By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: December 5, 2022 9:46 AM
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton is packing up his Washington office after 36 years in Congress and confronting his packrat nature, trying to figure out what to do with signed footballs and a shovel from the 1990s Comerica Park groundbreaking (he'll give it to a staffer who's a big Detroit Tigers fan).
But apart from the physical mementos, trinkets, treasure and junk one collects after one of the longest, most prolific and most productive tenures of any Michigan elected official ever, Mr. Upton (R-St. Joseph) also is taking stock of his record, the state of politics as he prepares to enter private life and what to pass on to the next generation of elected leaders.
In an interview last week with Gongwer News Service, Mr. Upton was asked about the state of Congress as he leaves and he mentioned the passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in late 2021. A top member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, Mr. Upton said it was those members who proved essential.
"It was our group that got the infrastructure bill. We actually wrote it. It got better than 70 votes in the Senate," he said. "Trump weighed in, said he could get a better bill, wait till 2025 after he gets reelected. We can't wait for our roads. We can't wait for replacing lead service lines. We paid for it. It was passed with a veto proof majority in the Senate, and we provided the votes to pass it in the House despite opposition from folks who didn't want to see an infrastructure bill done and give Biden credit for something. Well, we can't wait four years."
He paused for a moment reflecting on that approach – the opposite of his, to stonewall important legislation to deny the opposition a victory.
"Just, you know, don't run for Congress. People want to get things done," he said.
"Fred" – Mr. Upton always preferred everyone to call him by his first name, not "Congressman" or "Congressman Upton" – is tied for the fifth-most senior member of the U.S. House currently.
He ranks as one of the longest-serving major office-holders in Michigan history in a single office, trailing only the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell Jr. (59 years), the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (52 years), the late state Rep. Dominic Jacobetti (40 years) and the late Attorney General Frank Kelley (37 years). He will be tied with the late U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, former U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, the late U.S. Rep. William Broomfield and the late U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee with 36 years of service.
Mr. Upton's political career in many ways has been at the center of a tug of war playing out in Republican politics going back more than half a century, of centrists and center-right conservatives against those as the far-right end of the spectrum.
A staffer in President Ronald Reagan's budget office in the early 1980s, Mr. Upton decided to challenge ultraconservative U.S. Rep. Mark Siljander in the 1986 Republican primary. It was an interesting full-circle moment because Mr. Siljander won the seat after then-U.S. Rep. David Stockman resigned to become Mr. Reagan's budget director. Mr. Upton worked for Mr. Stockman in the budget office.
News coverage at the time said both men attributed to the revelation of a recording in which Mr. Siljander told local religious leaders to help "break the back of Satan" by supporting him as a major factor in the outcome.
Conservatives in his district would fume at Mr. Upton from time to time. While he was generally a reliable Republican vote, he would break ranks on some matters. He voted against one of the articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton (he voted for the others).
Mr. Upton never really faced a serious threat from a primary. He did face something of a scare in the 2010 Republican primary from former state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, but still won relatively comfortably. His biggest scare was in the 2018 Democratic wave when he barely held off a relatively unknown but well-funded Democratic challenger as the district began showing signs of shifting to the left. However, he won big in 2020.
Redistricting ripped away much of his Berrien County base. He faced a Republican primary against U.S. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), who also lost most of his district, but with former President Donald Trump endorsing Mr. Huizenga and Republican unrest over his vote to impeach Mr. Trump, he faced a daunting task and opted not to seek a 19th term.
Mr. Upton, asked to reflect on what he was most proud of, cited his work as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, particularly the 21st Century Cures Act to accelerate medical product development.
"Looking back that that provided the companies like Pfizer and Moderna to actually produce the COVID vaccine many months before they would have been able to, once they received the emergency use authorization, so that when the FDA gave him that EUA they could roll the trucks with the vaccines the next day instead of six, eight, 10 months later, saving hundreds of 1000s of Americans lives," he said. "But also finding the cure for sickle cell, advancing cancer research. It's a remarkable thing what happened. So that was that was by far the biggest issue of my career."
Mr. Upton had a slew of other achievements.
He was the Republican lead on the auto rescue plan in the late 2000s as the domestic auto industry came to the brink of ruin. He championed protecting the Great Lakes and funding protections for it.
But beyond those specifics, Mr. Upton said his approach was key.
"There wasn't an issue that I worked on that I didn't try for bipartisanship, and in a world of divided government, whether it's this year or next, that's the only way you're going to get things done," he said, crediting observing Mr. Reagan's style with teaching him that approach. "If you want to make a difference and not just swing the windmills, you've got to work with both sides. And that's really my legacy too."
Mr. Upton was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump after the January 6 riot at the Capitol in which pro-Trump insurrectionists tried to stop Congress from certifying President Joseph Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.
Most of them either opted not to seek reelection like Mr. Upton or lost in Republican primaries to Trump-endorsed candidates as happened to U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids).
Mr. Upton said Mr. Meijer's defeat did not cause him any sense of relief that he did not run, citing redistricting as the major factor that would have made it difficult for him to win a Republican primary against Mr. Huizenga.
But Mr. Meijer's loss clearly hit Mr. Upton hard.
"Peter broke my heart," he said of Mr. Meijer losing to John Gibbs.
Mr. Upton said he knew Democrats would win the seat after Mr. Meijer lost, and indeed now-U.S. Rep.-elect Hillary Scholten (D-Grand Rapids) defeated Mr. Gibbs in a landslide to become the first Democrat to represent Grand Rapids in Congress since the 1970s.
"I thought Peter could win. I knew it was going to be a tough race. You know, Peter will tell you he made some mistakes. I mean, they didn't know about his Gibbs' website that 'women shouldn't be allowed to vote, ought to stay in the kitchen' and you know, all this stuff that doesn't fly, even in the 19th century, let alone the 20th," Mr. Upton said, citing opposition research that Democrats used against Mr. Gibbs after he won the primary regarding blogs Mr. Gibbs wrote in college. "(Mr. Gibbs) was never going to win, especially with that type of agenda."
The decision of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to split up his home county of Berrien, putting the southern portion in a district stretching all the way east to Lake Erie rankles Mr. Upton.
That was the reason he chose not to run.
"I saw our voting participation went down. I'd like to think that that was because that I was not on the ticket but I'll just let that rest," he said of turnout in Berrien County. "Hey 36 years we have a great, great tenure would have been maybe one more term. So life moves on, sun comes up. It is what it is. But it was an easy decision."
Mr. Upton has had his moments with his Republican Party through the years. He once got a negative reception at a state party convention following his decision not to impeach Mr. Clinton on one impeachment county even as he voted to impeach on the others.
Still, until the Trump era, Mr. Upton was generally a reliable vote for his party in the U.S. House and loved by a significant faction of the party.
Mr. Upton could not abide by Mr. Trump, however. He never endorsed him (and made clear he would not support him in 2024) and was often the most prominent Republican in Michigan willing to publicly criticize Mr. Trump for various actions or statements.
Mr. Upton was asked how he voted for the top constitutional offices on the ballot in 2022 – governor, secretary of state and attorney general.
"Yeah, I'm not going to tell you," he said. "I'll only say this. I did not endorse any of the three that we're running at the top (Tudor Dixon, Kristina Karamo and Matt DePerno). Frankly, I don't know that I've met any of the three or talked to any of the three in my life. But for (Ms. Karamo) to try and throw out 60,000 absentee ballots in Detroit prior to the election, just in Detroit. You know, I was here on January 6. I'm not afraid of seeing the evidence. Michigan was settled by 154,000 votes. No one has shared any evidence that the verdict should be overturned yet all three were election deniers."
Mr. Upton did not get into more detail about Ms. Dixon, Ms. Karamo or Mr. DePerno, but he had strong thoughts about some of the Republican nominees for governor or U.S. Senate in other states who lost this month.
"Whether it was Oz or Lake or Mastriano, Herschel Walker," he said of Trump-endorsed candidates in other states. "Independents don't want these hands on the tiller – those hands on the tiller. They want someone who can govern. And Trump's message the night before the election spooked a lot of independents from voting Republican. ... And it again, goes back to people don't care if you have an R or D, they want the job done. And frankly, some of those people can't do the job."
After voting to impeach Mr. Trump and kick U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene off of committees, Mr. Upton faced threats to his safety.
That clearly shook him.
"We had some very serious threats that required protection. Upgraded our security at my house in Virginia and obviously in St. Joe, altered my schedule," he said. "Did a number of prudent steps. But those threats have been increasing. I mean, you saw what almost happened to my colleague Zeldin who was running for governor in New York, right? Guy tried to kill him with a knife. You saw what someone tried to do to Gretchen. I mean, they almost succeeded."
He said he has a school board member on his street now facing threats because of anger about mask policies during the pandemic and now over what books should be part of the curriculum.
"You know, sad to say it's going to happen," he said of an assassination. "I mean, our security on Capitol Hill is really good, but you know, it's easy to pop off somebody. Susan Collins said the other day, she wouldn't be surprised if a Senate or a House member were killed. She's right. And the threats are really serious. And it's not only to us, but it's to our families and our spouses and our kids. We've got to find good people to run for every level of government. That's who we are. Maybe the level has dropped off against me a little bit maybe because I chose not to run for reelection. But when you have to get bulletproof vests and do all this stuff, I mean it's like, 'Wow I didn't sign up for this.'"
As for his plans after his term ends January 3, Mr. Upton and his wife, Amey, plan to go skiing.
But it's clear while he is leaving Congress, he's not retiring.
"We're going to hit the slopes and then I'll figure out what I'm going to do. I don't know yet," he said. "So, number of folks are knocking at the door and we'll make that decision in due time but I'm not ready to do so yet. But I'm going to be engaged in my community. Probably have a hat both in in in Michigan and D.C. I've been asked to be on some boards. I'm not really a golfer, but I'll figure something out. I'll be a happy camper. As my wife said, true story: 'They'll live happily ever after.' And we will."
Mr. Upton said he intends to spend time in both St. Joseph and Virginia.
"Some of the boards that I've been asked to be on require you to be here so I'll be back and forth," he said. "But I'm certainly not going to abandon Michigan. That's my home. It's where I grew up. I'm fortunate to say my parents, believe it or not, are 98 and 93.They live across the street. And my brother lives a couple houses down. I've got an aunt across the street. I've got about five cousins across the street. So that's my home. That's my base. And I love St. Joe. I love St. Joe/Benton Harbor."
Mr. Upton has doubled down in recent years on bipartisanship. He and his good friend, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor), have tried to elevate working together and civility in politics.
He made a point of mentioning U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing) as a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus.
For those starting out in a legislature or Congress, Mr. Upton had this advice when asked what guidance he would offer.
"My advice is, it's really networking," he said. "If you're there for the reason of trying to legislate, you got to work with all the sides. You got to be a listener. You got to be able to bend a little bit. Nothing is perfect, right? You can always find a reason to vote no. But as Ronald Reagan said, 'you know if you can get 80% of the loaf on the first bite, live to fight another day to get the other 20.' You've got to have that attitude. There are really good people on both sides of the aisle. So build those relationships. Don't poison them."