Lessons from Charles Vanik: No need for money in politics

A very special man died during the August recess: Former Rep. Charles Vanik (D-Ohio), who served from 1955 to 1981 and left his name on the landmark Jackson-Vanik Freedom of Emigration legislation.

But he should be remembered for much more than that. We who were lucky enough to serve on his staff will always remember him with love, for he truly treated us as part of the “Vanik family.” Several former staffers spent the last week catching up on Vanik stories — several of which might be useful to today’s generation of members.

One lesson he leaves us: An endearing idiosyncrasy is worth millions, and over time can become a huge vote-getter. Mr. Vanik always — I mean every day he came to the office over 26 years — wore a black suit and a bowtie. He said it was to save time and simplify life, and that he never had to worry about matching ties or socks. Maybe. But over the years it became his campaign button (a little metal bowtie pin) and made him instantly recognizable to Northern Ohioans.

Here is an office story that makes the point: Trying to catch a plane, he and his district director were caught in a horrendous freeway traffic jam. Mr. Vanik decided to jump a chain-link fence and make his way to a busy side road in hopes of grabbing a cab and making the flight. He cut a finger on the fence, so in the mid-dusk of a wintry night in a neighborhood that had had some crime problems, he knocked on the backdoor of the house whose fence he jumped to ask for a Band-Aid. The lady of the house opens the door and says, “Why, Mr. Vanik, please come in.” When asked if they’d met before, she said, “No, but I’d recognize that bowtie anywhere.”

Finding a niche that distinguishes oneself from others candidates is well worth doing.

Another lesson from Mr. Vanik: You don’t need as much money as you think you do; legislative achievement is the better way to go. Mr. Vanik got to Congress after a tough primary fight in a very safe Democratic district. Between his first election and 1966, he spent almost nothing — spaghetti feed for the ward and precinct leaders and he would win by 80 to 90 percent.

But in 1968 his district was basically eliminated (to make way for a Cleveland district so well represented by Louis Stokes for many years). Always ready for a fight, Vanik unexpectedly jumped into a neighboring district that had been represented for 40 years by the Bolton family. The incumbent was estimated to be one of the wealthiest women in America. The race became the most expensive House race of 1968; hold onto your hats — she spent about $225,000. And Mr. Vanik had to raise and spend about $125,000! He won in an upset.

He raised and spent more in 1970 as he consolidated his standing in the district. But then, he said to his staff, he noticed that when he got money from people, they seemed to want something in exchange, and that this was not right. (He used a stronger phrase.) Therefore, in future races he wasn’t going to raise any money or spend any — but he was going to campaign by an even more aggressive legislative effort: His aides should be sure he and his bowtie were in the newspapers about once a day on something that was good for the country.

It was awesome. We never had to worry about money or whom we offended. Without being press hounds, Vanik achieved a remarkable legislative record: the Section 13 summer-school lunch program, the predecessor amendment to the ADA, Great Lakes pollution clean-up, establishment of National Park Service-run property in Cuyahoga Valley, the original CAFE legislation, tax reform measures and Social Security and Medicare improvements. And of course Jackson-Vanik, which denied most favored nation trade privileges unless a nation permitted freedom of emigration — thus helping hundreds of thousands of families to escape from oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe. This amendment, coupled with an amendment that limited export-import bank credits, arguably played a key role in the economic end of the USSR.

But by 1980, there were rumors of a serious primary challenge and Mr.Vanik decided that rather than raise campaign money, 26 good years were enough, and he retired.

The message here: Once in office and doing their thing, most members don’t need to spend as much as they do and could free themselves of the PAC rat race. I know that sounds naïve, but when Mr. Vanik announced his decision not to raise money in a competitive district, we staffers feared he would lose, and we’d be on the street. But he didn’t lose, and in fact, he grew in popularity, stature and honor because of that decision. More members should give it a try.

Vaughan is a senior policy analyst for Consumers Union. He was an aide to Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) as well as to Vanik.