Former Congressman David Bonior spent 26 years representing Macomb County in the U.S. House, rising to the rank of Democratic Whip. But his origins were humble — he grew up in Hamtramck and East Detroit as the grandson of Polish and Ukrainian immigrants; an athletically gifted Catholic schoolboy who toyed with the idea of becoming a priest.
In "East Side Kid: A Memoir Of My Youth From Detroit to Congress," the first volume of his memoirs, Bonior, 69, writes a frankly sentimental account of what it was like growing up in the close-knit, ethnic enclave of Hamtramck, where his grandparents didn't need to learn English and the sound of the horse-drawn ragman and iceman's carts echoed through the narrow streets. Later his family moved to East Detroit, where his father's political positions helped the young Bonior get his own foothold in local politics.
Today Bonior lives with his wife Judy in Washington, D.C., helps his son and daughter-in-law in their Mexican restaurant Agua 301, and is active in the organization Jobs with Justice. He returns to Michigan next week for the first of several book signings.
Why did you decide to write about your early life, growing up an athletic, Polish-Ukrainian Catholic boy on Detroit's east side?
I had a really difficult time getting any sense of family history from my parents and my grandparents. So I decided I wanted to pass that on to my children and grandchildren, and hopefully some of them will find it useful enough. I'm a very strong proponent of history and knowing where you came from. Another reason was for myself, I needed to work through some things, such as my mother's death (of a heart attack, in 1960, when she was 37), and take time and reflect upon what pieces of my early life allowed me to move forward.
You write about how your time as a student athlete helped give you discipline later on.
I was a quarterback (at Notre Dame High School, and later, the University of Iowa), and if I fumbled the ball or if there was an interception, there wasn't time to mope, I had to get back into the game. I had really very tough and demanding coaches, very old school. They got the most out of you if you hung in there and could take it. It was constant, since I was 10 or 11, baseball, football, basketball, the whole year around. I was blessed with the talent, and that's where I got my confidence."
After years of Catholic school, you decided to attend the seminary and become a priest.
I really took to the spiritual pieces of what I was learning, that you could actually have a relationship with God as an individual, I thought that was an amazing thing to be able to do. Then I became interested in becoming an altar boy, and did that for four or five years. Then that led to the seminary. I spent one year there, and I didn't think I could hack it academically… but sports and celibacy were the other two major issues.
Although you were a Democrat, you managed to represent Macomb County, whose voters were once described as"Reagan Democrats."
I had a lot in common with my constituents. I would go door to door with my literature, and someone would say 'Oh you went to Notre Dame High School,' and they'd say their cousin or brother went there. 'You belong to the union? Oh I belong to AFCSCME.' There were enough pieces of my life that overlocked with my constituency. I tried to represent working people, I came out of a working class home, first in Hamtramck, then in Macomb County, those were the values I was raised with, working class values and experiences, and I took them with me throughout my adult life into politics. But I also have progressive values, and sometimes on social issues, we didn't agree. But they were kind enough to give me the benefit of the doubt on some things and let me lead them."
Toward the end of the book, you write about being elected to the state legislature, and working with Gov. Bill Milliken, a Republican whom you admired.
"He was, and is a fabulous human being, I have a high, high regard for him. He was very easy to work with in the legislature, not that we didn't have some disagreements and struggles. He was a reasonable man with good social values, who cared about people. He was a business guy so he had a more conservative approach to economics than I did, but it was a generous approach. He was also an enormously courageous guy; his war record is amazing.
Do you ever wish you were still in Congress?
Sometimes I get that way. When they were passing the (Obama) health bill, I wanted to be there. But there's a time and a place for everything. I had my time and I've resolved to play a different role now, one that revolves around my family and the grandkids. I'm sad that people aren't taking on the dysfunction of government today. The institutions are broken, they don't work very well. Congress doesn't work, and there are structural things that need to be put in place to put things on track. But the bandwidth on issues is only so wide, people aren't thinking about these structural issues because they get caught up in day to day things.
Book signings: "East Side Kid: A Memoir of My Youth From Detroit to Congress" by David Bonior (Prospecta Press, available at barnesandnoble.com, or amazon.com)
7 p.m. Dec. 4, Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 14165 Hall Rd., Shelby Township. (586) 247-7416
7 p.m. Dec. 10, Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 17111 Haggerty Rd., Northville. (248) 348-0696
7 p.m. Dec. 11, Mount Clemens Public Library, 150 Cass Ave., Mount Clemens. (586) 469-6200