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A moderate in a ‘toxic’ place, Fred Upton says goodbye to Congress

He built a bipartisan legacy and took flak for impeaching Trump

Rep. Fred Upton poses this month in front of his portrait in the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing room. The Michigan Republican is retiring.
Rep. Fred Upton poses this month in front of his portrait in the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing room. The Michigan Republican is retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

When Michigan’s Fred Upton retires in a few weeks after 36 years in Congress, it’s possible Democrats will miss him more than his fellow Republicans.

Known for reaching across the aisle, the former Energy and Commerce chairman and longtime moderate leaves a legacy of crafting bipartisan legislation during his 18 terms, including bills that expanded health research, streamlined approval of drugs and medical products and tackled tough environmental problems.

During Upton’s tenure, though, moderates went from being a dominant force to a dying breed. Asked if it was discouraging to be one of only 29 House Republicans in the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of members — equally divided between parties — “committed to finding common ground on many of the key issues facing the nation,” Upton answered in his usual upbeat manner.

“No, no, it’s getting things done,” he said. “I look at our district [hugging southern Lake Michigan]. People don’t really care if you have an R or a D, they just want the job done.”

Upton angered many in his party when he joined nine other House Republicans in voting to impeach President Donald Trump a week after the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. That vote made him the only member of Congress in history to vote to impeach two presidents, having backed the effort to oust President Bill Clinton in December 1998. Both Trump and Clinton avoided conviction in the Senate.

Republicans in three counties in Upton’s district voted to censure him after the vote to impeach Trump, but a committee of the Michigan GOP later voted 9-5 against a censure resolution by the state party. 

Only two of the 10 Republicans who voted for impeachment, Reps. David Valadao of California and Dan Newhouse of Washington, won reelection in November. Four were defeated in primaries, and four, including Upton, opted to retire. Upton said his choice had nothing to do with the animosity coming from Trump and his supporters.

“My decision was really based on redistricting,” he said. An independent commission in 2021 cut off the southern portion of Upton’s old district, including a middle school named after him in his hometown of St. Joseph, and stretched it across the bottom of the state all the way to Lake Erie. “I mean, they really just sliced me up like Zorro,” he said.

If Upton ran, he would have faced off in the primary against Rep. Bill Huizenga, who was backed by Trump. “It would have been a fun campaign,” Upton said, “but we would have had to raise a ton of money.”

The idea of not having to raise money during his final months in office, along with the fact that he and his wife, Amey, now have three grandchildren, sealed the deal, said Upton, who turns 70 in April.

Upton, whose grandfather co-founded Whirlpool Corp. and whose father fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, began his career in politics as an aide to former Rep. David Stockman, R-Mich., and later worked for Stockman when he became President Ronald Reagan’s budget director.

Ironically, it was a nasty campaign tactic by his Republican primary opponent that helped Upton win his first run for Congress in 1986. The incumbent congressman in southwest Michigan, Mark Siljander, distributed a tape to ministers in his district a few days before the election, urging them to help “break the back of Satan” by supporting him against Upton. The move turned a tight race into a 55-45 percent loss for Siljander.

Upton laments that those kinds of personal attacks have become common in politics today. “You know, this place is more toxic than ever before,” he said.

One reason is “the money chase,” he said, noting that far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia raised $3.3 million in one quarter this year by appealing to the Trump base in the GOP. The negativity, amplified by social media and cable news channels, led to a spate of fringe — and in Upton’s view, unelectable — candidates winning Republican primaries this year.

“Michigan is just cratering,” he said. “I mean, you know, the top three candidates [on the statewide ballot in November] were all election deniers. And it was, again, the independent voters that really determined the results.”

The loss of moderates like Upton will reduce the membership of the Problem Solvers Caucus from 58 to around 50 in the next Congress, he predicted. But, he said, “it’s going to be a group that … will have a seat at the table. And then it’ll be more in the next Congress.”

Upton said he has no specific plans for life after Congress, but he does plan to stay involved in both Michigan politics and Washington policymaking.

Looking back on his career, Upton talks proudly about legislative accomplishments like the 21st Century Cures Act — one of the last bills President Barack Obama signed into law in 2016 — which increased funding for health research and sped up approvals of drugs and medical devices at the Food and Drug Administration.

But in retelling stories about important bills, Upton’s fondest memories are about the people who helped get them passed. One of them was the late heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who lived in Upton’s district and came to Washington to lobby for the Cures Act, even while suffering from Parkinson’s disease.

“When we passed it, I called him, and Lonnie, his wife, answered the phone,” Upton said. “It’s about 9 o’clock at night. I said, ‘I’ve got some good news for the champ.’ She said, ‘You got the money for U.S. 31,” referring to a main highway in southwest Michigan needing expansion.

Upton laughed and explained he was still working on getting the highway funding, but the good news was about the Cures Act. Then, this fall, Upton said he followed up and called Ali’s widow, even though she no longer lives in Michigan, and left a voicemail on her cellphone: “I just want to tell you that the governor and I cut the ribbon and the last leg of U.S. 31 is now open!”

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