Labor an issue in heated 1st Congressional race

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A contentious Republican primary in northern Michigan’s 1st Congressional District has drawn the interest of some labor unions siding with state Sen. Tom Casperson in his bid to knock off two GOP rivals in Tuesday’s primary election.

The union-funded Defending Main Street super political action committee has made a late entry into the race, buying $150,000 in TV airtime and $25,000 in mail advertising attacking Casperson’s chief rival, former state Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City.

Tom Casperson

Casperson’s campaign in turn has sought to shore up his Upper Peninsula base in the expansive congressional district by launching a new TV ad Tuesday that questioned the political “outsider” credentials of his other rival, Jack Bergman, a retired three-star Marine Corps lieutenant general from the western U.P.

On Wednesday night, the head of the Upper Peninsula Building and Construction Trades Council — a union that represents mining and skilled trades workers across northern Michigan — is scheduled to hold a fundraiser for Casperson in Traverse City.

Mike Thibault, president of the Upper Peninsula Building and Construction Trades Council, said the union isn’t actively encouraging Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican primary. But they’re also not discouraging it either, he said.

“I think our endorsement from the U.P. building trades is a signal to our membership that it’s OK if you want to vote for somebody other than the Democrat,” said Thibault, a Marquette County iron worker.

Allen is using Casperson’s support from organized labor interests to try to turn out anti-union voters.

“The situation that we’re most concerned about is organized labor coming in to try to buy this election,” Allen said in an interview. “It’s changing the dynamics (of the race), and it’s very disconcerting.”

Jason Allen From

Until the late influx of outside money favoring Casperson, the three candidates had been effectively tied in financial resources.

Casperson led in campaign fundraising with about $384,000, $28,000 of which he loaned his campaign. Allen raised about $309,000, with $9,000 coming in the form of a personal loan. And Bergman, who owns a medical supply company, had amassed $346,000 for the race, $270,000 of which came out of his own pocket.

In recent weeks, Casperson has received $5,000 contributions from Laborers International Union of North America and the political action committee for a plumbers and pipefitters union. In March, the Bloomfield Township-based Operating Engineers Local 324 PAC contributed $10,000 to Casperson’s campaign.

Allen has sought to link those union contributions to Casperson being one of the few Republicans in the Legislature to vote against right-to-work legislation in December 2012 that banned union fees as a condition of employment.

“I’ve never been controlled by big labor, but he has,” Allen said of Casperson.

The Escanaba Republican said he worked closely with mining and operating engineers unions to bring limestone and nickel mining jobs to the U.P. So when GOP leaders asked him to “take a shot” at labor unions by voting for right-to-work, Casperson said he voted no.

“It was too much for me,” he told The News in an interview last month. “I didn’t think it was fair to them.”

Casperson also noted he’s voted for legislation reining in project labor agreements and the state’s emergency manager laws, which gave state appointees the power to rewrite union contracts in financially struggling cities and school districts.

“I’ve certainly stood up to labor,” he said.

Thibault said his unions have not always supported Casperson in past state legislative races. But they’ve found common ground with Casperson, who spent 27 years working in his family’s log-hauling business.

“He is a guy who I do know put on his work boots at one point,” Thibault said. “It kind of makes him understand the building trade perspective of things easier.”

Casperson was not available this week for an interview, spokesman Danny Laub said.

But U.P. senator’s campaign struck back at Allen’s charge that the Escanaba Republican has colluded with unions, pointing to home health care legislation Allen sponsored in 2009 that has been linked to a dues-skimming scheme the Service Employees International Union orchestrated under then-Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“If he's looking for someone who has a questionable and cozy relationship with big labor unions he should look in the mirror,” Casperson said in a statement.

During this battling, Casperson has opened a new front.

Jack Bergman

On Tuesday, he launched a TV commercial that claimed Bergman was a lobbying for Education Management Corp., a for-profit college that paid the federal government $95 million in 2015 for consumer fraud. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the firm a “recruitment mill” that targeted veterans to enroll them in college courses and rake in federal grants.

Bergman denied he was ever a lobbyist or had any ownership in the college.

“I was hired on to fix the infractions,” Bergman said. “I was not part of the group that made the infractions.”

Bergman said he was hired as a consultant to improve the company’s higher education opportunities for veterans between February 2012 and July 2013.

“Did I have a meeting or two over the course of 18 months in Washington, D.C.? Absolutely,” Bergman said. “But I wasn’t lobbying senators or congressmen.”

Bergman’s campaign has called on Casperson to take down the TV ad.

“Tom Casperson was caught lying once before, and he’s been caught lying again,” Bergman campaign manager Tony Lis said in a statement.

Lis’ claims about Casperson getting caught lying was an apparent reference to Casperson’s 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, Casperson and Bergman are vying for the Republican nomination to face off against likely Democratic nominee Lon Johnson for a seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls.

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood