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Former Michigan U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee dead at 92; championed education reform

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, who spent 36 years in Congress championing education reform and Native American sovereignty, died Wednesday, his family said in a statement. He was 92 years old. 

Kildee, a Flint Democrat, served in the House from 1977 to 2013. He was elected 18 times in a district now represented by his nephew, Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, who remembered him Wednesday as an "incredible" uncle, role model and political mentor.

"Dale was always proud that he was from Flint, the birthplace of the modern labor movement. Throughout his work, Dale was kind, humble and dedicated to his constituents. Dale never forgot who he worked for or the constituents who sent him to Congress. And Dale always brought civility and kindness to the political debate, something that we all could learn from today," Dan Kildee wrote in a statement.

“I have lost a wonderful member of my family, and the people of Michigan lost an incredible public servant. We mourn his loss while recognizing the great contributions that he made to Flint, the state of Michigan and our country."

On Capitol Hill, colleagues on both sides of the aisle long praised Kildee's decency, kindness and dedication to the institution, where he was dubbed the "Cal Ripken of Congress" for his near-perfect voting record, casting over 20,000 votes during his tenure. 

General Motors Assistant Chief Engineer for the 1.4 engines Mike Katerberg, center, shows a model of a new engine to Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. Dale Kildee at the Flint Engine plant in Flint on Nov. 24, 2010.

"Dale Kildee was a powerful, passionate and hard worker for our state and his interests were much larger than just his congressional district," said Republican Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph.

"He was one that could 'cross the aisle' to get things done and was honest as the day is long.

Kildee also stood out as an ally of the auto industry, founder of the Native American Caucus and a longtime member of the House education committee, where he served as the top Democrat on several subcommittees.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who served with Kildee for 25 years, called him a "tireless champion for our students" and saluted his "first-hand devotion to service, legendary work ethic and extraordinary humility and kindness."

"Indeed, every Member who had the honor of working with Dale was in awe of how hard he worked — from the well of the House, where he rarely missed a vote, to the communities of his childhood hometown," Pelosi said in a statement. 

"And he never forgot our responsibility to extend opportunity to all Americans, helping establish the Native American Caucus to ensure that Native voices were heard in the halls of Congress."

After retiring, Kildee in 2013 joined the lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP as a senior consultant and Ietan Consulting as an adviser on native and tribal issues. 

A former high school Latin teacher, Kildee won his first election to the state House in 1964, followed by a single term in the state Senate before his election to Congress in 1976. 

He authored the 2007 Head Start reform bill, signed by President George W. Bush, and worked to reform the No Child Left Behind Act.

President George W. Bush signs the Improving Head Start for School Readiness Act of 2007, with U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, second from left, and others in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 12, 2007.

He introduced legislation to help low-income families pay for child care and advocated for national standards for day care staff-to-child ratios and employee qualifications.

“Dale will be remembered for many accomplishments in Congress, but especially his work to support early childhood education through Head Start, reform the No Child Left Behind initiative and promote child and senior nutrition programs," his nephew wrote.

"Dale fought fervently for programs to address hunger in our country, establishing the first of its kind summer nutrition program in churches so kids wouldn’t go hungry."

Over appeals by President Bill Clinton, Kildee voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico but did back the assault weapons ban in the 1990s. He claimed he never took a foreign trip at the taxpayers' expense. 

"He was a deeply religious man and a public servant deeply committed to social justice," said former Gov. Jim Blanchard, who worked closely with Kildee on auto issues as a member of Congress, as governor and ambassador.

"He was proud to have been a teacher and was one of the nicest persons you would ever know. Impeccably honest. The people in his congressional district knew that — which is one reason he was unbeatable."

A lifelong Catholic who opposed abortion, Kildee played a role in helping to pass the 2010 health care reform bill known as the Affordable Care Act, despite anti-abortion advocates' concerns it didn't sufficiently limit federal money for abortion coverage. 

Kildee was satisfied that the language would bar federal funding for abortions.

"Certainly at this stage of my life I am not going to change my mind and support abortion," Kildee said on the House floor. "I am not going to jeopardize my eternal salvation."

Almost a priest 

Dale E. Kildee was born Sept. 16, 1929, the youngest of five siblings in a large Irish Catholic family. 

He graduated from St. Mary's High School in 1947 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Sacred Heart Seminary, a teacher's certificate from the University of Detroit and a master's degree from the University of Michigan.

As a young man, Kildee almost went into the priesthood, spending six years studying to be a Catholic priest but leaving seminary before ordination.

He taught at the University of Detroit High School from 1954-56 and at Flint Central High School from 1956-64, where he met his wife, Gayle, who taught French. The couple married in 1965 and had three children, David, Laura and Paul. 

Former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, right, has died at age 92. He was succeeding in Congress by his nephew, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township. The two are pictured in Flint in 2014.

In Congress, Kildee was known for carrying a worn copy of the Constitution in his suit pocket. He also kept close a copy of an 1832 Supreme Court ruling that "retained" sovereignty for Indian nations.

Kildee's interest in Native American welfare dated to childhood visits to his father's hometown not far from the Grand Traverse reservation, where an earlier generation of Kildees had traded with their Indian neighbors.

He later recalled his father's concerns about the tribe's poverty and the government treating them "unfairly."

As a state lawmaker, Kildee had a role in creating the Michigan Commission on Indian Affairs and co-sponsoring a tuition waiver for Indians who wanted to attend Michigan public colleges.

In Congress, his offering of Native American-related amendments to education bills prompted the committee chairman to appoint Kildee as a one-man task force on Indian affairs.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., arrives to testify before the House and Ethics Committee on Capitol Hill, Monday, Oct. 16, 2006, in Washington.

He started visiting reservations to examine their schools, prompting the Bureau of Indian Affairs to send crews to spruce up the schools before his arrival. 

"I've been in Indian reservations that a federal judge wouldn't have let us keep prisoners in," Kildee said in 1998.

He formed the bipartisan Native American Caucus in 1997 amid an effort to impose a 35% tax on gaming. 

Shades of Cal Ripken

Kildee attributed his impeccable voting record to the example set by his father, who reportedly never missed work on the assembly line at the former Buick Motor Division in Flint.

"In 1947, we had the biggest snowstorm. My dad was the only one who made it to his job, and I was the only one who made it to school. Not even the nuns made it!" Kildee told POLITICO in 2010. 

"I was told, 'Go home, Dale; there’s no school today!' On top of that, the only constitutional description of my job is to vote."

During his 18 terms in Congress, Kildee was absent for only 27 votes, due in part to a hospital stay for an ulcer. In 2009, he timed getting a new knee to the House's spring break, allowing him to heal and get through therapy in time to return for the next votes.

During his longest streak, Kildee didn't miss a vote from October 1985 through Oct. 27, 2000, casting votes in 8,141 consecutive roll calls.

What ended it? Kildee later said he was meeting with education committee staff in the Capitol to finalize an agreement involving class size, teacher hiring and school construction. 

"I was so deeply engrossed in it and, boom, it was too late," he told The Detroit News at the time.