GOP's Mitchell plans to retire from Congress that's 'too busy playing politics'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden

Washington — Sophomore Republican Rep. Paul Mitchell won't run for reelection to his seat in Congress in 2020 after representing Michigan's Thumb for two terms, saying he's exasperated by political gridlock and wants more time with his family. 

"We fail as a government, as an institution to address problems that really matter in this country because we're too busy playing politics," Mitchell said in a Wednesday interview at his Capitol Hill office.

"Politics consumes all the oxygen in the city, and rhetoric takes far more attention and far more credence than does policy." 

"Good bipartisan bills have no chance of moving forward, so why am I working like this when I got a 9-year-old at home?" he added. "I don't need the job." 

Mitchell, a 62-year-old millionaire and former corporate executive, said he doesn't know yet what he'll do after retiring, but that he's unlikely to run for office again. 

"Unless the American people hold lawmakers accountable for recognizing that this place is not functioning, it's all just — it's Kabuki theater," Mitchell said, gesturing to a television tuned to a hearing with special counsel Robert Mueller. 

"It should be no surprise (to leadership) that I'm exasperated with this place. And if I didn't have a family at home that needed to have more of me than I have left in any given week, then I guess it wouldn't matter, but it does."

Mitchell made his announcement official in a floor speech Wednesday morning, tearing up as he said it had been "an honor to stand on this floor, debate issues and represent the people of Michigan’s 10th District."

"A career in Washington was never my objective," he said. "The time has come to make a difference for my family — to focus my time and energy upon them, their needs, their goals. As George Washington is quoted: 'I would rather be on my farm than emperor of the world.'"

Mitchell emphasized the toll that his "consuming" House role has had on his children, especially 9-year-old Declan who has special needs, amid cross-country travel and family time interrupted by text messages, emails and phone calls. 

He said he got a text from his wife, Sherry, shortly before his floor speech saying she'd told Declan that he wouldn't be running for reelection again.  

"He cheered," Mitchell said, welling up again. 

It was confirmation that he'd made the right decision, he said. 

Washington 'driven by extremes' 

Mitchell's retirement likely won't endanger one of the six seats that Michigan Republicans hold in the U.S. House.

The 10th District is rated solidly Republican by political handicappers, encompassing northern Macomb County and St. Clair, Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac and Lapeer counties. 

Mitchell won reelection last fall by 25 percentage points, defeating Democrat Kimberly Bizon in a district that President Donald Trump won by 32 points in 2016.

Mitchell has supported Trump but lost patience last week with the president's tweets urging four progressive Democratic House members to "go back" to their countries, even though three of them were born in the United States. A member of Republican leadership, he issued a statement saying "these comments are beneath leaders." 

Mitchell said he'd reached out to the White House through multiple channels asking to talk to Trump about his remarks and the subsequent "Send her back" chants at a campaign rally. 

"I was disgusted with the chant," the lawmaker said. "My youngest son is adopted from Russia, and God forbid anybody say he's not American. He'd be picking himself up off the ground." 

The president, Mitchell said, is a symptom of the problem of Washington being "driven by the extremes," and media time steering the agenda instead of the needs of the public. 

"People worry so much about talking points, and they're making their political points between elections to get their slice of power," he said.

"Not enough of them have thought about what they do with it if they got it or are prepared to work to get a consensus to get there. It's all about having the power," he added. "I don't need it. It wasn't why I came here."

Mitchell had started thinking about retiring from Congress in the last month, he said. Then came a trip late last week to visit migrant detention centers at the Southern border with Mexico. 

He was struck there by the dichotomy of messaging from his bipartisan House delegation and that of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who led a delegation on the same days to the same sites and declared them "inhumane." 

"It wasn't deplorable and inhumane. It's tragic. It's overwhelming. The numbers are just staggering," Mitchell said.

"We're not addressing this. Meanwhile, Chuck uses it for political fodder. I'm disgusted. There are people dying. Our border agents are overwhelmed," he added.

"You should be ashamed. Offer a solution. And the American people accept it! That's astonishing to me." 

He went back to Michigan to his lake house and solidified his decision over the weekend.

Surprise decision

Mitchell was elected in 2016, succeeding Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township, who retired. He serves on the House committees on Armed Services and Transportation and Infrastructure.

Miller on Wednesday appeared perturbed by Mitchell's abrupt decision, issuing a statement that said "reading his rant in POLITICO is not the best way to find out your member of Congress is not seeking re-election."

"Rep Mitchell's comments on his departure from Congress leave something to be desired. I would have appreciated seeing some recognition of the great people of the 10th District — good, decent, hard-working people who sent him to Washington, D.C., on their behalf," Miller said. 

"The time is right now for a person to step forward who fully appreciates the opportunity and the responsibility that comes with serving as the Member of Congress from this great district and can truly represent the people of Michigan's 10th."

Some members of Michigan's delegation were surprised by Mitchell's announcement, but Rep. Fred Upton, the delegation's senior Republican, had an inkling because Mitchell had confided some of his frustrations. 

"Frankly, he’s a guy who came from business sector, a CEO type. He expects results and pronto and was irritated with the pace of legislation on a number of fronts. He was elected by his class to be in elected leadership, had all the credentials but, you know, life is short," said Upton, who was at the border last week with Mitchell. 

"It’s so tragic. Our folks are so overwhelmed, and it’s painful to see firsthand. That was more than a wake-up call for Paul. He was already thinking about it before then, but I think that was the final straw for Paul and, you know, wanting to get things done."

Potential GOP candidates  

If Miller wanted her old job back, she’d easily win the election, said GOP consultant Jamie Roe, who served as Miller's chief of staff in Congress. 

“I think she’s pretty happy with what she’s doing now, so I’d be surprised if she would do it, but who knows,” Roe said.

Aside from Miller, other potential candidates for the seat could include state Sen. Pete Lucido of Shelby Township; former state Rep. Pete Lund, state director for the Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity; state Rep. Shane Hernandez of Port Huron, who chairs the Michigan House Appropriations Committee.

Brig. Gen. John D. Slocum, who recently retired as commander of 127th Wing at Selfridge Air National Guard Base, is another possibility, Roe said. 

“Congressional seats don’t come open very often, so there’s going to be a lot of people who have some desire to serve who are thinking about it,” Roe said.

Pollster and GOP strategist Steve Mitchell, who is not related to the congressman, said Lucido, a Trump supporter, would be the favorite if he decides to run, with the bonus of being able to self-fund a campaign.

Another top candidate would be former state Sen. Phil Pavlov of St. Clair Township, who finished second to Mitchell in the 2016 Republican primary.

"Lucido is clearly the 800-pound gorilla in this race. The only one who could come close if he could raise the money is Phil Pavlov, but he's out of office so that would make his job more difficult," Steve Mitchell said. 

Paul Mitchell spent a chunk of his fortune to win the seat after unsuccessfully running for the GOP nomination in the 4th District that he lost to Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, in 2014.

All told, Mitchell spent nearly $7.5 million of his own wealth in pursuit of a U.S. House seat in the 2014 and 2016 elections.

"With his term being relatively young in Congress, I don't think anybody presumed after the amount of money Mitchell spent getting the seat and holding onto the seat that he would bow out," Steve Mitchell said. 

Paul Mitchell's roots are in Waterford Township, Oakland County, where he grew up the eldest of seven children and later graduated from Michigan State University in 1978.

Before becoming CEO at Ross Education, he was the longtime head of the division that conducted educational and other transitional programs throughout the East to help long-term welfare recipients get into jobs. 

"In how many countries can the oldest of seven children with parents that were an hourly autoworker and a Salvation Army office manager become the first in their extended family to graduate from college, build a career and become CEO of a major workforce development company and, after retiring, be elected to Congress?" Mitchell said.