Jim Jontz, the Hoosier ‘Roads Scholar,’ Will Be Missed

Posted May 2, 2007 at 4:27pm

On election eve in 1974, Jim Jontz, who was all of 22 years old and making his first bid for political office, wandered into a laundromat in Monticello, Ind., where he encountered two solitary customers. Jontz was in the final hours of his long-shot challenge against the Indiana House Majority Leader, Republican Jim Guy. Jontz spent an hour or so talking to them about the election and the issue that drove him to run: an environmentally damaging dam project sponsored by the incumbent. After all the ballots were counted, Jontz was declared the winner by two votes. Jontz later said the incident taught him the lesson that you never know who may account for your winning margin.

Jim Jontz, who lost his two-year battle with cancer on April 14 at age 55, made a career out of winning elections that political oddsmakers declared “unwinnable.” But though his campaign style became legendary, for Jontz holding public office was simply the most effective way for him to champion the causes he believed in most — protecting the environment and improving the lives of everyday people.

Indiana’s 5th district was a sprawling, mostly rural and heavily Republican district held by Elwood “Bud” Hillis, an eight-term Republican who decided to retire at the end of 1986. Jontz, then a first-term state Senator, squared off against another state Senator, conservative Jim Butcher. With no central media market covering the district, Jontz launched an old-fashioned shoe leather campaign that was a throwback to another era.

In 1986, Rahm Emanuel was the Midwest political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Emanuel was enormously impressed by Jontz’s intelligence and work ethic. Emanuel felt he had found a kindred spirit with Jontz’s hard-charging approach. But Jontz drove Emanuel to fits by his insistence on doing things the Jim Jontz way rather than the DCCC way. To Jontz, precinct targeting was helpful to ordinary candidates. But since he intended to knock on every door, targeting was superfluous. Throughout the campaign, Emanuel expressed frustration that Jontz was not using his time as efficiently as he should. But the Jim Jontz way paid off, as Jontz won — even carrying Howard County, Jim Butcher’s home — after knocking on every door at least twice.

Jontz introduced a number of “wacky” visibility techniques in the 1986 campaign that became Jim Jontz trademarks. Jontz began riding his sister’s bicycle in small-town parades, waving to the crowd in a kind of goofy but charming way. Jontz also set up sandwich boards and Burma-Shave signs during rush hours. The stunts were guaranteed to generate a photograph in the local newspaper. Then there were the Jim Jontz potholders, which became a campaign staple at county fairs. And, to remind voters he was the hardest-working candidate, Jontz placed the design of a worn-out shoe with a hole in the sole at the corner of his yard signs.

Jontz always believed he could outwork his opponent. But he integrated his hard work and personal one-on-one politics with a progressive populism that demonstrated to voters he was on their side. Jontz ran and served in Congress during the 1980s and ’90s farm crisis and the beginning of the era of plant closings. As thousands of Hoosiers were losing their way of life, Jontz became a strong voice for positive progressive change that appealed greatly to working families in his district.

As a Congressman, Jontz was indefatigable. He often stayed in his office until 2 or 3 a.m. reading and signing constituent letters. According to those who served on his staff, Jontz read every single constituent letter and signed every response himself, often sending the drafted response back to the staff member for rewriting.

Jontz also established a “Call Your Congressman” program, whereby once a month he would directly take calls in Washington, D.C., from constituents. He would take as many as 50 a night, staying late to make certain he spoke to each person who had taken the time to call.

He was always near the top of the Republican target list. Christopher Klose, Jontz’s campaign manager in 1986 and later his chief of staff, felt that Jontz tried to accomplish as much as he could in Congress because he knew he was “on borrowed time” in a district that would eventually revert to its Republican roots. Jontz’s 1992 loss to now-Rep. Steve Buyer was a preview of the 1994 Republican sweep. Jontz had championed the preservation of the ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest, a battle in which the spotted owl became a controversial symbol. Members of the Carpenters Union from the Northwest burned him in effigy. Jontz’s Indiana labor supporters remained loyal, but the publicity hurt. And Buyer’s unfounded attacks on Jontz’s scholarship fund endowed from Jontz’s share of the Congressional pay raise cast doubt on Jontz’s integrity. The doubts about the fund combined with the publicity over the spotted owl were enough for some Republicans to defect.

Jontz tried to come back by running against now-Sen. Dick Lugar in 1994, a matchup of two Eagle Scouts. No longer an incumbent, Jontz could not raise the resources to compete. Nonetheless, he approached the race with his usual sense of humor. Lugar had been a Rhodes Scholar, but Jontz claimed he was the real “Roads Scholar,” having traveled every back road in Indiana in his red pickup trick.

After his race against Lugar, Jontz moved to Oregon and worked with environmental groups. He became president of Americans for Democratic Action and worked with the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. As former Chief of Staff Tom Sugar pointed out, Jontz was way ahead of his time on the environment and the effects of globalization on working families. By the 2006 elections, the country was enjoying an awakening on the issues he had championed for decades.

When word spread of Jontz’s condition, he began receiving a stream of visitors and telephone calls from friends and well-wishers. In a classy move, Lugar called him, as did former Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.). Bayh had inspired a generation of Hoosier Democrats including Jontz to public service, just as Jontz would inspire so many who had worked for him.

Two of Jontz’s former staffers, Tom Sugar, now chief of staff to Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D), and Tom Buis, now president of the National Farmers Union, visited Jontz in Oregon on what turned out to be his last good day. When they arrived, Jontz was dictating a law school recommendation letter for a young former assistant before taking a call from the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka to discuss strategy for an upcoming labor rally. Then Jontz, Sugar and Buis reminisced and laughed about those frenetic, unpredictable early campaigns. Before they left, Jontz admonished them that there was much work still to be done.

Those who knew Jim Jontz will miss him greatly. Those who never knew this Hoosier “Roads Scholar,” but whose lives and causes he quietly championed, may miss him even more.

Chris Sautter, a native Hoosier, is an attorney, political consultant and filmmaker in Washington, D.C.