Robert Mahoney was blind and suffering from a bad heart when his doctors said he had to find an easier job than going door to door in Detroit selling items like brooms and brushes. He went into politics and in 1954 was the first blind person elected to the Legislature, a post he held for 18 years.
After he was defeated for re-election in 1972, he served on the State Officers Compensation Commission and then was a lobbyist before he retired.
His was one of the more remarkable stories of legislators, made all the more remarkable because he and his wife, Jennie (who was also blind), raised 10 children and were able to run businesses from their home.
Mr. Mahoney was born in 1921 in Minnesota and his family later relocated to Detroit. He was blind from birth in one eye and then lost sight in his other eye after a skiing accident while he was a student at Holy Redeemer High School in Detroit. He met his wife Jennie at the Michigan School for the Blind. Ms. Mahoney lost much of her sight due to a high fever when she was three years old and then lost the rest when she was 11.
After graduating from the Michigan School for the Blind, Ms. Mahoney was the first blind student admitted to Adrian College. Mr. Mahoney graduated from Detroit Northern High School.
After they married and settled in Detroit, Mr. Mahoney took a job selling objects made by the blind, such as brooms and mops. He had earlier been one of the first persons in Michigan to get the help of a guide dog, named Patsy, and Patsy helped him in following his route.
Always interested in politics, Mr. Mahoney had run for Detroit Democratic precinct delegate but lost his first race. When his doctor encouraged him to seek a less stressful job, Mr. Mahoney ran again for precinct delegate and won. He said later that his days walking a sales route helped build his name recognition.
In 1954 he was first elected to the House. Toward the end of his tenure, Mr. Mahoney was chair of the House Policy Committee.
He probably was best known for sponsoring legislation that required young people getting hunting licenses to take hunter safety classes. Mr. Mahoney had a special interest in hunter safety issues. To emphasize the point, he went out and was able to buy a hunting license even though he was blind.
Mr. Mahoney got caught up in the racial tensions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which ended his legislative career. He was a supporter of open housing and school busing. He had generally won his primaries easily, but in 1972 his district was changed and he lost his primary in a landslide to Thaddeus Stopszynski, a more conservative Democrat.
After he left the Legislature, Mr. Mahoney served on the SOCC and then became a lobbyist.
While he had been in Lansing, Ms. Mahoney operated a business out of their Detroit home.
In the 1990s he published an autobiography, “Living Out Of Sight.” Both the Mahoneys were strict Catholics, and Mr. Mahoney’s opposition to abortion led him eventually to switch parties. While he was in the Legislature, he would join other Catholic lawmakers for daily mass.
In an interview 20 years ago in The Michigan Catholic, Mr. Mahoney said, “Life is hard. People today want to think that everything can be easy and you don’t have to struggle or fight or work for anything. But half the joy in life is making some success out of it.”
Mahoney died on March 29, 2017.
For the full article, see “Robert Mahoney, 95, First Blind Person Elected To Legislature, Dies“, MIRS, March 31, 2017.
Paul Egan, “Robert Mahoney, Michigan’s first blind state lawmaker, dead at 95“, Detroit Free Press, March 31, 2017.
February 1, 2018:
House Resolution No. 241.
A resolution of tribute offered as a memorial for Robert D. Mahoney, former member of the House of Representatives.
Whereas, The members of this legislative body were saddened to learn of the passing of former Representative Robert Mahoney. He was both a statesman and a self-starter, and his noteworthy contributions for the disabled and all residents of this state will be long remembered; and
Whereas, Born in Duluth, Minnesota, Robert Mahoney attended Detroit’s Northern High School. He and his wife, Jennie, settled in Detroit after they married to raise a family of ten children. Blind since the age of fifteen, he worked as a door‑to‑door salesman for twelve years to support his growing family. Advised to find a new profession due to health issues and at the urging of a friend, he successfully ran for Democratic precinct delegate. The Mahoneys also established the still-operating Michigan Notary Business, selling notary supplies by mail; and
Whereas, In 1954, Robert Mahoney was elected to represent northeast Detroit in the Michigan House of Representatives. A lifelong Catholic, Representative Mahoney strongly believed that God opened a new window with his venture into politics. As Michigan’s first blind legislator, Representative Mahoney introduced legislation requiring hunter safety classes for young hunters, successfully purchasing a hunting license himself to show the need for stricter regulations. Representative Mahoney also sponsored legislation to provide state identification for blind people who did not hold a driver’s license and to require that vending stands in state-owned buildings be run a by blind proprietors. He secured funding for WKAR radio to offer a sub-channel for the “Talking Book” program to serve the blind. During his tenure, Representative Mahoney chaired several committees including Aid to the Handicapped, Social Aid and Welfare, Social Services and Corrections, and House Policy. He was also a member of the Supplies and Expenditures, Education, Insurance, Public Safety, and Taxation committees; and
Whereas, After leaving the Legislature in 1972, Representative Mahoney was appointed as a Wayne County Commissioner where he served for three years and later he lobbied for the Michigan Hospital Association. He noted that computers made life easier for the blind and, using a special Braille computer, he would surf the web, read news, and send e-mails. In 1995, he self-published a book about his life titled “Living Out of Sight”; now, therefore, be it
Resolved by the House of Representatives, That we offer this expression of our highest tribute to honor the memory of Robert D. Mahoney, a member of this legislative body from 1955 to 1972; and be it further
Resolved, That copies of this resolution be transmitted to the Mahoney family as evidence of our lasting esteem for his memory.
The question being on the adoption of the resolution,
The resolution was adopted by unanimous standing vote.