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The Headlee Amendment

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Richard Headlee

When Dick [Richard Headlee] managed George Romney’s gubernatorial election in 1966 in Michigan, Dick and George connected like birds of a feather. They spoke the same language, so to speak, believed in the same conservative values and had the same work ethic.

Through all their activities together, Dick tried to work the political arm to help the common people and not let government over tax them.

The Union of Auto Workers (UAW) is a very powerful union in Detroit. The mob runs the UAW, and there is a great deal of fear and corruption.

We were living in RedfordTownship in 1966 during the Detroit Riots. All summer there were riots between unions and workers with uprisings, fires and broken windows. It got as close as five miles from us. If it had come closer, we would have moved.

I have no idea how George Romney got elected that year, except that the mob had its hands full with the riots, and it wasn’t into politics yet.

In Redford, the little beer and wine stores on the corners were run by families. That’s where the kids went to buy candy. By about 1970, the mob unionized the grocery stores. At the time, the minimum wage for checkers was $2.35 an hour. Suddenly, wages went up to $17.00 an hour.

Every family member who worked at the shop was expected to pay the high union dues. The union representatives were told to collect the weekly union dues from every worker in cash. When the little mom and pop stores couldn’t pay, we watched the shops we loved shut down. Only the big chain stores could afford to stay open.

The mob was a Detroit phenomenon. Its leaders wanted power over everything. They knew they could have it, if they got control of the government. We became anti-union because of the abuse of power.

Top mob bosses lived an elite lifestyle, but the workers were told, “You go collect those dues or break their legs.” If the union guys didn’t get the cash, lives were taken. Everyone was afraid, and the mob made enemies. People kept quiet because they were afraid to speak up.

In Michigan, there was a lot of corruption. The wealthy got wealthier, and big money rackets made big money. Dick believed the excessive property tax problem was caused in part by officials trying to buy votes and by putting people in office who aren’t qualified. People agreed with him.

The Headlee Amendment

Dick continued working for Alexander Hamilton, and he was active in politics on the side. He travelled all over the state with the tax limit committee that he formed to try to educate people.

The campaign supported what was known as the Headlee Amendment. It depended upon which side your bread was being buttered whether you agreed with tax limitation or not.

Headlee amendment campaign sign

“Limit all taxes. Yes E, Headlee”

Mike often traveled with Dick as Mike had his father’s talent for public speaking.

They had to be able to answer questions like, “How did we create this big national deficit?” It’s still a good question.

I disliked that period of time. The Detroit Free Press printed nothing favorable or accurate about us. When I signed checks, people asked, “Is that name Headlee?” It was very uncomfortable.

Notes from Natalie:

When Dad worked for Alexander Hamilton and we moved to the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills in 1972, the property taxes on our home were $1,200 per month.  That is astronomical!

Loopholes in the law made the tax abuse possible and put more money into the hands of the corrupt politicians. This upset our father, who I heard say with a smile, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Aren’t you aware of this?”

By 1976, Dad was very involved in politics. He proposed amendments to the Michigan State Constitution (Article IX, Sections 24-34) to limit the state and local government spending each year. These changes became known as the Headlee Amendment.

The amendment limits total state spending each year, limits the fiscal relationship between state and local units of government and provides for the funding of state mandated programs like education.

In Detroit, the mob had all the power and wanted all the money. The Detroit Free Press, run by the mob, fought the tax limitation amendment. The Michigan Education Association (MEA) feared the loss of property tax money, so it also organized against the Headlee Amendment – with mob money.

Dad was fearless, and he was never intimidated by anyone. Nobody could out debate Dick Headlee. When I heard questions that stumped me, I worried how Dad would answer, but he chuckled and then gave the answer.

Dad treated the press like they were best friends, and he knew them by first name. They respected him, and he gave them respect. The debates evolved into respect and humor. Even though the press kept jabbing him, he never reacted.

Dad had recall that was unbelievable. He remembered facts and percentages. He knew about a million quotes from other people. In a debate, he could use their words to befuddle the opponent and do it with a smile on his face.

Earlier in 1978, [my future husband] got a summer job at Monahan Construction on the docks in Detroit. The job paid enough that summer to sustain us for a year. The union dues were $40 a week, which was big money in those days. It was to be paid in cash to the union guy on Thursday or else. We experienced the intimidation factor first hand, and it is beyond what you could ever imagine.

Notes from Doug:

I drove Headlee to all his speeches in Michigan during the tax limitation amendment campaign in 1978 and again when he ran for governor in 1982. We spent hundreds of hours driving.

While I was driving, he was preparing, and he was always prepared. He’d read part of a speech and ask, “Is this good?” He was a gifted speaker and had the ability to win people over because he helped them understand.

Whenever you run for public office, people want to know who you are. So, Headlee and I went into many hostile environments. He was one of those rare people who could go into contentious situations and walk out with those people being his friends. He was genuine, and people could sense that. Not everyone agreed with him, but they knew he was a genuinely good guy.

Once, I went with him to the Upper Peninsula to the annual meeting of the Lions Club. They weren’t endorsing him when he arrived, but when he left, they were endorsing him. He was magnetic.

In 1978, we had to get 360,000 signatures to get the tax limitation amendment on the ballot. Headlee’s proposal locked in property tax rates and solved the education funding problem. It did so many things that helped stabilize the economy of Michigan…

The Headlee tax limitation amendment passed on November 7, 1978. For his efforts, Dad received huge name recognition and respect.

Note from Howard:

When Dad proposed the amendment to the Michigan Constitution in 1978, I was fourteen years old. I was his travel companion and his technical assistant, setting up the slide projector.

I watched Dad, night after night, as he presented a superior argument. After presenting to 30-40 audiences, we got excited that he would win again. In Michigan, people were mad, and they didn’t know why.

He helped them focus their anger in a positive direction. People would catch a dream from him, even if they didn’t want to. It was exhilarating to make a difference with a little group of people each night.

What impressed me was the way people responded to him. Dad had the ability to stand in front of a sometimes hostile audience, inform them, persuade them and win them over. It was thrilling to watch him compete in an event of ideas.

Note from Carolyn:

In 1977 and 1978, Dad traveled around the state in support of the Headlee Amendment… I was a senior in high school at the time, and I took a lot of abuse from teachers who didn’t want the amendment to pass.

“Have you read the proposal?” I asked them.

“I don’t need to. I know what it says,” they replied.

I inherited my dad’s cheerful competitiveness, the sense of competition between people who think they have the truth. Dad was never intimidated. He encouraged people to continue in their viewpoint and be better. He tried to make enemies his friends, and if he couldn’t, he smiled and moved on. The truth prevails.

Dick respected greatness, and he appreciated the contributions of all sorts of people. He made friends with many influential people with different political and religious views. He didn’t try to change people’s mind. He was so strong in his own beliefs that he didn’t have to…

Dick and Tipp O’Neill were friends, although they had completely opposite points of view. Dick was a staunch Republican, and Tipp was a liberal Democrat. In 1977, Tip O’Neill became the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives… and Dick introduced him to our children. It was all very exciting!

Note:  Some years later, a state audit found that the Michigan Legislature hadn’t paid       education what it was owed for twelve years. By law, it had to pay $300 million back to Michigan Education Association. By then, the MEA praised the amendment, and Dick Headlee was a hero.        

NOTE:  Mary Headlee is the mother of nine children, 55 grandchildren and a growing number of great-grandchildren. The personal historian for her book was Paulette Stevens.

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