Interview, Michigan Democrats — October 18, 2012 at 7:02 am

INTERVIEW: Former Marine Mike O’Brien takes on Fred Upton in MI-06 – And he can win!


“I’m a participant in life.”

Fred Upton has been in Congress since 1987 representing the parts of southwestern Michigan. During that time, the Whirlpool heir has distinguished himself as a far-right conservative Republican on nearly every issue you could name.

Mike O’Brien, a former Marine and Missouri farmer, is challenging Fred Upton in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District. With the gridlock imposed on Congress by Republicans unable and unwilling to compromise to affect change, combined with Upton’s anti-environment, anti-women, anti-senior votes over the past several years, O’Brien felt there was both a need for change and a real possibility of victory. According to recent polling done by his campaign, he’s absolutely right. In fact, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) recently labeled this race an “emerging race”. In “emerging races”, the DCCC “highlights candidates and districts that are making themselves competitive by running smart campaigns which are becoming increasingly competitive.”

In addition to his time in the Marine Corp, O’Brien was Director of Development for a leading offshore wind energy company and also built the real estate department of USF Holland trucking company. He’s pragmatic and knows how to get things done, not letting political ideology get in the way of solving problems.

O’Brien recently debated Fred Upton in front of an overflow, standing room only crowd. One attendee that I spoke to said, “People were turned away for lack of seats. Upton had no answer for the challenges Mike made. Upton apparently thought he could just ignore him and repeat his canned talking points.” You can read a transcript of the debate HERE. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 23. at the D.C Cook Nuclear Power Plant Buchanan Office Building, 500 Circle Drive in Buchanan from 7-8 p.m. Additionally, Mike O’Brien and candidate for State House Jim Hahn will have a town hall meeting tomorrow, Friday, October 19, from 6:00-7:30 in Benton Harbor:

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(My interview with Jim Hahn can be found HERE.)

I spoke to Mike O’Brien last weekend about his candidacy. I started off asking how his campaign is going.

“It’s going really well. We’re getting a ton of traction. You know, it’s a fascinating thing because, everywhere I go, traveling in this district, I am met with all political stripes, all parties. Not just Democrats, but Republicans and Independents and Libertarians. I’d even sprinkle in a few tea party folks who come up to me and say they’re going to support us and that’s fantastic. It has a lot to do with our message and it also has a lot to do with the state of Congress and the House of Representatives. So, as the guy out there campaigning on the streets every day, you listen to the ‘jungle drums’ and the jungle drums have been telling us for some time that there is a real opportunity here. We’re hearing that from every political corner.

“So, we’ve been running a very strong, lean and mean campaign. You know guarding the funds carefully, eating bread and water, if you will, and it’s getting results. One of the things that I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to raise more from individuals in the district than any campaign to run against Fred Upton before. That’s not braggadocio about the money — obviously he’s hugely independently wealthy as well as his war chest — but each of those donations is a vote. It’s a vote of confidence. It’s a vote of support. For the first time, I believe, in any campaign against him, we’ve been able to run a television spot which was very successful and well-received. We’ve also been able to run a poll which has been fantastic.

“We have an opportunity to really change what’s going on in Congress. It would send a heck of a message around the country when we win this race to say, ‘Look, the partisanship and folks bending and blowing in the wind as Congressman Upton has isn’t accepted anymore’.”

“You mentioned a poll. Are you up in this poll?” I asked

“It has us within the statistical margin of error. It was done by Andrew Myers who is one of the best pollsters out there. Let’s be perfectly honest, that’s something people wouldn’t have thought possible.”

This poll shows that, when asked to choose between O’Brien, Upton or Libertarian Christie Gelineau, Upton is up over O’Brien by 5 points. However, once the poll respondents hear a bit about Upton’s voting record, O’Brien takes a four-point lead.

“As I was watching your debate with Congressman Upton,” I said, “I thought there were some really interesting things that he talked about. One of the things he talked about was tax reform and lowering corporate taxes to 25%. I wanted to get your take on that because I get this sense that they are basically saying, ‘We’re going to cut your tax rate but we’re not going to reduce revenues because we’re going to close all of these loopholes’. Is this the same sort of situation as with Mitt Romney where he says he’s going to keep the revenue stream neutral because he’s going to cut loopholes but not specify any loopholes he’s actually going to cut?”

“It’s a fallacy we’ve lived through before, right?” O’Brien said. “Here’s the most amazing thing to hear come out of Fred Upton’s mouth: Congressman Upton went to Washington thirty-something years ago. He went to work initially as a staffer for then-Congressman David Stockman. Stockman went on to run Ronald Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget. He’s very well known as one of the architects of trickle-down economics, literally. Upton worked for him in the Office of Management and Budget. These are the guys who championed trickle-down economics, which George H. W. Bush called “Voodoo Economics”. And it was. It failed us by every stretch of the imagination. It defies common sense.

“So, now here we sit after eight years of George W. Bush who was handed the keys to the castle economically. We had, in 2000, a balanced budget, we had erased the deficit and had, in fact, created a $236 billion surplus and were on track to eliminate the national debt. I mean, that’s incredible. So we had this amazing surplus, we had more cops, more firefighters, more teachers. They’d reformed welfare. In my district, they’d had 16,000 thriving non-farm businesses and Michiganders were working. Eight short years later, under Voodoo Economics, the trickle-down theory that David Stockman and Fred Upton helped craft, we go through that same process again. Huge deficits, $10 trillion in debt, and the federal government has exploded. A thousand of those thriving businesses in my district are now gone and we’re at 9.4% unemployment which is far, far higher than the national average. Incomes have only grown by an average of $2,000-$2,200 — that didn’t even keep up with the pace of inflation during that period. We lost over 20% of the population of our folks that are 20-40 years old, so the people that are going to build the businesses, run the businesses, and work in the businesses in the district were leaving. That’s what trickle-down economics got us.

“Since then, David Stockman has now come back to repudiate all of that, including some of the stuff that Fred Upton is calling for, like tearing down the EPA. Why are you monkeying around with that stuff when you should be going after the real hitters? So, that’s what Upton is calling for, this idea of 25% corporate taxes. When you look at the nominal tax rate — what we say corporations pay — and compare it to what they actually pay… We all know about it. We see GE pay nothing. We see all of these huge, successful companies pay no taxes. Here’s the real travesty in all of this: the Republican Party, and Fred Upton with his votes, are, in fact, pitting large corporations against small, mid-sized companies that we all know build the businesses and create the jobs in this country.

“So, you have multinational corporations with huge departments of attorneys and tax folks who can take advantage of and, in fact, help craft the loopholes that allow them to pay no taxes. The folks that are left holding the bag on that actual tax rate are the small and mid-sized companies. That’s the truth that doesn’t get told.”

“So you’d put a lot of the responsibility, or at least a piece of the responsibility, for trickle-down economics on Fred Upton because he worked for David Stockman?” I asked.

“Of course. He was there when David Stockman was crafting it. In fact he talks about it all the time, about his pride in working in that administration. He helped craft it and, to this day, he’s talking about the same tax policies.”

“He hasn’t changed his tune even though Stockman has. Fascinating.”

“I plan on talking about that in our next debate. His own boss is now denouncing what he’s talking about. And, frankly, David Stockman is a good bit smarter when it comes to those kind of things. That’s a sign of maturity, right? When you do something and learn from it, and then make an informed decision? That’s a sign of maturity. When you do the same thing over and over again and don’t learn from it, that’s insanity. I’m not suggesting in any way that Fred Upton is insane, but I’m suggesting that David Stockman is probably smarter having learned those lessons and is now helping people to understand them.”

“So let’s talk about this sudden change of Big Oil support from Fred Upton,” I continued, referring to what the Sierra Club is calling Upton’s “Etch-A-Sketching” of his environmental record. “That was kind of a shocker that he came out against supporting Big Oil with subsidies. Did that surprise you, as well?”

“It was interesting. I’m not going to try to claim all the glory for that, but that was my number one goal; to get him to support repealing the subsidies to oil companies. Here’s the reality: if you look at his record –whether it’s women’s issues or veteran’s issues or jobs or seniors or taxes or the environment — he is famous for saying one thing and cutting the ribbon at the opening and then going back to Congress and voting against the funding for those initiatives. So, on taxes, there’s no reason in the world to believe, given his voting record, that the leopard is suddenly going to change its spots. He’s simply harping the line of his party, which Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are now saying. Nobody has ever voted close these loopholes so why would we think that he’s suddenly going to vote for them? Look at the reality of his votes.

“Look at his website from several years ago where he said that climate change is a real issue and all solutions need to be on the table including reducing carbon emissions. Those are his words, on his website, he’s in the press… Now he’s the champion for dismantling the EPA!

“This is what is so crazy, and it’s purely partisan politics. We have drilled for oil in this country for a long time. We don’t need to reduce the regulations on it. There are jobs out there that can come from doing the right thing. There are job opportunities out there. Let’s let entrepreneurial zeal flourish and put people to work with the technologies to do things like reduce the carbon emissions coming out of smokestacks. Don’t fight it! We can improve it!”

“When he talked in the debate about the ‘all of the above approach’,” I said, “It seemed like ‘all of the above’ included basically everything we’re already doing with very little investment in new technologies in renewable energy.”

“That’s exactly right. If you look at the transcripts of his debate with Jack Hoogendyk, they are really telling. Here you have two debates — one with me and one with his primary opponent who is a tea party darling — and look at what he said there. He had to be asked twice about renewables and he finally said, ‘Of course I support renewables. It’s clean coal, it’s nuclear, and it’s more gas drilling’.”

“What is it?” I asked laughingly. “They just throw “clean” in front of it, like “clean fracking” and “clean coal” and suddenly it’s awesome?!”

“That’s right, it’s an oxymoron. It’s a complete oxymoron.

“It’s one of those things, whether you’re a citizen or running against a person like Fred Upton or you’re a member of the press, don’t we all deserve the truth? People need to know how these people say one thing and then do the exact opposite. There’s no one that can deny that, in his race for that chairmanship, he had to ‘kiss the ring’. ”

“One of the things about Fred Upton, if you go up to the Benton Harbor/St. Joe area and drive around, there are streets named after him and he’s got a pretty solid presence in that town,” I said. “His office seems to spawn state lawmakers like Al Pscholka and it seems like he’s created a little dynasty out there that turns out conservative Republican legislators. He’s also got clear ties to Whirlpool. To what extent do you see your opponent as a voice for specific groups like Whirlpool?”

“There’s no doubt. Obviously he’s an heir to Whirlpool, that is his trust fund. So, yeah, Whirlpool is an obvious one. What’s most amazing about Whirlpool is that he talks less and less about it all of the time because their claim to fame is building a new headquarters in St. Joe/Benton Harbor. They’ve taken hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax breaks. So, when the Republicans say they don’t ‘pick winners and losers’, it doesn’t hold up. Unless, of course, it’s Upton and Whirlpool. And, yet, look at the number of manufacturing jobs that Whirlpool moved out of the district including to Mexico and overseas. So, again, the tax policy votes do not in any way jive with what he says. It’s very hypocritical.

“He’ll talk about companies in the district like Stryker and Pfizer and others but those have nothing to do with him. They have to do with the hard working men and women that work there and run those companies. He doesn’t have any control over that. That’s the result of the people that run those companies. If you want to look at what HIS fingerprints are on, his fingerprints are on fewer businesses, thousands and thousands of fewer workers, one in four children in this district in poverty, and our unemployment rate is 9.4%. THAT is his legacy, not the success of companies he had nothing to do with.”

“Let’s shift gears a bit here and talk about you. I was just looking at your website and you’re not a politician, right?! You’re a Marine, you’re a farmer. How do you find yourself running for Congress?!”

“I’m a participant in life. I guess that’s the easiest way to define it. I’m the kind of person that sees a ball being kicked around and I gotta get in there and kick the ball. Whether it’s contributing at church or in community organizations, I am a participant. And I love this country. I love my country. This country has, through good government, done amazing things. I’m a believer in good government. Good government doesn’t give hand-outs, it gives a hand UP. That might sound like a cliché, but I’m a living example of that in every way, shape and form. I say to people I’m a product of the 47% and I’m proud to represent the 100% because this country helped me to get to where I am today, just like it does for all of us and, in my case, pretty starkly.

“I have an eleven-year old daughter and when I look at the battles that we’re now having to fight, that my grandmother, my mother, my wife have had to confront, then I look at my daughter, I ask myself, ‘How could Fred Upton vote against the Lily Ledbetter Act?’ What does he say to my daughter or his daughter or other women in that room?”

“The granddaughters are fighting the same battles today that their grandmothers fought,” I said.

“Absolutely. And the grandmothers WON that battle because it was right and here we are fighting them again. Violence against women. The Lily Ledbetter Act. The health and welfare of women and their ability to control their own destiny. Or pick business issues. It’s the same thing. It’s the climate, it’s the environment, it’s renewable energy. It’s all of these things.

“Upton talks about his support of vets but I’ve got a laundry list of his votes against them at the same time he voted for three pay raises for himself. He’s one of the fifty wealthiest people in Congress. The Washington Post just showed this week that his income rose 63% from his investments. During our worst economic crisis, his investments went up 63%. Then he voted for three pay raises while voting against veterans bills. That’s who I’m running against?! So, when I say I’m a participant, when I look at my wife and I look at my daughter, or I look at the veterans, the people I served with, I say, ‘Man, I can’t just sit and yell at my television’. I have to participate.

“That means I bring passion. I have a lot of experience here in the world and I think that, after three decades in Washington, he doesn’t have a clue what it means to build a business, to hit budgets, to make payroll, to pay for health insurance. He doesn’t know what it’s like to lose that dream, to be down-sized and outsourced and then bounce back. All of those things that we deal with out here? He doesn’t understand. He’s been in Washington. He’s left mainstream. He no longer even represents the Republican Party in this district. I tell everyone that one of my favorite descriptions of this district is it’s a place where the Republicans are environmentalists and the Democrats are duck hunters!

“That’s the district but that is NOT Fred Upton.”

O’Brien finished by saying some final things about why he is running.

“I strongly believe that Congress today is broken,” he said. “The House of Representatives, in particular, deserves its 12% approval rating and Fred Upton, as a ‘leader’, helped take us to the fiscal cliff and not solve it. He brought us to the fiscal cliff. It would have taken one person to have political courage and, above all things, I tell the voters in this district that what we want is to be proud of our government. We want to be proud of Congress. That’s just a truth, a universal truth. We want to be proud. And, right now, with Fred Upton in this position, we can’t be proud of Congress. If I’m given the honor of representing this district, I can guarantee people that I will serve this district with the same conviction that I did in the Marine Corps and that is that you take an oath to the people and not to one party or the other. What we really need is the conviction to set aside the parties. I’m proud to be a Democrat but I’m prouder to be an American and we need to set that stuff aside. When we do that, we will reach consensus, we’ll pass meaningful legislation, and we will again be proud of our government. That’s a good thing.”

You can find out more about Mike O’Brien’s campaign at his website HERE and his Facebook page HERE.