Tax votes fuel 1st Congressional District feud

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Two veteran politicians seeking the Republican nomination in northern Michigan’s 1st Congressional District are sparring over legislative voting records on taxes in a three-man primary for a U.S. House seat the GOP is expected to defend vigorously this fall.

Sen. Tom Casperson

State Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba and former Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City are highlighting one another’s votes increasing tax bills during different periods representing northern Michigan in Lansing.

The two men are vying for the GOP nomination on the Aug. 2 ballot alongside political newcomer Jack Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general from the western Upper Peninsula.

The primary battle was sparked by U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek’s decision not to seek a fourth term representing a district that encompasses 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula and the entire 15-county Upper Peninsula.

On the Democratic side, former Michigan Democratic Party chairman Lon Johnson of Kalkaska is in a primary against Jerry Cannon, a former Kalkaska County sheriff who was Benishek’s Democratic opponent in 2014. National Republicans are preparing to defend the seat if Johnson is the Democratic nominee because of his connections in national politics and ability to raise money.

The Republican primary has been marked by geographic territory and public policy issue divisions between Allen, Casperson and Bergman.

Casperson said Allen has not been forthright with voters about votes he took to raise taxes on cigarettes, mobile homes, utilities and impose the Michigan Business Tax, which Casperson voted against as a House member.

In some campaign appearances, Allen has led voters to believe he never voted to raise taxes during eight years in the Michigan Senate, Casperson said.

“We thought it was very unfair and very misleading to say that because in a matter of ten minutes we came up with eight different ways he voted to raise taxes,” Casperson said. “If you want to bring up tax votes on the other guy, be darn careful not hide from your own votes.”

Former Sen. Jason Allen

On Friday, Allen’s campaign launched a website highlighting what it said were “tall tales” told by Casperson, including his November 2013 public apology for using a fictional story about a menacing wolf in Ironwood to advance debate on wolf-hunting in the U.P.

Allen said retired voters remain upset about the state’s 4.25 percent income tax being extended to cover all pension income for residents born after 1952 — a controversial tax policy change Casperson voted for in 2011.

“With a third of the population north of Clare over the age of 55, that is a significant discussion,” said Allen, who served eight years in the state Senate before being term-limited.

Allen said the Michigan Business Tax, which came accompanied with an additional 22 percent surcharge, was a necessary replacement to the former Single Business Tax, which voters repealed in the midst of an economic recession that was wreaking havoc on the state’s budget.

“It was a very, very difficult time that we had very few options,” Allen said. “My record stands where it is.”

Allen’s campaign also is highlighting Casperson’s votes to expand Medicaid coverage to 600,00 low-income adults. Allen signaled he would support ending the Medicaid coverage as part of a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

“We have got to significantly revamp how we deliver health care because we’re on the precipice of some serious financial problems,” Allen said. “We have to really restructure what the role of government is.”

While Allen and Casperson battle over their voting records, Bergman is presenting himself as “the conservative outsider” who has experience in national security and the federal budget.

Jack Bergman

As a three-star Marines Corps lieutenant general, Bergman led the Marine Forces Reserves during his final four years of a 40-year military career, which included a tour of duty as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.

Bergman returned to active duty in 2003 following a career as a Northwest Airlines pilot, while operating a medical equipment business based in Gogebic County. Bergman said he split his time in Marine Corps command between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, while still maintaining residency in Watersmeet, Mich.

“When I’m representing the 1st District, I’m not just looking at it from the perspective of a men’s store owner or a timber hauling business owner,” Bergman said, taking a veiled shot at Allen and Casperson’s past occupations. “I’m not a new guy to Washington. I’d just be changing my attire from a uniform to a suit.”

Bergman called Casperson and Allen “career politicians.”

“Not at all,” scoffed Casperson, who worked in his family’s log-hauling business before being elected to the state House in 2002. “I don’t care who it is, they’re not going to be able to take away 27 years of working in the timber industry. That’s who I am.”

Allen, a former National Guard member who spent most of his career running a family-owned men’s clothing business, said he appreciates Bergman’s military service. “I’m not going to get into a bunch of name calling,” Allen said.

Allen spent the past five years as senior deputy director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, where he said he worked on modernizing the state department and simplifying the medical care claims process for Michigan veterans.

On the campaign trail, Allen has faced questions about his role in the partial privatization of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, where state auditors recently found “a troubling pattern of mismanagement.”

Allen acknowledged he was initially involved in the cost-cutting effort at a facility that serves 430 veterans. But the recent audit looked at a period of management that came after Allen had oversight of the veterans home.

“The implementation of those privatizations was a decision that was made by the governor and the Legislature,” Allen said.

This is Allen’s second bid for the seat. He lost a 2010 GOP primary to Benishek by 15 votes.

Benishek, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland and state Sen. Darwin Booher of Evart have endorsed Casperson in the race. Allen has the backing of two of the district’s other two state senators — Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City and Jim Stamas of Midland.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood

Who’s running?

Republican candidates in the 1st Congressional District primary:

Jack Bergman

Age: 69

Hometown: Watersmeet

Occupation: Retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general; retired Northwest Airlines pilot; owner of a disposable medical equipment business

Tom Casperson

Age: 56

Hometown: Escanaba

Occupation: State senator, 2011-present; state representative, 2003-08; operated and owned a family timber hauling business.

Jason Allen

Age: 53

Hometown: Traverse City

Occupation: Former senior deputy director at the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs; state senator, 2003-10; vice president of family-owned Captain’s Quarters men’s clothing store in Traverse City.

Source: Detroit News research