News Story

Analysis — 'Up North' Grass Roots v. MI GOP Establishment: Echoes of 1992 in Stupak Seat Race

In 1992, incumbent Republican Congressman Bob Davis chose not to run for re-election in the Michigan 1st District because he was one of the top five politicians implicated in the House “check kiting“ scandal. Davis had represented the district covering the northern Lower Peninsula and the entire Upper Peninsula since 1978. Poor decisions made then by a state Republican establishment alienated many of the district's grass roots "true believers," opening the door for a former one-term Democrat state Representative, who won and went on to an 18-year Congressional career.

Fast forward to 2010: The 1st District seat has once again become open due to a misstep by the incumbent, that once little-known Democrat who won the seat in 1992. His name, of course, is Bart Stupak, and the misstep was his vote in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care bill. And once again, members of the Republican establishment are making moves that could diminish grass roots support for the party’s eventual candidate in the November general election, potentially leading to the ascension of yet another Democrat "dynasty" in the 1st District.

Even after Stupak became viewed as vulnerable following this health care vote, until he announced his retirement no establishment Republican politician had shown any interest in challenging him. They knew that over the years, Stupak had assembled a powerful political machine, and any challenge would still be considered a long shot.

Grass roots stalwarts in the district identifying with the Tea Party movement were deeply interested in a challenge, however. They have mostly been coalescing around the candidacy of Dr. Daniel Benishek of Crystal Falls. According to U.P. blogger Carole "CJ" Williams, within a week of Stupak’s health care vote, Benishek had accumulated 21,000 “friends” on his Facebook page. He was the subject of a profile in the Weekly Standard and achieved nationwide recognition with an appearance on Fox TV’s "Sean Hannity" show.

Seeking to exploit this, the more-or-less establishment "Tea Party Express" scheduled five stops in the district during its swing through Michigan on a nationwide tour. In the midst of this came Stupak’s resignation announcement, and instantly the political landscape changed, because suddenly a small flock of professional Republican politicians had become very interested in the seat. These included former state representative Tom Casperson of Escanaba, current Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer of Kewadin, and state Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City. (Elsenheimer has since announced that he will not run.)

Benishek supporters are not impressed with what they view as opportunism by these political careerists. On his Facebook page, they’re referring to the current and former Lansing establishment insiders as "Johnnie-come-latelys" and posting descriptions of legislation they sponsored that is viewed as system-serving rather than people-serving.

All this has strong echoes of 1992. In that year, another charismatic and independent-minded Republican candidate found himself the target of a Republican Party establishment that preferred a "safer" and more conventional nominee.

The open seat had caught the eye of Stephen Dresch, a free market economist (and former colleague of Milton Friedman) who had been the dean of the Michigan Tech economics department, and became what he described as an "accidental politician" after blowing the whistle on a corrupt university “economic development” scam that was closing local businesses and costing jobs in the region. In 1990, Dresch became (he claimed) the first Republican in the 20th century elected to represent the western U.P. in the Michigan House of Representatives.

The bipartisan Lansing political establishment had little use for the fiercely independent former professor. Upon his arrival in Lansing, Speaker of the House Dominic Jacobetti announced that "no bills introduced by Stephen Dresch will pass this House." GOP Gov. John Engler referred to the Ph.D. academic as a "hair shirt Republican."

The feelings were mutual: Dresch often described the Legislature as an “ongoing criminal enterprise” because of the "incumbent protection racket" that both the Republican and Democratic caucuses operated (and still operate) with taxpayer dollars.

An uncompromising reformer, Dresch appealed strongly to the western Upper Peninsula’s hard-hit blue collar workforce, most of whom were union-friendly Democrats, and also to grass roots Republicans, members of the "leave us alone" coalition that two years later would give the GOP control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years. When speaking to these individuals in union halls or "wild-game feed" fundraisers, the slightly rumbled, chain-smoking, shaggy-bearded professor had a common-man touch that was positively Lincoln-esque.

He never talked down to his audiences — many listeners joked that they didn’t understand all the "fifty-dollar" words the world-class economist used — but they listened with rapt attention and understood perfectly his descriptions of how system-serving politicians were conspiring with powerful economic interests and self-serving bureaucracies to strip away the rights of the people and diminish the opportunities of workers and small-businesses owners.

An example of Dresch’s uncompromising defense of "the little guy" was his championing the tragic case of Richard Delene, a conservationist who was eventually dispossessed by the state Department of Natural Resources for converting a semi-sterile peat bog on his property into richly productive waterfowl habitat. In December 1993, Stephen Dresch may have prevented a misguided DNR "raid" on the Delene property by armed agents from potentially turning into an ugly confrontation.

As a state Representative, Dresch also exposed the case of a foster care home that had virtually starved a mentally disabled young woman to death while collecting state subsidies for her care, a tragedy that was being covered up by government bureaucrats.

Later, he became a thorn in the side of the Detroit area solid-waste mogul Tony Soave, putting a spotlight on a lengthy series of questionable dealings with state and local government officials related to City Management, then owned by Soave and at the time the largest trash hauling and landfill company in Michigan. Soave had alleged links to organized crime figures, and firmly established ties to the entire Michigan political establishment. (For example, various entities associated with Soave have given $42,000 to gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Mike Cox since 2005, and more money to countless other Michigan politicians on both sides of the aisle.)

In short, Stephen Dresch was a perfect fit for his state House district, and probably would have been an excellent GOP candidate for the Congressional district.* In the spring of 1992, he decided to forego reelection to the state House and make a bid for 1st Congressional seat.

The Republican establishment had different ideas. Reportedly at the direction of Gov. Engler, the GOP recruited Phil Ruppe, a former congressman who had served five terms through 1979 before choosing to remain in Washington permanently and become a "Gucci-gulf" lobbyist. In fairness, they feared that Dresch’s refusal to accept PAC money would hobble his ability to run a campaign in a district that in square miles is larger than some states.

Ruppe was viewed by many in the district as a carpetbagger, and Republicans could hardly have found a worse candidate for Northern Michigan. Nevertheless, paid GOP apparatchiks were sent out to collect signatures on Ruppe-nominating petitions — this for the primary election, in which the Republican Party itself is supposed to be neutral. The GOP establishment ran over the shoestring campaign of Stephen Dresch in the primary election, setting Ruppe up to be the first of nine Republican sacrificial lambs offered up to Stupak before he himself became a sacrifice on the altar of President Obama’s government-run health care aspirations.

In 2010, notwithstanding a nationwide electoral playing field tilted in their direction, whoever wins the August GOP primary can’t expect a cakewalk in November. The Stupak political machine is alive and well, and in an interview with MIRS News, the congressman himself recited a list of potential Democratic candidates, behind one of whom that machine will unite in the general election. They include Rep. Mike Lahti of Hancock, Sen. Jim Barcia of Bay City, Sen. Mike Prusi of Ishpeming, Rep. Joel Sheltrown of West Branch, Rep. Andy Neuman of Alpena, and Rep. Gary McDowell of Rudyard. (Prusi has since said that he will not be a candidate.)


*A farewell speech Stephen Dresch gave at the 2006 Houghton County Lincoln Day Dinner when he knew he was dying captures the man’s spirit and principles: “The Principles of True Republicanism versus the Politics of Expediency of a Self-serving and Self-perpetuating Political/Governing Class.” Dresch died in his home of lung cancer later that year.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.