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Though he left Detroit in 1970, John Marttila continued influencing the city’s politics into the 1980s as an integral part of campaigns that secured repeated victories for Mayor Coleman A. Young. 

A native Detroiter, Marttila ran political campaigns with integrity, instinct and honesty, his colleagues said, strategies that helped Detroit’s longest-serving mayor win re-election four times and later aided in his management of high-profile campaigns for a young Joe Biden and John Kerry.

Marttila died Nov. 3 at the age of 78 because of complications related to prostate cancer.

“He spent his life working on things that he cared deeply about,” said Doug Marttila, his son. “He only worked for people he believed in.”

John Marttila started his work in Michigan politics under Elly Peterson, a moderate Republican who rose from secretary for the Michigan Republican Party to the state party’s chair to the national party’s assistant chairwoman.

When President Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency in 1969, JohnMarttila switched parties and moved to Massachusetts to help Jesuit priest the Rev. Robert F. Drinan win a seat in Congress. In 1972, he helped a 29-year-old Biden win his first election to the U.S. Senate and managed Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Marttila returned to Detroit to help with all four of Young’s re-election campaigns, said Bob Berg, Young’s former press secretary. Despite his East Coast address, Marttila was “still a Detroiter at heart” and had keen instincts for slogans and themes that would resonate with Detroiters, Berg said. 

“He was great at crystallizing ideas into very few words,” said Berg, a founder of the Detroit public relations agency Berg Muirhead & Associates, now known as Vandyke Horn. “He knew Detroit, he knew the mayor and had a very good idea of what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work.”

In 1974, Marttila helped Democrat Richard VanderVeen secure a U.S. House seat in Michigan’s Republican-leaning 5th district, a seat left empty when Gerald R. Ford became Nixon’s vice president in 1973.

While still working for the Republican National Committee under Peterson in 1970, the 29-year-old Detroiter was tasked with recruiting African-Americans to the GOP, said Clark Hoyt, a Detroit Free Press political reporter in 1969 and 1970.

Hoyt covered Marttila’s exit from the Republican Party in 1970, when Marttila left in protest of Nixon’s “racial policies” and began helping Drinan win election in Massachusetts.

Hoyt and Marttila stayed in touch even after Marttila’s departure for the East Coast and would later become friends. Hoyt last saw Marttila over lunch roughly a year ago.

His demeanor then over his prognosis was much the same as he maintained over his years as a campaign manager, Hoyt said.

“He was always a straight shooter,” said Hoyt, now retired and living in Virginia. “He never ever tried to mislead me. He would be painfully honest … but at the same time he would be very optimistic about his circumstances.”

Marttila worked with integrity and “changed the way American campaigns are run,” Biden said in a statement. 

From 1972 onward, Marttila served as an informal political adviser to Biden and as a campaign strategist on the Delaware Democrat’s 1988 presidential campaign before Biden withdrew from the race. 

“John was one of the finest men that I have ever met,” Biden wrote. “The fact that someone that decent and smart believed in me made me believe more in myself. John set an example for my whole team to repair to.”

John Marttila is survived by his children Doug and Katy and two granddaughters. Services will be held at 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Old South Church in Boston.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3661

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