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creative:impact - Larry Kestenbaum has the dirt on politicians

The Political Graveyard logo
The Political Graveyard
The Political Graveyard logo

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Larry Kestenbaum
Larry Kestenbaum
Larry Kestenbaum

Lawrence (Larry) Kestenbaum has been the Washtenaw County Clerk and Register of Deeds since 2005; he was elected in November 2004, defeating his predecessor, and re-elected unopposed in 2008.

Washtenaw County is located in southeast Michigan, immediately west of the Detroit area, and includes the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. It has 710 square miles, about 350,000 people, and a taxable value of $14.5 billion. It is home to a number of educational institutions, including the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University. It is the most highly educated county in Michigan and the tenth most highly educated county in the nation, out of more than three thousand U.S. counties.

As Clerk / Register, Mr. Kestenbaum is the county’s chief election official, and is custodian of a vast array of public records, from birth certificates to mortgages. He also serves as co-chair of the Legislative Committee for the Michigan Association of County Clerks, and has testified before House and Senate committees on a variety of issues.

He is also the creator (in 1996), owner, and webmaster of Political Graveyard.com, which is the Internet’s most comprehensive database of American political biography.

Previously, he served as a county commissioner, at different times, in Ingham and Washtenaw counties. In appointed positions, he has been a member of the Capital Area Transportation Authority board of directors, the Ann Arbor Historic District Commission, the East Lansing Planning Commission, and as a board member for several nonprofits.

He has taught courses, given speeches, and served as a panelist, on topics ranging from Internet security to election law to cemetery history.

Prior to his election as county clerk, he was a staff member at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, serving as head of documentation for a major longitudinal survey of aging and retirement. Previously, he was an academic specialist in the Michigan State University Political Science Department and managed the computer lab for the MSU School of Criminal Justice, where he provided data processing support for a national study of women’s prisons and jails.

Born in Chicago, he grew up in East Lansing, where his father was a professor of history at Michigan State University. He has a B.A. in Economics from MSU and a law degree from Wayne State University law school; he did graduate work in city and regional planning at Cornell University.


The Political Graveyard

The Political Graveyard on Facebook

The Political Graveyard on Twitter


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to meet the creative guests rooted in Washtenaw County and explore how their creative businesses, products, programs, and services impact and add to our local quality of life, place, and economy. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Larry Kestenbaum is the Washtenaw County Clerk and Register of Deeds. When he's not ensuring that the elections and deeds are properly managed, he spends his time as a photographer, graphic designer, and illustrator. His creativity has led to another obsession, and we'll learn about that after we say hello. Larry, welcome back to WEMU. You've been here at the station before and for the first time here to creative:impact.

Larry Kestenbaum: Yes. Thank you.

Deb Polich: So happy to have you here. So, you know, it's always really fun for me to discover the other side of someone, you know, whose day job isn't necessarily lending itself to the creative side. So, I like to discover that creative side of people. And you've dabbled in the arts for probably most of your life. How did you start doing that?

Larry Kestenbaum: Well, my father was a professor of history. He was also an eminent photographer since his childhood, really. And he had exhibitions of his photographs. And I accompanied him on many of his jaunts around the state and around the country, taking pictures of things. He was, at the time, you know, he was really more of an artist, you know, and I was more interested in, you know, to me, photography was more of a means to an end, documenting things that were disappearing at the time. But I was often there carrying his camera cases and lenses and things like that.

Deb Polich: Schlepping them around.

Larry Kestenbaum: Yes.

Deb Polich: So, does--your photography or design work--does that intersect at all with your work at this at the county?

Larry Kestenbaum: Not so much with the county. No. Although, I have, for example, when it comes to being elected, for a long time I wrote and designed all my own literature and so forth. But, nowadays photography is more of a dabbling kind of thing.

Deb Polich: That you do. Yeah. So, but what you do have to do, you have to know a lot about candidates and the political history of the community. But you've taken that to an extreme. You literally know where all the politicians are buried.

Larry Kestenbaum: Well, I don't have it all in my head. I have a database for that.

Deb Polich: And it's called The Political Graveyard. It's a website about U.S. political history and cemeteries. And you started it back in 1996. I read that it's the most comprehensive source for American political biography. And you have more than 300,000 politicians in it.

Larry Kestenbaum: I do. I do.

The Political Graveyard logo
The Political Graveyard
The Political Graveyard logo

Deb Polich: Okay. What possessed you to create and start this resource?

Larry Kestenbaum: Well, really, it started out when, back in the mid-nineties, cemeteries around the country were in crisis. Historic cemeteries were being abandoned. And, for example, Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., Newt Gingrich, when he became speaker, he spitefully cut the appropriation for taking care of it. And so, it went, you know, you know, weeds and graffiti and so on. And a statuary was smashed and things like that. And a neighborhood group--and this has happened around the country, happened in Philadelphia, happened in D.C., happened in Chicago--where a neighborhood group would come in. People who were concerned about the cemetery wanted to build some appreciation in the community for the value of the historic cemetery and conducting tours of the cemetery. And I wanted to help that effort. And I had remembered, when I was a student at MSU, finding the Biographical Directory of Congress, which I thought was such a strange thing. At the end of each entry, if the person was dead, they would list which cemetery they were buried in, which I thought was such a peculiar thing to keep track of. But now, I thought, well, maybe they might be, you know, whoever is conducting tours in a cemetery, some obscure cemetery somewhere, they might not know a U.S. senator is buried there. Very often, people die in obscurity. So, I thought I would put up a little directory for this, and I thought it would amuse my friends in grad school. But, you know, hundreds of millions of hits later and a lot of mission creep, it's a big deal.

Deb Polich: I know that mission creep thing. 89 one WEMU creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich. My guest is Washtenaw County Clerk and Register of Deeds Larry Kestenbaum, who moonlights in the creative world as a photographer, illustrator, and the person behind the Political Graveyard. So, Larry, I dabble in my family's genealogy, and I think I've done pretty well tracking back nine generations of grandparents, and that, at most, is 2000 relatives and takes me back to the 1600s. It took me a lot of creative sleuthing over just for a few years. I can't even comprehend researching and documenting more than 300,000. How do you do it?

Larry Kestenbaum: Well, first of all, I don't have, you know, extensive information on all 300,000 people. I do have a lot of information. It's very extensive. I have 4000--almost 4000--politicians who are all related to one another, one way or another.

Deb Polich: It's a family business?

Larry Kestenbaum: There are so many political families. That political activity runs in families. And I have access to a lot of the databases, ancestry dot com and newspapers dot com and so forth, to help research. And the thing with this project is that there's always something different to do. You know, I could do a little genealogy here or I could research elections there. I could go through, you know, each little piece of it contributes to the whole. And, like I said, I've been working on it for more than 25 years. For a website, it's really venerable to have lasted this long. And I have never gotten as much positive feedback about anything I've ever done as I've had about this website. I've done a lot of things in my life, but the Political Graveyard is really...I have gotten so much of a praise and support for that. And it is very reinforcing to get praised for doing something fun.

Deb Polich: So, who makes the cut? What's included in the database?

Larry Kestenbaum: Basically elected officials at the federal and state level. And mayors of cities that meet a certain size criterion. And federal judges. And state appellate judges. And then, candidates and election and a primary for all of those positions. Also, major party, you know, delegates to national conventions and things like that. And many people who are in the database qualify in multiple directions, because, typically, if someone runs for Congress, even if they're not successful, they might be a delegate to a convention. They might have been a mayor of a city or something like that. So, there's a tremendous overlap in all of those things.

U.S. Capitol
The Political Graveyard
U.S. Capitol

Deb Polich: So, are you a walking encyclopedia? If, for example, you learn that I'm a descendant of the Dana family, can you rattle off the names and positions of my ancestors talking about a political family?

Larry Kestenbaum: Not off the top of my head.

Deb Polich: How about Mr. Lincoln? Probably. That's one of Russ's relatives.

Larry Kestenbaum: Yes.

Deb Polich: Bet you could rattle a bit there, right. So, you get really specific, including documenting the causes or circumstances of someone's death--things like politicians who were killed in duels or were executed, who disappeared, or died mysteriously. Is that kind of a fascination of some of the people that check out your database?

Larry Kestenbaum: Yeah, I think so. Like I said, when I originally started it, the idea was to have a cross-reference, you know, people by what, you know, what office they served in and where they were buried. But, as I was researching this, I found...I was startled how many of these 18th and 19th Century politicians had died in duels. And that dueling was a big deal in those days. And I started to document that. And then, that led to other causes of death and so forth. And, you know, the number of offices I was collecting also expanded. And so, pretty soon, I had a pretty comprehensive list of a lot of different things from diphtheria and typhoid to car crashes and plane crashes and suicide, accidents, all kinds of things like that. In many cases, there's, you know, you go to a particular cause, and there's a lot of people there. You know, people who died, for example, in gun accidents, cleaning their guns.

Deb Polich: Yeah. So, you know, duels. I want to jump back to that for a second. You know, we hear politics are more divisive now than ever. Duels sound pretty divisive. What's your long view? Is it just a continuation where we are today?

Larry Kestenbaum: The long view is there's absolutely been a lot of bitter division at times and certainly the period leading up to the Civil War was pretty bad. And following the Civil War. But the dueling was a thing which emerged out of a particular cultural moment and ideas about masculinity and so forth. I don't think we're going to see a return to that.

Deb Polich: I hope not. Let's hope not. So, Larry, you know, we know now who to go to when we want the dirt on a politician. Thanks for joining us and telling us a little bit about your project. There's so much more to delve into, but we really appreciate you being here for just a bit.

Larry Kestenbaum: Thank you for having me.

Deb Polich: Yeah. That's Washtenaw County Clerk and Register of Deeds, Larry Kestenbaum. He moonlights as a photographer, an illustrator and the person behind the Political Graveyard. Find out more about Larry and the Political Graveyard at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. I invite you to join me again next Tuesday to meet another creative Washtenaw guest on this, your community NPR radio station, 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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