Health care issues dominate Longjohn-Rep. Upton's battle

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
Matt Longjohn, left, and U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St Joseph

Sixteen-term U.S. Rep. Fred Upton has beaten every election opponent he's faced in his southwest Michigan district, but a liberal political newcomer is hoping to change that come November.

Democrat Matt Longjohn, a public health expert, acknowledges he faces an "uphill battle" to unseat the Republican incumbent, but his campaign is buoyed by an emboldened Democratic base fed up with President Donald Trump and Upton's record in Congress. 

A contested Democratic primary led to a 300 percent increase in voter turnout in August compared with the midterm primary in 2014, said Longjohn of Portage, the former national health director for the YMCA.

"I believe we have to provide a very sharp contrast on Mr. Upton’s record and his practices of taking all that corporate (PAC) money and be being beholden to special interests," said Longjohn, 47. 

Upton defends his record and prides himself on being a moderate legislator who has reached across the aisle to get things done, he said.

The 65-year-old incumbent said he stood up to Trump and struck a deal that helped House Republicans pass a plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act that then fizzled in the GOP-controlled Senate.

If re-elected, he would become the dean of the Michigan delegation with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.

He points out that direct corporate donations are banned, though he acknowledges that companies such as Pfizer are major employers in his district, and he'll keep working with them.

"I’m proud of my association with my employers in my district, whether they be large or small," Upton said. 

Health reform clashes

Health care has figured prominently in the battle between Upton and Longjohn.

Longjohn said it was Upton's amendment during the debate to repeal the Affordable Care Act that pushed him to run for office.

Longjohn has criticized the amendment as not going far enough to help those affected by pre-existing conditions to keep affordable health insurance coverage. Upton helped get $8 billion in additional money for those who would have faced costly premiums in states that sought a waiver from health care regulations under the bill. 

But the incumbent said protecting people with pre-existing conditions was one of his "lines in the sand" during the debate. Upton said his amendment would've protected those who would have potentially lost coverage, and he said in May 2017 that he was seeking an even better deal from the Senate. 

Upton said it's now time to "move on" from the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act because it is unlikely to happen.  

"Where do we go from here?" he said. "People need more choices. I've stood for expanding health savings accounts. I want businesses to be able to band together and pool their employees to get a lower premium."

For his part, the Michigan GOP has slammed Longjohn's use of the initials "M.D." in his campaign materials. The Democrat's use of the initials might have violated the state public health code because Longjohn isn't a practicing doctor and isn't licensed in Michigan, said Sarah Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Republican Party, which has filed a complaint with the state's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.

"He is purposefully misleading people," Anderson said.

Longjohn has never been licensed as a health professional in Michigan, according to LARA. Under the state code for medical doctors, an individual who is not licensed or registered cannot use words or phrases "to induce the belief that the person is licensed," LARA spokesman David Harns said.

Michigan's Licensing and Regulatory Affairs Department says a complaint was filed over the issue in early October, and the Michigan Board of Medicine is looking into a possible investigation — something that happens "very infrequently" from complaints, Harns said.

Longjohn, who graduated from Tulane Medical School, defends his use of the initials "M.D." He said he decided to pursue a public health career rather than practice medicine because he had custody of his young son at the time.

"I earned that degree," Longjohn said. "And I don’t think there’s any conflict whatsoever. There’s nothing saying (on my yard signs) I’m open for business. I’m not advertising that I’m practicing."

Battle of TV ads, fundraising

Unlike most U.S. House races in Michigan, Republican Upton outraised Longjohn last quarter, bringing in $560,000 to Longjohn’s $428,000. Upton reported $1.38 million in cash reserves as of Sept. 30 to Longjohn’s depleted $169,000.

Eight outside groups have spent over $1.2 million total trying to influence the race, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.

The biggest spender has been the group Change Now, which has reported nearly $597,600 worth of television and digital ads in opposition to Upton. Change Now is a super political action committee supported in part by the League of Conservation Voters.

The American Hospital Association PAC has spent nearly $258,000 for TV and digital ads in support of Upton, as well as $125,300 on media and mailers by a group called Clearpath Now Inc.

The conservative group Defending Main Street Super PAC Inc. reported spending $110,000 on digital ads and field work in opposition to Longjohn.

While Democrats have insisted in recent years that Upton was vulnerable, he has persevered. Upton remains the favorite in this contest, said Bill Ballenger, a political analyst and former GOP state legislator.

Upton has beaten every one of his opponents since 2002 by at least 10 percentage points. His closest race was in 2012, when he beat Democratic challenger Mike O'Brien by 12 points.

"Upton is pretty good at recognizing what he needs to do and what it takes," Ballenger said. "... If he loses, there really is a blue wave this year."

Longjohn's background

Longjohn is a fifth-generation Kalamazoo County resident and son of a public school teacher. He graduated from Kalamazoo College.

He was the first national health officer for the YMCA and led a project to expand Medicare for diabetes prevention that he says saved Medicare billions of dollars and prevented new cases of diabetes by up to 71 percent. 

"I just saw through that work that there was a great opportunity to unlock the value of community and prevention in health care," said Longjohn, who has two sons, a 21-year-old serving in the Air Force and a 16-year-old. 

If elected, Longjohn said he'll fight for campaign finance reform, adding that he is not accepting any corporate PAC money. He wants to improve health care by what he calls the Quadruple Aims — generating better care, better health, lower costs and improved caregiver experience. 

On immigration, Longjohn has called for dismantling the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, and reconstituting it as a new agency "that can earn and keep the trust of the citizenry in the U.S."

A new agency should be created through legislative action "to make it clear that ICE is doing the job we need it to do, but prohibited from doing the work that no one wants to do, in enforcing zero-tolerance policies for example."

And Longjohn disputes Upton's claiming a bipartisan mantle, saying his record "doesn't match his rhetoric."

Upton votes against the Republican Party roughly 10 percent of the time, according to a ProPublica analysis of House votes. 

"He's been there (for the GOP and President Trump) when they've needed him," Longjohn said.

Upton's record

Upton stands by his record and his 32 years in Congress, saying he feels good about the campaign.

He also acknowledges the frustration voters are feeling.

"I've had protesters at my office every week without exception," he said. "Personal threats are way up. It's a nasty environment, which is really unfortunate."

Upton prides himself on his bipartisanship. As co-chairman of the Tuesday Group, a group of moderates in the U.S. House, "I've always been bipartisan," he said.

When he was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Upton helped to pass the bill 21st Century Cures, on which he worked with U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and other Democrats.

It was signed by then-President Barack Obama at the end of his last term.

"We made a real difference," Upton said. "We included billions of dollars for more health research and progress is being made. We're going to find cures faster for not only these diseases, but get better devices onto the marketplace as well."

He said the biggest issue he was proud to move through the House Energy subcommittee this term was legislation to protect the electric grid and energy sources from cyber and physical attacks.

Upton is also part of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, which he said has introduced a resolution to change House rules to foster more bipartisanship.

"At the end of the day, I think it's going to be relatively close between whoever is in charge, whether it's Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi or Speaker (Kevin) McCarthy," Upton said.

"We're going to insist that we change the rules to really bring about more bipartisanship. If you've got a major bipartisan bill or amendment, let's debate it. Let's take a vote on it."

He says the current immigration system is "terribly broken" for employers, students and undocumented workers who came to the U.S. as children. 

He points to the case of Jorge Garcia, a Lincoln Park father of two who was deported earlier this year even though he came to the United States as a child and had no interaction with law enforcement.

"We're a better country than this," Upton said. 

"We've got 11 million people that are undocumented that are here — many are working, they are paying taxes," he added. "...They've been here for awhile, and they're part of our society and it would be wrong to send them back."

Twitter: @mfeighan