Family business in decline? Fewer get to Congress through heredity

Half the members who filled their fathers’ seats aren’t coming back

Michigan Democratic Rep. Andy Levin followed his father into Congress, but there were signs that dynasties were on a decline in Congress even before voters in Massachusetts rejected a Kennedy last week.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Michigan Democratic Rep. Andy Levin followed his father into Congress, but there were signs that dynasties were on a decline in Congress even before voters in Massachusetts rejected a Kennedy last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 9, 2020 at 12:13pm

When Congress is in session, Andy Levin can’t stop talking about his dad. 

“From Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer down to people who are not that much more senior than me, I get to go to work and talk about my dad almost every day, and I just can’t get enough of it really,” the freshman House member said.

On one of Levin’s first days in Congress at the start of 2019, Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings affectionately called him “Sandy’s boy.” The Michigan Democrat filled the seat previously held by his father, Sander M. Levin, a 36-year House veteran.

But Levin’s story of stepping into a parent’s shoes as a lawmaker is becoming less common.

Political dynasties were on the decline in Congress even before last week’s Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts, where Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III became the first Kennedy to ever lose a congressional race in the Bay State. Other members set to retire after this year do not have children running to replace them.

Only six current members can say they directly followed their fathers into Congress by replacing them in their seats. And that number is taking a hit in 2020, with a pair of lawmakers felled by primary defeats, and one having resigned after an ethics scandal. 

The waning influence of party machines may be one reason for the decline, according to Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor at George Washington University. She cited Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski, whose father didn’t announce his retirement until after winning his 2004 Democratic primary and then worked with party leaders to get his son’s name on the ballot as a replacement.  

“Given the local strength of the Democratic Party and Lipinski (senior’s) role in it, the path was paved for Dan to come back to Chicago to run for the seat,” she told CQ Roll Call in an email.

Not like other family businesses

Levin says politics is hard to compare to other professions that are traditionally handed down generationally. 

“You have to get elected on your own merit,” he said. “I think we all say, ‘Wow, isn’t it great if the 100-year-old hardware store is passed on from parents to children.’ But I think it’s really important in democracy and politics that people need to be moved to go into public service.”

Former Rep. Duncan Hunter was the first member to lose his inherited seat in 2020. 

The California Republican’s father, also named Duncan Hunter, held a seat representing the San Diego area for 26 years until he made a bid for president in 2008. The move paved the way for his son to win his seat that year, but late in 2019, the younger Hunter pleaded guilty to using hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds for his own enrichment.

His resignation in January effectively ended 39 years of someone named Duncan Hunter in California’s House delegation.

A pair of insurgent primary challenges took down two more generational seat occupants this year. Lipinski — who replaced his father, William O. Lipinski — lost a March primary in Illinois to progressive challenger Marie Newman. The Lipinskis had been in office since 1983. 

Then last month, in Missouri, activist Cory Bush beat 10-term Democrat William Lacy Clay. His father, William L. Clay, was first elected in 1968.

The last election cycle also saw the departures of House lawmakers who succeeded their parents. Tennessee Republican John J. Duncan Jr. — who won his seat after his father’s death in 1988 — retired rather than seek a 16th term. Pennsylvania’s Bill Shuster, who was term-limited as the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also did not seek reelection. For 46 years, Shuster and his father, Bud, wielded huge influence on transportation matters, with both chairing the Transportation panel.

One father appointed his daughter

Levin was the only new member to inherit a parent’s seat in 2018. His father held the suburban Detroit seat for 18 terms. His uncle, former Sen. Carl Levin, was also the longest-serving senator in Michigan history.

“[Politicians] get their values from their parents, which is great, but they need to go into their own beliefs and their own feelings about wanting to serve their fellow Americans,” Levin said about the example from his father and uncle.

New Jersey Rep. Donald Payne Jr., who came to Congress after his father’s death in 2012, is expected back in the next Congress. Payne was renominated in a heavily Democratic district after getting 89 percent of the vote in the July primary. 

Only one next-generation member, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, is not on the ballot this cycle. She came to Congress via appointment by her father, Frank H. Murkowski. The elder Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska in 2002, resigned from the Senate and then appointed his daughter as his successor.

Chairing a caucus started by your father

Florida Rep. Gus Bilirakis and his father, Michael Bilirakis, before him have represented the Tampa suburbs for more than three decades since 1983. The younger Bilirakis, who succeeded his father in 2007, remains in a strong spot to win an eighth term this fall.

“My dad was a good role model,” he said. “He set a good example for me.”

Bilirakis recalls how being raised in Greek traditions and culture prepared him to follow in his father’s footsteps. “He founded the Hellenic Caucus with Carolyn Maloney. Then I took over as chair,” he said. 

While Levin enjoys being able to talk a lot about his dad, he misses the cordiality between members that he saw watching his father and uncle. Back then, he said, personal relationships between lawmakers mattered — partisanship was much more of a play during elections instead of the day-to-day legislative activities.

“My idea is sorta like the Road Runner and Coyote. In those cartoons, not that often, every once in a while, they would be going at it in their endless battle, the horn would sound, and it was like the end of the shift and they would grab their lunch pails and walk off arm and arm,” he said. “That was deeply something that my dad and uncle embodied.”

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