Beyond the Bushes: Political Dynasties in State and Local Government

American politics is a forest filled with intricate family trees, and many offices seem almost hereditary.
by | October 2014
The Durhals of Detroit: Rep. Fred Durhal Jr., right, has served as a Michigan state representative since 2002. His son, Fred III, is now running to replace his term-limited father. Scott Stewart

Fred Durhal III has spent most of his 30 years immersed in Michigan politics. His father was chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins in the 1990s, and family dinners with Collins were part of the routine. Since 2002, the elder Durhal has served on and off as an elected representative in the Michigan House, and his son has spent the past several years by his side in Lansing as a campaign worker and then a legislative aide. Father and son would sit together in committee meetings and on the House floor. Rep. Durhal would explain to his son the workings of the legislature and why the appropriations committee was the most important in the Capitol. Today, Durhal III will occasionally slip into calling his father “Rep.”

But going into politics wasn’t always the plan for Durhal III. He played trombone in high school and spent some time studying with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “Like everybody, you kind of run away from what your parents do,” he says, “away from the family business.”

And his father never intended to groom a political heir. “I didn’t want my kids to be politicians. It can be a rough life,” says Rep. Durhal, who acknowledges that the rigors of political life contributed to his divorce from his sons’ mother while they were still young. “It can take away from your ability to spend time with family like you really want to. There is a sacrifice that you make.”

Nonetheless, Durhal III was eventually drawn to the idea of running for office himself. “I got the political fever,” he says. Five years ago, he announced to his father that he wanted to run to replace him once he was term-limited out in 2014. Since then, the legislative education from father to son has intensified. Occasionally, they’ll squabble over a vote taken by the older Durhal, who has been known to retort, “I’m the Rep. right now.” But if next month’s election goes as anticipated -- the elder Durhal won by huge margins in his three campaigns -- there will soon be another member of the family who will go by “Rep.”

The Durhals of Detroit are a budding political dynasty, but the tradition is almost as old as American democracy itself. From the Adamses, the Roosevelts and the Tafts, to the Kennedys, the Bushes and the Clintons, American politics is a forest filled with intricate family trees. This year’s elections are no different. In Louisiana, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu -- daughter of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu and sister of current Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who was re-elected earlier this year -- is running for a fourth term. In Georgia, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate is Jason Carter, grandson of President Jimmy Carter.

It’s hard to pin down just how many dynasties exist in American politics. In 1989, a professor at the University of Southwestern Louisiana estimated that one-fourth of state and parish officials had another relative in office. In a 2010 analysis of Congress, Harvard University’s Brian Feinstein concluded that 12 percent of U.S. House candidates from 1994 to 2006 were members of a political dynasty.

Obviously, political scions have some built-in advantages, mainly name recognition and the ability to tap into an established fundraising network. That can give them a leg up on opponents who aren’t as connected. In his analysis, Feinstein pegged a “brand name advantage” as the most important attribute that gave dynastic candidates a better chance of political success, particularly in the primary stage, which is arguably the biggest hurdle for new candidates. “Think of the early stages of a race, when people are thinking about whether to run,” says Dartmouth College’s Brendan Nyhan, who has written about political dynasties for The New York Times. “The prospect of taking on a dynastic candidate, who has insider connections, who has the ability to at least potentially have donors that other candidates might not be able to access, and who has other kinds of credibility and resources to draw on -- I think that matters.”

Of course, name recognition may not always work completely in a candidate’s favor: The prospect of a 2016 Bush-Clinton presidential face-off, for example, tends to elicit more groans than cheers. As even Barbara Bush said last year about the prospect of a White House bid from her son Jeb, the former Florida governor, “There are a lot of great families. … There are other people out there that are very qualified and we’ve had enough Bushes.”

Most members of a political family, however, will say it’s not about connections or fundraising or name recognition. It’s just in their blood. “We’re not trying to start a dynasty,” Rep. Durhal says. “But what I am trying to do is to ensure we have good representation out there. I know I was a good representative, and I want to make sure that that kind of service continues down the line. And if it’s my sons doing it, a father could not be more proud.”

One of the oldest and most established dynasties in local politics is the Sullivan family of Cambridge, Mass. Michael Sullivan was first elected to the Cambridge City Council in 1993 and today serves as the clerk of courts for Middlesex County. His political lineage goes back for the better part of a century: There’s been a Sullivan in office in the Cambridge area since 1936, a nearly 80-year span of continuous public service.

Sullivan assumed the seat vacated by his father, Walter, a three-time mayor and former state legislator. Walter had followed his older brother Edward, who in turn had inherited the seat from their father, the patriarch of the Sullivan political clan, Michael “Mickey the Dude” Sullivan. They spread themselves around too. When Michael left the city council to run for county clerk of courts in 2007, he was running to replace his uncle Edward, who had been clerk for nearly 50 years after leaving the city council in 1960 and being replaced by his brother, Michael’s father Walter.

The Sullivans of Cambridge: The area in and around Cambridge, Mass., has been represented by a member of the Sullivan family for more than 80 years. Michael Sullivan, right, is currently the clerk of courts for Middlesex County. (Maclone Studios of Photography)

Michael Sullivan never knew any other life. His father was elected to city council the year Michael was born. His childhood was spent standing alongside his dad in civic parades and running into city hall to ask his father for ice cream money. “I didn’t think anything about it. It was just my dad, it was just what he did,” says Sullivan, who is now running to be Middlesex County district attorney. “My dad always taught us that it was important to give back and the difference you can make in making government work. It became a family tradition that I fell in love with.”

Sullivan says his father never pressured him to enter public life, and he plans to take the same approach with his two sons, 14 and 15. But the rumblings of another generation of Sullivans in public office have already started. Sullivan’s sons already ask on occasion how old they would have to be run a campaign, Sullivan says, joking that “maybe one of them will be the youngest Sullivan elected.”

He balks at the idea that familial rule is somehow aristocratic or anti-democratic. Being part of a political dynasty can actually be a hindrance, he says. “It means you have to work harder. There’s always some presumption that you’re just another political family. You have to work harder than anyone else [to show that] there’s merit to what I’m doing, that it wasn’t just based upon my family tradition. It was in my own right.”

That’s a mentality that resonates with Durhal III as he canvasses his father’s legislative district in Michigan this fall. “Our dad always told us, ‘Be your own man,’” he says. “It helped me to be able to go out and say, ‘These are my ideas on, say, education.’ Not to say anything bad about [my father]. But these are my ideas. As good of a public servant as my dad is, I want to be a hundred times better than that.”

Political dynasties aren’t always as linear as the Durhals or the Sullivans. When Barbara Roberts first arrived in the Oregon Senate to work as her husband Frank’s legislative assistant in 1975, Frank’s second ex-wife Betty was already in her second term as a state senator. Meanwhile Mary Wendy Roberts, Frank’s daughter from his first marriage, was over in the House. Over the next two decades, the Robertses would serve as state legislators, labor commissioners, agency heads and state Supreme Court justices. Barbara was elected governor in 1990 after stints as a state representative and secretary of state.

“People always got confused about who was related to who,” she says. “We probably should have put out a flow chart.” She recalls colleagues in the statehouse sometimes mistakenly calling her “Betty,” confusing her with the second Mrs. Roberts. There were other, more delicate downsides as well. After they shared Frank’s terminal cancer diagnosis with the public in 1993, during her term as governor, Roberts remembers a constant stream of colleagues and strangers asking how the family was doing. They meant well, she says, but it was a lot to bear. “I couldn’t get away from it. It was always right there.” If the Robertses didn’t have myriad connections to state government, she says, “maybe I wouldn’t have had to answer that question 50 or 80 or 100 times a day.”

Then there are cases in which family connections are even more tenuous. Doug La Follette has served as Wisconsin’s secretary of state on and off for the last 40 years, so voters presumably know who he is by now. But when he was first launching his political career with a congressional race in 1970, one of the biggest questions he got was how exactly he was related to the Wisconsin La Folletes, a family that had produced a state attorney general as well as three governors, including Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, who also served as a U.S. senator from 1906 to 1925 and was the 1924 Progressive Party presidential candidate.

The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Robert M. La Follette Sr., standing at right, served as governor and, later, as a U.S. Senator representing Wisconsin. His son Robert Jr., standing in center, would also serve as a Senator; his other son Philip, seated on ground, would go on to become a three-term governor. (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Doug La Follete’s relation was relatively distant. His great-grandfather was Fighting Bob’s uncle. But he readily admits that the family name helped give him his start in politics. “Because my name was so connected to politics in Wisconsin, some people said, ‘Well, gee, you should run for office,’” he says. “People would assume that. They’d ask, ‘Are you a cousin, or a nephew, or what?’”

His political opponents tried to make hay out of the loose family ties. La Follette twice had to produce a birth certificate to counter attacks that he was not a “real” La Follette. Still, he says that while his surname was an asset, he never intentionally traded on it.

Back in Detroit, the Durhal family is already looking beyond Fred III’s presumptive win next month. Brian, Fred III’s younger brother, approached their father at a campaign event in August at Wayne Community College, where Brian is still a student. “Dad,” he said, “I think I want to do this too.”

The outgoing Rep. Durhal told his younger son to finish college first and then they’d talk. “I told him, ‘You have the background to help you get there. Finish school. By the time you do that, Fred’s time will have come and gone, and we’ll look at running you next.’”