Residency key factor in race for Congress

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

In a race for Congress, the two leading candidates are accusing one another of lying about living in northern Michigan.

There’s no requirement that members of the U.S. House live in the district they represent. But residency controversy has followed Republican Jack Bergman and Democrat Lon Johnson from the primary to the general election campaign.

The national parties are running ads to raise doubts in voters’ minds, making it one of the most expensive races in Michigan this fall.

“The fascinating thread through this race is, ‘Where do you live?’ ‘Where are you from?’ This is a district where that could resonate,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg and Gonzalez Political Report. “If one party can effectively portray the other as an outsider, that could matter.”

The Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report is the latest political newsletter to rate Michigan’s 1st District as a toss-up.

The candidates have traded barbs on trade, pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac and Social Security — a big concern in a district where 22 percent of voters are 65 or older.

The district covers 32 counties — the entire Upper Peninsula and 16 counties in the Lower Peninsula. Republican Rep. Dan Benishek is retiring. Prior to him, anti-abortion Democrat Bart Stupak held the seat for 18 years.

The next Congress would be the first in decades that a longtime Yooper won’t represent the district, said Brian Began, director of elections and research at Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan consulting firm in Lansing.

Bergman owns a home in Watersmeet in the western U.P., while Johnson’s home is in Kalkaska County’s Blue Lake Township in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“Gen. Bergman owns a home there in Watersmeet, but I’m not sure you can identify him as a Yooper,” said Began, a Republican. “There’s not as many votes in the U.P., but they will take their guy over someone downstate. Now, you have two guys whose connections to northern Michigan are weak.”

Johnson, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, opposes privatizing Social Security, calling Wall Street “schemes” too risky. Bergman, a retired Marine lieutenant general, favors allowing retirees in the long term to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds but wouldn’t alter benefits for those receiving payments or approaching retirement.

Party groups including the House Majority PAC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Campaign Committee have used or reserved roughly $2.8 million worth of total air time.

The Johnson campaign was scheduled to air $316,000 in ads and Bergman’s campaign $64,000 from the Aug. 2 primary through Oct. 3, according to a Michigan Campaign Finance Network analysis.

Libertarian Diane Bostow and Green Party nominee Ellis Boal are also on the ballot.

“I’m sure it’s going to be close. There’s no doubt about it. Even with Benishek’s last three terms, the most we won by was around 5,000 or 6,000” votes, said John Roth, who is the chair of the Grand Traverse County Republican Party.

Jack Bergman

Bergman beat politically experienced candidates with deeper roots in the district during the primary — state Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba and former state Sen. Jason Allen of Traverse City.

Bergman, 69, is a retired Northwest Airlines pilot who built a home in Watersmeet in 1998. His military service and work elsewhere meant he didn’t live in Watersmeet until the end of 2009, he says.

His family arrived in the U.P. in the 1880s, but his father left the Ironwood area around 1925 for work, settling in Minnesota, where Bergman grew up, he says.

“I made a conscious decision 35 years ago, when I started to come back to the U.P., that this was where I was going to spend my days, build my house for whenever I got done with my busy life,” Bergman said.

He registered to vote in Michigan almost 19 years ago in December 1997 but didn’t vote often. He went to the polls eight times before this year, according to Gogebic County Clerk Gerry Pelissero.

Bergman says he files his taxes in Michigan and claims a homestead exemption here; however, he also owns a home outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“We do like to spend a little bit of time in warm weather,” Bergman said. “We had looked for the better part of a decade where we might invest a little of our money for January and part of February, when the weather (in Michigan) isn’t conducive to sitting outside and having a cup of coffee at 9 o’clock in the morning.”

In 2005, the military sent Bergman from Washington, D.C., to Louisiana, where he commanded the Marine Forces Reserve until his retirement in 2009.

Democrats have dubbed Bergman “Louisiana Jack.” In a new ad, the House Majority PAC notes Bergman’s 2009 comments in the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper that he planned to retire there.

“As soon as I was done with my government service, I moved our stuff back to Watersmeet — reoccupied the house in Watersmeet — because that’s what people in the military do,” he told The Detroit News.

Johnson recently poked fun of the Bergman campaign’s Facebook page, which included a photo of Bergman on a boat holding a fish and titled, “Jack Fishing on Lake Superior.”

“The thing is, we don’t have redfish in the Great Lakes. They do have them in the Atlantic Ocean and down in the Louisiana Bayou, where Bergman is from,” Johnson wrote in an email to supporters.

The photo has been removed. The Bergman campaign blamed the post on a staffer’s mistake.

Lon Johnson

Johnson says he resides full time in a renovated two-bedroom house in Blue Lake Township, and that he’s the fifth generation of his family to live in the Kalkaska area.

Johnson, 45, was born in Rockwood and graduated from Arizona State University. He moved to Kalkaska in early 2006 after a stint working as a civilian in Iraq, he says.

“After that experience, I made the decision that, from that moment on, I was going to live my life where and how I wanted. And I came home to northern Michigan,” Johnson said.

“I moved away twice. I’ve made no secret of that fact. And come back both times,” he added. “Due to my wife’s work, and then I had an apartment downstate when I was chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. Other than that, I have my full-time residence here.”

In 2013, Johnson told The Macomb Daily that he had not voted in Michigan elections after moving to Washington in 2008 to live with Julianna Smoot, whom he later married.

Smoot was national finance director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, later working in the White House and on the president’s 2012 re-election.

“I was still living in Washington, D.C., at the time (2010) with my wife. Frankly, I was uncertain whether I could vote in Michigan, so I didn’t,” Johnson told the paper.

Johnson has voted nine times since registering to vote in Kalkaska County in September 2011. Five of those were by absentee ballot, according to County Clerk Deborah Hill.

A lifelong hunter, Johnson bought property in Blue Lake Township in 2011. The following year, he ran for the 103rd District seat in the state House, losing by 5.6 percentage points to Bruce Rendon.

Johnson owns rental properties in Rockwood and Royal Oak, but Republicans claim he lives in Detroit’s Whitney Building.

Last spring, the NRCC circulated a video of Johnson and Smoot on the sidewalk outside the Whitney Building. That day, May 1, Hillary Clinton was in Detroit to speak to the Detroit NAACP.

“We had an event in the city of Detroit with a number of other candidates, and we were walking down the street, and, you know, this kid came out and started videotaping,” Johnson said. “These folks are desperate, and they’re going to say a lot of things.”

Smoot lives in Kalkaska but leases the Detroit apartment for when she travels for work, according to the Johnson campaign.

Smoot is co-founder and partner at the Smoot TewesGroup, a D.C. firm. Its website says she splits her time between Washington and Michigan.

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Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.