Doctor joins SW Michigan congressional race

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Another Democrat is joining the race for Congress in southwest Michigan. Public health expert and physician Matt Longjohn launched his campaign Tuesday in hopes of unseating longtime GOP Rep. Fred Upton.

For seven years, Longjohn served as the national health officer of the YMCA, where he ran community health programs.

He left the position June 30, aiming to instead “improve the health and quality of life of people in the 6th District of Michigan,” he said.

Longjohn, 46, of Portage said a factor in his decision to run was when Upton negotiated a deal that helped House Republicans pass their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act in early May.

“As a physician and health leader, I felt it was my duty to get into this race,” Longjohn told The Detroit News.

“The Republican health care actions are really going to cause a lot of problems for everyone in this district, sooner or later. Older adults are going to be paying an age tax. People will be paying more for less care. These (state) waivers are just going to allow insurers to essentially sell junk.”

Upton, who had written previous legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act, has defended his role in the health care bill, saying his negotiations resulted in $8 billion in additional money for those who face costly premiums in states that seek a waiver from health care regulations under the bill.

After the health care vote, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Upton to the list of Republicans it hopes to knock out in the midterm elections.

The other Democratic candidates include Paul Clements, David Benac, Rich Eichholz and Eponine Garrod. In the last two cycles, Upton faced Clements, beating him by 22 percentage points last fall and 15.5 points in 2014.

“Fred was overwhelmingly re-elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote just eight months ago,” Upton campaign director Liz Garey said.

“For now he’s laser focused on common-sense, bipartisan policies to create Michigan jobs and serving the best interests of folks here at home. While it’s no surprise another liberal candidate has announced, Fred’s top priority is to continue working tirelessly to make Michigan an even better place to live and work.”

Longjohn grew up in the Portage area, the son of a janitor and a gym teacher, and graduated from Kalamazoo College. He went to medical school at Tulane University.

While in Chicago for his residency at Northwestern University, he started working on violence prevention and community health.

He was the founding executive director of the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children, which promotes healthy and active lifestyles for kids. Before she was first lady, Michelle Obama served on the board of the foundation that funded the coalition, and Longjohn said the group's work later informed her leading the White House’s “Let’s Move” campaign, also aiming to reduce childhood obesity.

Longjohn moved in 2005 to his great-great grandparents’ farmhouse in Vicksburg and raised two boys with his wife, Valerie, his childhood sweetheart. They moved to Portage seven years ago.

At the YMCA, he led a project that encouraged 8,000 Medicare enrollees to adopt lifestyle changes to keep from developing type 2 diabetes, he says.

It was shown to prevent new cases of diabetes 58 percent to 71 percent of the time. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation last year authorized expanding the program as a cost-saving intervention, with estimates that it could save $1.3 billion over 10 years, according to a 2014 study. Medicare will start covering the program as a benefit next year.

Longjohn said he wasn’t even eligible to vote when Upton arrived in Washington in 1987, and that the incumbent has moved to the right in recent years.

“He’s now representing Washington interests, not the district’s interests, and I think that’s become increasingly clear to folks,” Longjohn said.

“Whether it’s on NAFTA or the health care act, or the fact that he’s raising 70 percent of his money from corporate PACs, I think we’ll be able to create these contrasts and help people understand that even if they voted for him in the past, he’s the one that’s changed.”