2016-07-23 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Competitive Race Looms in Swing 1st District
By George Weeks

Michigan’s northernmost congressional district, in its various configurations, long has been a political “see-saw” swing district, dating back to the mid 20th century, when it had such notable congressmen as Democrat Prentiss M. Brown and Republican Victor A. Knox.

More recently, there was the sequence of one-term 1965-1966 Democrat Ray Clevenger, 1967- 1978 Republican Phil Ruppe, 1979-1992 Republican Robert Davis, 1993-2010 Democrat Bart Stupak, and now Republican Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls, who was elected in a wave of tea party support and is retiring after a stint that started in 2011.

The battle to replace Benishek is the most competitive congressional race in Michigan this year, and possibly well beyond the state.

Both parties have lively primary races, especially for Republicans currently on the television airwaves — with well-crafted ads by state Senator Tom Casperson, a timber-hauling trucker from Escanaba, and former state Senator Jason Allen, a former veterans affairs official for Governor Rick Snyder, who is an officer in his family’s men’s clothing business in Traverse City. Allen, in 2010, lost to Benishek in the GOP primary by 15 votes.

In his television ad, Casperson is in his truck, with a load of logs to illustrate his dispute with federal restrictions on logging, and at the end he pulls a line to sound a loud horn, saying: “Hear that, Washington?”

In his television ad, Allen criticizes the voting record of “taxing Tom.”

Also seeking the GOP nomination is retired Marine lieutenant general Jack Bergman, a Watersmeet businessman, retired Northwest Airlines pilot, and self-described “conservative outsider.”

Last week, The Detroit News endorsed Allen in the GOP primary, calling him, while in the Legislature, “a pragmatic conservative committed to problem solving.”

In the Democratic primary, The Detroit News endorsed former Michigan Democratic State Chairman Lon Johnson, of Kalkaska County, over former Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon, a retired National Guard major general who in 2014 lost to Benishek, 130,414 to 113,263.

The Detroit News said Johnson “brings solid ideas and admirable energy to the race.”

An interesting twist is that Johnson, during his successful reign as state Democratic chairman, recruited Cannon for the 2014 congressional race.

Johnson is not the only recent state party boss to achieve considerable media attention after leaving office.

Former Democratic State Chairman Mark Brewer is a lead attorney in the lawsuit seeking to stop the state from implementing a new law prohibiting straight ticket voting.

As The Detroit News put it: “Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature approved the elimination of straight ticket voting in December, with supporters arguing it would encourage a more informed electorate and end a policy holdover from the days of big party bosses.”

Brewer argued that straight ticket voting is a 125-year tradition in Michigan, and “Black voters would have less opportunity to vote.”

Among the former GOP state bosses still stirring in political issues are Betsy DeVos, Saul Anuzis, and Rusty Hills.

Hills is a key aide for Attorney General Bill Schuette, a leading prospect for the 2018 gubernatorial nomination.

There was yet another indication recently that Schuette is gearing for a gubernatorial run. He changed the name of his campaign committee, which at last public accounting has banked about $400,000, from “Bill Schuette for Attorney General” to “Bill Schuette for Michigan.”

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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