In the crowded Democratic primary in southwest Michigan, George Franklin stands out as the candidate who has given more than $10,000 in donations over the last decade to his would-be Republican opponent, Rep. Fred Upton.
A history of contributions to both Republican and Democratic campaigns isn’t unusual for a one-time lobbyist, and Franklin was vice president of worldwide government relations at Kellogg’s until 2005, when he retired to start his own public affairs firm.
But Franklin’s long-running relationship with Upton has drawn criticism from some Democrats, who say Upton’s record isn’t in sync with Democratic priorities or values, and has never been.
“Any lobbyist would tell you that political contributions reflect your interests and values, and I think George has a lot of explaining to do if he wants to represent Democrats in southwest Michigan,” said Matt Longjohn, another Democrat in the race.
Paul Clements is the Democratic candidate who was running against Upton last cycle when Franklin donated $1,100 to Upton’s re-election campaign in 2015 and $500 in 2016.
“I think that people in southwest Michigan deserve to know what part of Upton’s agenda George Franklin is in support of,” said Clements, who also unsuccessfully challenged Upton in 2014.
“Is he supporting Upton’s big tax cuts for the wealthy? Is he supporting the many times that Upton has increased the cost of health care for people in southwest Michigan? Was he supporting Upton’s eight votes to defund Planned Parenthood?”
Upton is the senior Republican in Michigan’s delegation, having served in Congress since 1987. He chaired the influential House Energy & Commerce Committee until he termed out last year.
This year, six Democrats are campaigning in the 6th District — comprised of Kalamazoo, Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties and most of Allegan County — hoping to be the next candidate to take on their longtime congressman.
Franklin, who lives in Glenn, has defended his contributions to Upton.
Spokesman BJ Neidhardt stressed that Franklin is a lifelong Democrat endorsed by party leaders such as former Sen. Carl Levin, former Gov. Jim Blanchard and former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer.
“The vast majority of his political contributions were given to Democrats, but during his career he developed friendships on both sides on the aisle because that’s what happens when you prioritize getting things done over partisan bickering,” Neidhardt added.
“We need more people in Washington like him, people who share our values and care about actually getting results for Michiganders.”
Neidhardt said Franklin believes Upton has drifted from a once-moderate record to “following the lead of the right wing of his party.”
“It is time for a change to someone who more genuinely reflects the mainstream values of southwest Michigan,” Neidhardt said.
Franklin grew up on the South side of Chicago, went to high school in Florida and spent a year at the University of Florida before heading to Washington, D.C., to chase his interest in politics.
He got a job working as an aide to Democratic Rep. Frank Thompson of New Jersey, who chaired the Special Subcommittee on Labor. While working for Thompson, Franklin got his college degree and went to law school at American University.
He served as election counsel for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign and worked for a small law firm in D.C. whose main client was Kellogg’s before the corporation hired Franklin in 1980, according to his memoir, “Raisin Bran and Other Cereal Wars: 30 Years of Lobbying for the Most Famous Tiger in the World.”
He ran Kellogg’s lobbying office in Washington and moved to Kalamazoo in 1987, continuing to work for the company through 2005.
Franklin was working for Kellogg when he began contributing to Upton as early as 1992 with a $250 donation.
Franklin has donated to other Republicans over the years, including U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, state Sen. John Proos and then-House Speaker Jase Bolger. He also gave to Democrats including Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Franklin contributed to both the Fund for a Republican Majority and the Democratic Majority Fund, to the House Republican Campaign Committee and to the Michigan House Democratic Fund, according to disclosure reports.
TJ Bucholz, a Democratic consultant in Lansing, said that, as one of Kellogg’s chief lobbyists, it was Franklin’s job to maintain good relationships with elected officials on both sides of the aisle.
“A donation does not always mean support, or that your organization is completely supportive of everything that candidate does, or that you personally will vote for that candidate,” Bucholz said.
But Kyle Kondik, who studies campaigns at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it’s “sort of awkward” when a candidate is trying to unseat an incumbent to whom they recently donated.
“It does give his opponents an opening to say, hey, wait a sec — is this really the right guy to be pushing the case against Upton, given that he was an Upton supporter as of a year and a half ago?” Kondik said.
“I think it’s reasonable to ask what changed in such a short amount of time.”
Kondik noted another candidate who had to answer this question often while campaigning: President Donald Trump, a Republican who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democrats, including thousands to Hillary Clinton.
“This is not an uncommon thing to come up in races,” Kondik said.
Democrat Andy D. Davis of Plainwell in Kalamazoo County ran unsuccessfully against Upton in 1992. Davis is still sore that Franklin, as a Democrat, donated to Upton instead of to his campaign that year.
“I was an underdog under any definition of the word. I had no money, no name recognition, but I had great political credentials, having worked for a Democrat in my district since I was a child,” said Davis, who now serves on the executive committee for the Democratic Party in the 6th District.
“It was classic David and Goliath scenario, and he gave to Goliath.”
Davis was once a registered lobbyist as executive director of the nonprofit West Michigan Environmental Action Council, he said.
“There’s a game that you have to play to a certain degree if you’re going to be a lobbyist for industry or commercial enterprises. I understand you have to make sure the door is open if you have an issue. That’s what those contributions do,” Davis said.
“But if you want to be my congressman, you better show that your guiding star is something other than wanting to get your foot in the door. You need to have a deeper set of convictions than that.”