By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
When Fred Upton began his first term in Congress, a gallon of gas cost 89 cents and “Top Gun” was making bank at the box office.
Thirty years and 15 consecutive terms later, the Republican remains on the ticket for the 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Joining him on the Nov. 8 ballot is Democratic challenger Paul Clements – the Western Michigan University professor who returns for a second chance at taking on the incumbent.
Clements, who teaches political science and national economic development, ran against Upton in 2014. He made headlines by gaining support from a Super PAC on his way to collecting 40 percent of the vote to Upton’s 56.
Both seem eager leading up to the general election and have stuck to their platforms, both through in-person campaigning and TV ads.
Upton, who for most of his political career has been seen as a moderate and bipartisan, has repeatedly said he is “running a clean campaign.” Clements has portrayed Upton as being in the pocket of special interest groups, while likening himself as a “man of the people.”
Campaign fundraising has been a mixed bag between the two candidates.
Upton had raised more than $2.4 million for his campaign as of July 13 filings.
Clements’ previous candidacy received a significant increase from Super PAC MayDay when it donated $2.15 million to his cause in 2014. However, Clements said he has no expectations that the PAC will be supporting him in the last month this time around. Clements has raised more than $635,000 as of July 13.
The congressional race has two additional challengers in a Libertarian and write-in candidate.
Laurence Wenke, 71, is the Libertarian candidate who previously served in the Michigan House of Representatives. The Galesburg resident was defeated by Tonya Schuitmaker in the 2010 Republican Party primary election for the 20th District of the Michigan Senate. Wenke has since switched to the Libertarian Party over differences with the GOP on gay marriage and issues surrounding taxation.
The 6th District itself has changed quite a bit since 1986 when it was in the shape of an “L” that went as far north as Grand Haven and stretched east toward Coldwater. The district was restructured to include Kalamazoo County, which holds the largest city within the 6th District.
Education and environment
Clements, 55, said he wants to bring more high-tech manufacturing to the district, make higher education more affordable, and protect the environment.
The Kalamazoo Democrat said it’s unacceptable to have an economy that’s not working for most Americans. Clements said there’s not much to build upon with the current tax policies and tax breaks that support the worst economic inequality.
“In terms of economic growth and what helps all of us, American prosperity was made on making things and producing things in the 20th century,” Clements said in his case to push for manufacturing jobs. “That’s still the case in the 21st century.”
Clements said he believes in climate change and supports clean energy.
“This is not only an environmental issue, but an economic issue,” he said during a phone interview. “It’s not just clean energy, we know world food demand is going to be a big issue. Unfortunately, our government has decreased its agriculture research by 30 percent.”
On the topic of gun control, Clements said he supports the 2nd Amendment and is in favor of universal background checks at gun shows and online. According to Clements, a ban on assault rifles is in everyone’s best interests. However, he said people also deserve to own a gun if they act responsibly.
Clements said he’s in favor of raising minimum wage to $12 an hour, and wants to look at ways of strengthening Social Security and Medicare. Clements said they must first expand Medicare and lower the minimum age by two years.
“In the U.S., we still have the most expensive health care in the world,” Clements said. “I’m in favor of fixing the problems in the Affordable Care Act. It’s not perfect, but it’s up to everyone working together across the aisle to make it better. I think by expanding Medicare and opening it to anyone who wants to buy into it would be helpful. Buying insurance across state borders would be a plus.”
If elected to represent the 6th District, Clements said he would want to address the tax code.
“It’s like swiss cheese,” he said. “We have to clean up the tax code to make sure people are paying what they owe.”
As a professor in higher education, Clements also placed an emphasis on improving education through Congress and the federal government.
He said there is a need for more vocational education. With an increased need in manufacturing, Clements said there are no qualified applicants to fill the positions.
Relying on experience
A common go-to phrase for Upton is “the proof is in the pudding.”
Upton, 63, chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee – the oldest committee in the House. He is slated to lose that chairmanship even if the GOP retains its House majority. The caucus set term limits for committee chairs.
After 30 years in Washington D.C., spending time campaigning and traveling, Upton said what keeps him coming back are the people he represents.
With an average of 600 votes a year in Congress, Upton has maintained clean attendance.
“I’ve gone a number of years now without missing a vote,” Upton said. “The guy that I beat (in 1985), he had missed 350 votes in the five years he was there. I might have missed 50 votes in the 30 years I’ve been there.”
Upton’s campaign hinges on his ability to remain bipartisan. He was among the Republicans that supported the Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks on firearm purchasers in the U.S. and imposed a five-day waiting period.
“I had police protection when that happened, but I didn’t feel it took away from the 2nd Amendment,” he said. “I voted to increase funding to make sure the background checks are accurate and speedier. I also came out to say that folks on the no-fly list should be on the ‘no-buy list.’”
During his chairmanship, Upton said he’s seen close to 150 different provisions that have moved out of the committee.
The big one they’re focusing on is called the 21st Century Cures Act. To lower drug costs, Upton claims this legislation is the first step.
“This is our signature issue that we’ve been working on for a couple of years,” he said. “It expedites the approval of drugs and devices and its coupled with billions more for both the National Institute of Health and the FDA.”
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act, the best phrase that comes to Upton’s mind is “we told you so.”
In light of several insurance companies leaving the health care act, otherwise known as Obamacare, Upton said the venture does not raise the level of competition. Upton did agree there was a need for change.
“Sadly this was a very partisan effort that was forced through,” Upton said. “We have a system, where a lot of folks are getting much higher premiums and deductibles.”
Upton and other House Republicans have pushed for their “A Better Way” policy agenda that is intended to improve the nation’s health care system.
According to a nonpartisan analysis, the “A Better Way” proposals would lead to 1 million more people having health insurance in 2018, and that premiums would drop anywhere from 10-35 percent from current levels. Upton said the health care legislation is supposed to offer more choices, lower costs and provide a stronger Medicare.
While these two have faced each other before, there are a few key differences heading toward November.
Clements has been running his campaign for more than a year and a half. In the previous election, Clements announced his candidacy in March before the primary. He’s had more time to campaign than his previous try. Clements also touts more experience.
“In 2014, it was my first time running for office. My campaign is stronger this time around in every area,” Clements said. “We have a much stronger get-out-to-vote program and my campaign is more centrally focused on the economic issues, even after getting out of the latest recession. Yes, the name recognition is better this time around as well because I’ve run once before.”
But is Clements too liberal for this region of the state? Clements said he doesn’t think so.
“When we talk about economic security and expanding Medicare, a substantial majority of Americans and across Michigan support these things,” he said. “There’s still this perception of what has become the worst economic equality since before the Great Depression.”
There’s a difference in how Upton will be perceived as well.
Upton joined the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 1991. He competed against three others for chairman six years ago and was unopposed as chair his last two terms. Being chairman for the longstanding committee comes with great benefits.
When Upton was named chair, he became the first major committee chairman to come from Southwest Michigan.
The region and the state benefitted from Upton’s time as chair when he played a role in the Auto Rescue Plan eight years ago that almost tripled the number of automotive jobs in Michigan.
“Nobody was willing to pick up the pieces for GM or Chrysler,” Upton said. “For (Berrien County) we don’t have any assembly plants in our corner of the state, but we sure have a heck of a lot of auto parts. Now, the complaint by a lot of our manufacturers is we can’t find the people to do these jobs. That’s a heck of a lot better position to be in than eight years ago.”
While Upton won’t be in charge of the committee, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a seat at the table.
“I’ll still be on the committee, I just won’t run it,” he said. “I’ll work with the next chairman on a host of different issues, just like I was before I was chairman.”
Upton said he would like to see a president get things done with the opposing party like he saw with former president Ronald Reagan.
However, with a split Congress that has made “reaching across the aisle” more and more difficult, it’s unknown if a new presidency can issue a change in politics.
“Of all the bills we’ve passed, probably less than a handful have not had bipartisan support,” Upton said in an interview Friday. “To me, it doesn’t matter if you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to your name.”
Clements has taken the offensive and continued to put forward that Upton no longer shows the moderate ideals he’s become known for.
“He’s made it clear that he is going with the wind,” Clements said. “The Republican Party has become so extreme. He goes with them because that’s what they want. He used to support Planned Parenthood, but now he wants to defund it. He used to think global climate change was for real, but now he is blocking legislation on this because the presidency is focusing on it.”
With his opponent’s comments in mind, Upton said he’s keeping his focus on what’s important.