Remembering Former Michigan State Sen. Joanne Emmons Joanne Emmons, R-Big Rapids. (Dale Atkins/AP)
By John Gizzi | Sunday, 03 April 2022 06:48 PM
Almost immediately upon meeting this reporter in 1997, then-State Sen. Joanne Emmons of Michigan let it be known that she and husband John had read everything by or about Whittaker Chambers.
Big Rock Rapids Republican Emmons (who died Thursday at age 88) had devoured Chambers’ "Witness" and could recite passages about his odyssey from atheist Communist agent to born-again Christian who exposed and document Russian infiltration of the US government.
"Chambers' words were a big influence on my life," Emmons said, citing the onetime Time Magazine senior editor’s distrust of government and personal faith as traits to be admired. She was anxious to read Sam Tannenhaus’s upcoming (and long-awaited) biography of Chambers.
"And we will discuss it," Emmons promised, making it clear that was a promise she intended to keep.
In her 16 years in the Michigan legislature, Joanne Emmons would make promises on many issues. And, as former State Republican Chairman Saul Anuzis, "whatever the issue or the cause — the anti-tax movement in the 1980’s, the pro-life movement — you could go to the bank on whatever Joanne said she would do."
Born and raised in Big Rapids, Joanne Gregory was valedictorian of her high school class and then graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in home economics. After marrying high school sweetheart John Emmons soon after graduation, Joanne began to teach "home ec" at her old high school and became active in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. In later years, she would point to her Lutheran faith as something she turned to in making tough decisions or casting difficult votes.
In 1976, after two decades of teaching future homemakers how to manage their family budgets, Emmons decided to apply what she had learned and taught to her hometown. She was elected Township Treasurer of Big Rapids and held the post for ten years.
When State Rep. Colleen House Engler decided to run for governor in 1986, she urged Emmons to run for legislative seat and endorsed her in a contested primary. As the first woman to run for governor of Michigan later recalled, "I felt it was important to have at least one conservative woman in the legislature — as many as possible. And I liked Joanne."
Emmons won handily.
Four years later, when State Sen. John Engler (Colleen’s former husband) declared for governor, State Rep. Emmons declared for his senate seat. Discussing the contest to succeed him in the senate, Engler told us that he was strictly neutral, but "Joanne will be very strong. And keep your eye on a young fellow named John Moolenaar who’s running."
Emmons won the primary. Moolenaar would go on to serve on the Midland City Council, in the state senate and was elected to Congress in 2018.
Rising to become state senate GOP floor leader, Emmons was, according to Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, "a great advocate for lower taxes and limited government—years before the Tea Party. Her leadership showed the way for many taxpayers to become politically active."
When State Sen. David Jaye of Macomb County was charged with publicly assaulting his then-girlfriend in 2001, Floor Leader Emmons moved for the expulsion of her fellow Republican from the Senate. The way to show true compassion, argued Jaye supporters, was to leave him there and let the voters decide.
Emmons wasn’t buying it, believing as her hero Chambers did that "there is no compassion without courage."
She explained to this reporter that "we have been more than compassionate with Jaye by keeping him around after three drunken-driving arrests and complaints he had verbally abused his staff. It’s time to take action."
They did. By an almost-unanimous vote, the state senate made Jaye the second lawmaker to be expelled from its ranks in history.
Joanne Emmons was remembered as a gentle Lutheran lady who had strong beliefs from which she never backed down. Onetime opponent Rep. Moolenaar perhaps said it best: "My friend Joanne provided outstanding assistance to her constituents, and she was a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars, while always fighting to defend the lives of the unborn. Our state is better off because of her."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.