When Michael Bilirakis retired from law, his Gus son took over the family firm. And when Michael retired from Congress, Gus took that U.S. House seat. They’re just one of many local political dynasties. (More)

Our Political Dynasties, Pt II: Our ‘Earls’

This week Morning Feature considers American political dynasties. Yesterday we began with our ‘royals,’ families that seemed to dominate the White House, Senate, and governors’ races. Today we look at ‘earls,’ families that dominated U.S. House and large city mayoral races. Saturday we’ll compare political dynasties with corporate and professional ‘barons’ and see that politics has been a surprisingly fragile “family business.”

Elect Frelinghuysen, again (and again and again and again and again and again)

Michael Bilirakis was a steelworker and engineer before he became a lawyer and then a municipal judge in Tarpon Springs and New Port Richey. In 1982 he ran for Florida’s newly-redrawn 9th Congressional District, and served 12 terms before his retirement in 2007. By then his son Gus had been in the Florida House for eight years. Gus easily won his father’s seat in the 2006 election and held it when it was redrawn as the 12th District – encompassing most of Pasco County – after the 2010 census. Together, the family has held that seat for 32 years and counting.

But in terms of U.S. House dynasties, they’re relative newcomers. The grand prize goes to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). His family’s Congressional roots trace back to 1792, when Frederick Frelinghuysen was elected to the Senate. He served only three years before retiring, but five more Frelinghuysens have served in Congress since. Rodney spent 10 years in the New Jersey General Assembly before being elected to the U.S. House in 1994.

Then there’s Rep. John Flemming Jr. (R-LA). He was elected in 2009, but his ancestors first headed to D.C. when Kentuckians elected Henry Clay to the Senate in 1806. Clay moved to the House and was elected Speaker in 1811, again in 1814 and, yet again 1823. He then served as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams, before his return to the Senate in 1831. He retired in 1852, and his son James Brown Clay was elected to the House in 1857.

“Thus, in politics, power begets power”

These families are just three examples of what the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham called “a bizarre electoral reenactment of the movie Groundhog Day.” Ingraham cites an exhaustive 2009 study by Ernesto Dal Bó, Pedro Dal Bó, and Jason Snyder, based on data at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Since our nation’s founding, just over 1-in-12 U.S. House and Senate members have come from dynastic families. Until the Civil War, dynasties accounted for 1-in-9 members of Congress. That’s decreased somewhat since, with 37 current Senate or House dynasties as of 2013. That’s about the historical average for the House, but Ingraham notes that over the course of our history, almost 1-in-7 senators had family ties in Congress:

As for senators, 13.5 percent have come from dynastic families, versus only 7.7 percent of representatives. One of the key findings of the dynasty paper is that political power is self-perpetuating: “Legislators who hold power for longer become more likely to have relatives entering Congress in the future. Thus, in politics, power begets power.”

Senators serve six-year terms, versus two-year terms in the House, so senators have more time to accumulate power and influence, which can then pass on to subsequent generations.

“Widow’s succession used to be THE way that women got into Congress”

Some of that is due to widow’s succession, a long-standing tradition of appointing a widow to complete her late husband’s term:

The prevailing expectation was that the women would serve briefly and provide a seamless transition by carrying forward the legislative business and district interests of their deceased husbands. Local party officials, especially in the one-party South, recruited widow candidates for reasons of political expediency: to hold the seat while awaiting a male successor or to avoid a protracted intraparty fight for an open seat.

Most did exactly that, but a few ran for reelection. Edith Nourse Rogers won a special election in 1925 to complete her late husband John’s term and retired in 1961 as the longest-serving woman in U.S. House history.

In all, 39 U.S. House members and 8 Senators have taken office through widow’s succession:

“Widow’s succession used to be THE way that women got into Congress, with very few exceptions,” explains [Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University]. The practice peaked in the mid-twentieth century. “There was a period when you could look at all the women serving in Congress, and a majority had initially gotten in that way.” It’s declined since, but still persists – Lois Capps (D-CA) and Doris Matsui (D-CA) are the only two women currently in Congress who initially inherited their husbands’ seats.

Michigan’s Deborah Dingell joined that list in 2014 when she succeeded her husband John, who retired after 59 years in the House … the longest tenure in U.S. history.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

There’s a wealth of data on Congressional dynasties, but surprisingly little on families that dominate local politics. Perhaps it’s so common that it would take an army of researchers to ferret out all the connections. Members of the Quincy family served as Mayors of Boston, on and off, from 1823 (Josiah III) through the mid-century (Josiah Jr.) until 1899 (Josiah). No, those names aren’t backward, and yes, Quincy Market is named after them. John F. Fitzgerald was Beantown’s mayor from 1906-1908 and from 1910-1914, between two stints in the U.S. House. His daughter Rose married his political rival, Joseph P. Kennedy, and the merging of the two clans produced all the Kennedys we saw yesterday.

And then there are Chicago’s Daleys. Richard J. Daley first ran for the Illinois State House in 1936 on the Republican ticket, as a matter of convenience. He switched back to the Democratic ticket in 1938, running for the Illinois Senate. He suffered his only electoral defeat in 1946, running for Cook County Sheriff. In 1955 he was elected Mayor of Chicago, and he held that seat for 21 years. His son Richard M. followed in his footsteps, serving in the Illinois Senate from 1972-1980, then as Cook County State’s Attorney until 1989, and then as Mayor of Chicago for 22 years. Together, the Daley dynasty held political office in Illinois, almost uninterrupted, for 75 years.

A new dynasty may be forming in the District of Columbia, where Marion C. Barry is running for his legendary father’s city council seat. He’s trailing in the polls, but don’t count him out. A family name can go a long way. Just ask the Frelinghuysens.


Happy Friday!