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Fred Upton never planned to return to Capitol Hill

Michigan Republican started as an aide to Rep. David Stockman, and then followed him to OMB

Rep. Fred Upton, here with University of Michigan students in 2017, says he’s never been afraid to agree or disagree with presidents, just like his onetime boss, former Rep. David Stockman.
Rep. Fred Upton, here with University of Michigan students in 2017, says he’s never been afraid to agree or disagree with presidents, just like his onetime boss, former Rep. David Stockman. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“I’ve successfully fended off the squirrels. We’re now in an official truce,” said Rep. Fred Upton, as he sat in his home office in Michigan this week watching the birds.

He spotted a Baltimore oriole at his double feeder, and a bird even flew into his window as he talked to CQ Roll Call on the phone. It was a big week for politics — with the census results in, his home state learned it would lose another House seat — but the 18-term Republican was happy to look out over Lake Michigan and talk about the past.

Upton got his start in the late 1970s working for David Stockman, who has since emerged as a fiery critic of fiscal policy under President Donald Trump.

Back then, Stockman was a young congressman in his late 20s. When Ronald Reagan came calling — literally — Upton followed his boss to work at the Office of Management and Budget. 

As Stockman earned and then spurned his unofficial title as “the father of Reaganomics,” Upton was watching. But at least one thing separates him from his former boss: Upton insists he doesn’t have enough material for a book.

Here’s part of the interview, edited and condensed:

Q: When you went to work for Stockman, he was only a few years older than you. What was that like?

A: Yeah, I think he was 27. We knew each other pretty well because I had worked on his campaign.

I had never been to Washington before, even as a tourist, and so after he won, he asked me to be on his staff in charge of constituent services. You know, I called him Dave. And there were three Freds in the office, believe it or not, ultimately.

I lived right behind him in the alley. We both rented, and our backyards were across the alley from each other. I lived at Second and D Street Southeast, so I just got up and walked to work a block or so.

He actually didn’t travel home very much as a member of Congress. He often spent the weekends working through legislative issues — he’s a workaholic — and relied on the staff to do a lot of the constituent hands-on work.

I’m still a hands-on person. I still sign my own mail. I signed a bunch at my St. Joe office today. I just sign “Fred” — I can sign twice as much mail, cause I don’t have to cross the “t” in “Upton.” I did sign “Fred Upton” to my colleague Rosa DeLauro on an earmark request, just to make sure they knew it was really me. 

Q: And then you followed your boss to OMB.

A: In 1980, on Thanksgiving weekend, I was working on my résumé at the office, because he had an electric typewriter. This was way before computers, and it had that little erase key that could go back and erase the previous letter with chalk. So I was working on my résumé. After four years, I was thinking about moving on. 

It was a Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving and the phone rang. So I answered it, “Congressman Stockman’s office, how can I help you?” And this voice said, “Is he there?” And I said, “No, sir, he’s not.” He said, “Well, this is Ronnie Reagan.” I said, “I know. I recognize your voice, governor” — because, that’s what everyone calls him — “Congratulations.”

He said, “Well, I’d really like to find your boss.” I said, “He lives next door.” He said, “Can you have him call me?”

And so he gave me his number at the ranch, and I tracked Dave down, and I said, “Dave, you had a very important phone call from the next president of the United States.“ He said, “Well, did you get his number?” I said, “Of course!” He said, “Well, what is it?” I said, “Not so fast. You have to promise you’re gonna call me back and tell me what he said.” So I made him say “Yes, Fred Upton, I will call you back right away.”

So I gave him the number and that afternoon was when Reagan offered Stockman the job as director of OMB. But we had to keep it a secret. [Laughs.] Just had to go through the clearance and all of that. So I balled up my résumé and I tossed it in the trash and went home. I couldn’t tell anybody. 

I ended up going to work at OMB, where I ultimately headed congressional affairs and worked for him and also Jim Miller, his successor, before I ran for Congress in ’86.

Most of us on the staff had never heard of OMB. Stockman really made OMB the department that it is. 

Q: Was there any issue that you and Stockman disagreed on?

A: When I worked on his congressional staff, I did not do legislative issues. That was not my job. I got the policy end of things when I went to OMB. I started as a legislative aide. I really learned the rules of the House, ultimately became in charge of the House side of congressional affairs, and then House and Senate. So I had weekly meetings with President Reagan.

In essence, I lobbied members of Congress in the last couple of years for every issue, with the exception of defense — Ken Duberstein was my boss, who later became chief of staff, and I speak to Ken a couple of times a month, including last Friday. He’s been a great friend and mentor.

Q: What sticks with you about Reagan?

A: When Vice President Mondale died recently, we were reminded that Reagan in his reelection won 49 states. Unheard of today, especially for a Republican to win New York, California, Massachusetts. But he had a great track record of getting things done. 

Q: What was it like going from congressional staff to the administration?

A: It was exciting. I had been on a couple of White House tours — I actually drove Dave there when President Ford hosted all the new Republican freshmen in January of ’77. I got to drive through the gate. Dave was not a very good driver. I got to sit in his car while he was meeting with President Ford, a guy he certainly knew, coming from Michigan. 

But to actually go to the White House to work, it was drinking from a firehouse. In fact, a number of people from home approached me to run for Congress in 1986. And my answer was “Why?” I have a great job, I have a wonderful wife, still do, and two black labs, Wrigley and Gammon. And I’m at the White House everyday. I don’t want this life to end. So I said no. 

A couple of months later, these community leaders came back at me, and said, “C’mon Fred, it’s gonna end at some point.” Stockman was gone, Miller was there. And, “Will you consider running against an incumbent?”

Q: What’s a recent conversation you had with Stockman? 

A: Well, I haven’t talked to him in a while. So his mom, Carol, was my campaign chair. She’s still alive. She’s about 92. She’s not in great health, and I was just thinking about her the other day. They live just south of me, probably 10 minutes away. But Dave doesn’t live in Michigan. He lives in Connecticut. I think the last time I spoke to him was probably about three years ago or so, when his mom was recognized at a high school graduation and he came back for that. We had dinner together. It was good to see him.

Q: He was critical of the GOP under President Donald Trump, and so were you. How do you see your role today in the party?

A: Look, I’m not afraid to agree or disagree with presidents, whether they be current or past. I’m not a rubber stamp. And you know, even when Dave was in the Cabinet, he spoke against — well, we’re both concerned about the deficit and he felt we should raise taxes. That was part of his book that he wrote, “Triumph of Politics,” way back when. 

One of the first votes I cast was a vote to override Reagan’s veto of the highway bill back in ’87. And I can remember my successor at OMB was on the steps saying, “You’ll help the president on this one, aren’t ya?” And I go, “Michigan’s roads are in bad trouble and I’m on the Transportation Committee.” You know, we need the funding. It was overridden by a large margin.

Q: What’s one thing that you wish you could tell your younger staffer self? 

A: I read [John] Boehner’s book, and I read Jim Baker’s book. And maybe it would have been good to have kept a journal. [Laughs.] I’ve got a lot of stories. I was there for many of Boehner’s stories. Jim Baker, he was always a hero of mine, he was close to Stockman and he did remarkable things. 

Maybe I should have kept a journal, but I didn’t, so my memory — it’s been a great run, that’s how I should probably put it.

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