeze—an effort that won him the title of “best congressman on two wheels” from one Indiana reporter. “People used to joke . . . if there were two people together, Jim Jontz would find them,” said Kathy Altman, who ran Jontz’s district offices in Kokomo and Valparaiso.
Jontz managed to win re-election in his Republican-dominated district thanks to a combination of tireless grassroots, door-to-door campaigning; a relentless focus on serving his constituents through such activities as town hall meetings, a toll-free number for those wishing to question their congressman, and face-to-face encounters at neighborhood coffee shops at all hours of the day (informal meetings called “Jontzings” by Logansport Pharos Tribune reporter Dave Kitchell); and a willingness to listen to dissenting opinions. “You have to disagree sometimes,” he noted. “But you have to disagree agreeably.”
Tom Buis, a legislative assistant specializing in agricultural issues in Jontz’s Washington, D.C., office, said Jontz’s style involved really listening to people. He believed that “you don’t hear much when you’re talking all the time,” but by listening he could discover what a person was really concerned about and how to address their issues. “He was one of those people that in his role as a public servant took it very seriously,” Buis said of Jontz. “He worked tirelessly at it and encouraged all those who worked for him to do likewise. I think that’s a legacy that won’t be easily forgotten by those who worked with Jim or for Jim or knew Jim.” It is also a legacy that politicians today should be striving to achieve.
Historian Ray E. Boomhower (http://rayboomhower.blogspot.com) specializes in writing about Indiana history. In addition to authoring The People’s Choice: Congressman Jim Jontz of Indiana, his works have included biographies of such figures as Gus Grissom, Ernie Pyle, Lew Wallace, Juliet Strauss, and May Wright Sewall.