No retirement plans for U.S. congressman who’s been in office since 1955

Should troops be sent to Vietnam? Should a vast fortune be spent to put a man on the Moon? Should President Nixon be impeached?

If you thought the politicians who debated these historical issues had long since left the stage, think again.

Much has been written about the dangers of the “safe seat”, the seat that predictably stays with the same party in election after election after election. These seats can become the “red-headed stepchildren” of the political system, taken for granted by the ruling party and written off as not worth fighting for by the others, while everyone fawns over the bellweather ridings that regularly change hands.

They can also become Ground Zero in battles between party factions. The most visible example of this is in the U.S., where constituency boundaries deliberately drawn to ensure one-party dominance have long fueled fratricidal warfare within parties in the absence of an outside threat.

Another effect is that political survivors can end up holding these seats for unimaginably long periods of time.

The most extreme case of this is Michigan congressman John Dingell.  First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives at age 29 in a 1955 by-election, Dingell has become one of the longest continually serving legislators in the world.

Incredibly, after 56 years in office, Dingell is still only the third longest-serving member of the U.S. Congress in history, being little more than a year shy of the record set by former Sen. Robert Byrd, who sat in the House of Representatives from 1953 to 1959, and in the Senate from 1959 until his death in 2010 at age 92.

The second-longest run in the American capital was that of Arizona representative-turned-senator Carl Hayden, who was first sent to Washington in 1912 and didn’t return home to retire until 1969.

But Dingell might yet break those records. Now 85 years old, he’s running to be elected to a 30th term in Congress in November.

America’s Capitol Hill has one of the world’s largest collections of ultra-long-time incumbents. Twenty-two of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, and eight of the 100 members of the Senate, have been in office for more than 30 years.

By comparison, Thompson MLA Steve Ashton is the only member of the 57-seat Manitoba Legislature with more than 30 years’ seniority. Canada’s longest-serving current MP is Quebec’s Louis Plamondon, who has been in the House of Commons since 1984.

A look at some of the world’s longest-serving elected representatives:

  • Rep. John Dingell (USA, 1955-present): Dingell was elected to the House of Representatives in 1955 in a by-election to replace his late father, John Sr., who had represented Michigan since 1933.  Now 85 years old, Dingell is running for an unprecedented 30th term in 2012.
  • Sen. Daniel Inouye (USA, 1954-1959 at territorial level, 1959-present at federal level): Opting for politics after war injuries prevented him from studying to become a surgeon, Daniel Inouye served in Hawai’i’s territorial legislature for several years in the mid-to-late ’50s. After a brief hiatus, Inouye was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after Hawai’i became a U.S. state in 1959, and to the Senate in 1962. He has been re-elected in every election since. Apparently not tired of the 7,800-kilometre commute between Washington, D.C. and Honolulu, the 87-year-old says he plans to run for re-election in November 2016, by which time he will be 92 years old.
  • Rep. John Conyers (USA, 1965-present):Starting out as an assistant to long-serving Rep. John Dingell, Conyers, now 82, sought his own seat in the House of Representatives in the 1964 election. Elected to represent Detroit’s inner northern suburbs with a runaway 84%-to-16% victory over his Republican opponent, Conyers was sworn in as a congressman in January 1965 and has been re-elected every two years since, with his “worst” result being in 2010, when Conyers won 77 percent of the vote. Unlike some other “lifers”, Conyers actually tried to extricate himself from Washington by campaigning unsuccessfully for Mayor of Detroit in 1989 and again in 1993. Conyers is currently campaigning to be elected to a 25th term in November. Conyers is also notable for having been on President Richard Nixon’s notorious “Enemies List” in the early ’70s.
  • Sir Peter Tapsell, MP (UK, 1959-1964 and 1966-present): Tapsell, 82, first ran for the British Parliament as a Conservative candidate in 1957, losing to the Labour party. Undeterred, he tried again in 1959, and this time won his seat in the Nottingham area, 175 kilometres north of London. Losing the 1964 election, he tried again in 1966 in a constituency 75 kilometres away on England’s North Sea coast. He won, and has been in the House of Commons ever since. Though never promoted to Cabinet, he was knighted in 1985, and a British newspaper named him “Parliamentarian of the Year” in 2004.
  • Rep. Charlie Rangel (USA, 1971-present): If you ever watch cable news, you’ve undoubtedly seen Charlie Rangel, 81, at some point.  Rangel has been no wallflower over the years, at times stirring controversy by accusing the New York Police Department of assisting drug pushers, calling for the return of conscription so that the children of the wealthy would have to fight the Iraq War, and calling former U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney a “son of a bitch”. Rangel has also repeatedly found himself on the hot seat over allegations concerning taxes, property he owns, improper use of letterhead, and so on. Despite that, he won his seat with 80 percent of the vote in 2010, and is running again in 2012 despite a nasty battle over constituency boundaries.
  • Rep. Bill Young (USA, 1961-1970 at state level, 1971-present at federal level):  Age hasn’t slowed down Bill Young, 81, who has been a mainstay in Florida politics for more than 50 years. First elected to the Florida state senate in November 1960, Young rose to prominence in the mid-’60s in a bizarre incident where the legislative committee he was serving on, investigating homosexuality in Florida, was threatened with legal action after its explicit report, complete with graphic images, was offered for sale by an X-rated book club. Undamaged by the controversy, Young was promoted to a leadership role in the state senate in 1966, and elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1970.Young was the only candidate on the ballot in the 1980, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002 congressional elections. When faced with Democratic and third-party challengers, Young has won each match with between 56 and 80 percent of the vote. He’s running again in 2012, and will be joined on the ballot by the Democrats’ Jessica Ehrlich.
  • Philip Ruddock, MP (Australia, 1973-present): Ruddock, 69, was first elected to the Australian Parliament in 1973 representing Parramatta, a Sydney suburb. Passed over for promotion during his party’s 1975-1983 run in government, Ruddock’s patience was finally rewarded in 1996, when he was named Immigration Minister after 23 years in Parliament. Despite his association with Australia’s controversial policy of holding foreign refugees in privately run detention centres, Ruddock was later promoted to Attorney-General from 2003 to 2007.

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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