Ex-Rep. Paul Mitchell dies. He quit GOP over its refusal to accept Trump's defeat

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Former U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, a conservative who quit the Republican Party over its allegiance to President Donald Trump after the 2020 election, has died after a diagnosis of stage IV renal cancer. He was 64. 

Mitchell of Dryden died Sunday, according to a statement his family provided to CNN. 

The former two-term congressman and corporate executive had spent 40 days in the hospital and was released in June, saying he had narrowly survived after surgery to remove a mass and a blood clot that had moved near his heart. He had another hospital stay in July.

Mitchell had told WJR-AM News Talk 760 radio this summer that he was undergoing physical therapy and beginning immunotherapy.

"They give me a 50/50 chance of getting into remission," he said. "But, either way, I'm going to go down swinging."

Mitchell is survived by his wife, Sherry, their six children and six grandchildren. Sherry called him "the embodiment of what we can be if we choose to love and fight for what matters."

Former U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden does an interview on Capitol Hill in 2018.

"I am immensely proud of him and never more so than when he was the lone voice in a sea of politicians who cared more about power than the true definition of the office. When he remained the lone voice and ignored the threats from those claiming to be his friends," Sherry said in a statement. 

"Paul stood up for what matters most. It had nothing to do with political ideology and everything to do with keeping our humanity. For everyone." 

She said the family plans a private funeral and asked for privacy as they mourn.

Friends and colleagues remembered Mitchell as a fighterand a fiery advocate, committed to standing up for what is right, either in business or Congress — no matter the political cost. A proud father, he also loved to be inside a race car or tending the sheep at his hobby farm in Lapeer County.

“Paul was a trooper to the very end. He was always ready to fight on principle and was never afraid of the politics," said Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Michigan's senior Republican in Congress who served with Mitchell in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

"He had grown very tired of the gridlock in Washington and always wanted to make a difference, and that is what he did. Paul left Congress seeking more quality time with his family, and I am so sad for all of them to see his life cut short.”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, called Mitchell a "class act" who stood up for what he believed in. 

"He was a close friend and colleague of mine, always willing to listen, even when we disagreed," Dingell said. "Until the very end, Paul kept a smile on his face and humor in his words, just like John Dingell. My heart is with his wife, Sherry, and their children.”

Members of the Michigan delegation and the Problem Solvers Caucus this summer devoted a special hour on the House floor in a tribute to Mitchell. Former colleagues remembered him as a funny, charming and generous friend willing to share wisdom and always be blunt about it.

"He proved himself to be the kind of principled, practical leader that Michigan is known for," said Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Holly, who organized the special hour.

"He was an advocate for students, for investing in innovation and for economic development. Whether you were on the left or on the right, Paul worked with you to get things done," Slotkin added. "These days, some might call that behavior an independent or being a maverick. But to us, that was just Paul."

Mitchell was a critic of Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and had been named as a potential gubernatorial candidate. But after he retired from Congress in January after two terms, he said he was leaving public life and wouldn't seek any other office. 

"He embodied values that we all aspire to have — he was independent, witty and principled," Whitmer said. "Simply put, he was Paul, a joyful warrior for the people he believed in and for Michigan, the place that he loved."

Split over Trump

His decision in December to disaffiliate with the GOP landed like a bombshell, with Mitchell citing his disgust with party leadership's tolerance of Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election, which President Joe Biden won.

Mitchell had been a member of the House Republican leadershipbut voted his last few weeks in Congress as an independent.

In a letter to GOP officials last year, Mitchell suggested that party leaders were motivated by "raw political considerations" and not constitutional or election integrity concerns. He feared that the party's participation in or willingness to stay silent on unfounded conspiracy theories and "stop the steal" rallies would inflict "long-term harm to our democracy."

"They all have failed to stand up and say, 'Stop,'" Mitchell said. 

He represented Michigan’s 10th District in the U.S. House from 2017 to 2021, succeeding Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township. He was elected the same year as Trump, whose position Mitchell voted in line with nearly 96% of the time, according to scoring by the website FiveThirtyEight.

His heavily Republican district covered a part of northern Macomb County as well as the Thumb counties of St. Clair, Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac and Lapeer. U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, a Democrat who shared representation of Macomb with Mitchell, called him a "down-to-earth colleague I could always talk to about what was really going on in the House." 

GOP businesswoman Lisa McClain of Bruce Township won election last fall to fill Mitchell's seat. 

"Today we mourn the passing of former Rep. Paul Mitchell, who was an advocate for improving Michigan’s 10th Congressional District during his time in office," McClain said in a statement. "My thoughts and prayers are with Paul’s wife Sherry and the entire Mitchell family."

Bringing joy to meetings

Mitchell beamed with pride when he brought his young son, Declan, to the floor of the House when he visited Capitol Hill.

Virginia U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger recalled a day when members were casting votes, and Declan was offering to help push the voting button for different lawmakers. But the boy invariably voted with his father's party at the time, the Republicans, regardless of a lawmaker's affiliation.

Spanberger recalled "quite a few" Democrats, who thought they were being kind in letting a child vote, scrambling to change their vote because a then-10-year-old had mischievously voted incorrectly. Mitchell was "delighted" by the episode, Spanberger said during the House tribute. 

"But that was Paul. He would bring and does bring joy to every meeting," said Spangberger, a Democrat. 

"He is a serious person focused on policy, focused on truth, on reality, on the things that matter to him — on his incredible career in business, on his wonderful family. Imminently proud of his children."

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, a Tipton Republican, said the pugilistic Mitchell came into office "arms swinging, feet flailing and eyes wide open — ready to get things done." 

"He was ready to throw down the gauntlet or the gloves and do battle. It was just kind of fun to watch him," Walberg said.

"Paul wanted to be aggressive in getting things accomplished and not having unnecessary things stand in the way. I liked that about Paul."

Mitchell counted among his accomplishments in Congress the successful push to complete an economic study of the need for a replacement Soo Lock at Sault Ste. Marie and an engineering study of the project to fortify the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Illinois to block Asian carp reaching the Great Lakes. 

He also continued the effort to prevent the Pentagon from mothballing the A-10 attack aircraft, keeping the planes in service at the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township. He was involved in building support for the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal that succeeded the North American Free Trade Agreement.

But in Congress, Mitchell didn't have as much control as he did in his business roles, which seemed to frustrate him, friends said. That's why Walberg thinks he joined the prominent Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of mostly centrist lawmakers that works across the aisle to make deals. 

"At that time, he recognized that he couldn't duke it out all on his own and get the legislative wins that he wanted," Walberg said.

Mitchell abruptly quit the caucus late last year over a disagreement with colleagues about federal aid for state and local governments during the pandemic — something he strongly opposed. 

He decided to retire from the House in 2019, saying he was fed up with partisan gridlock and wanted 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 an interview at his Capitol Hill office after announcing his decision.

"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." 

Republican Rep. Peter Meijer said he was supposed to first meet Mitchell that morning in 2019 when the congressman made the announcement that he wouldn't run again.  

Meijer, who like Mitchell has repudiated the GOP for denying Trump's loss, this summer praised him for setting an example. 

"I cannot thank Paul enough for the example that he set — for the wisdom he shared and his perennial, if ever blunt honesty," Meijer said in the floor tribute.

"All too often, especially politicians can walk and dance and do a jig around the truth. And Paul was always incredibly clear on where he stood and what he believed."

Early years 

Mitchell spent his early years in South Boston housing projects before his family moved to Michigan. He grew up in Waterford Township, Oakland County, the eldest of seven children. His father was an auto worker and his mother a Salvation Army office manager.

He delivered newspapers and worked as a golf caddy to save money for college — the first in his extended family to attend — graduating from Michigan State University in 1978. 

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

He served on the St. Clair City Council, chaired the Faith and Freedom Coalition of Michigan and helped fund the campaign against Proposal 1, a ballot initiative for a road tax plan that voters roundly rejected in 2015.

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

In this image from video, Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2020. Mitchell said Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 he is leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent to protest efforts to overturn Democrat Joe Biden's victory over President Donald Trump.

In May, Mitchell was among a group of 150 independents, and current and former Republicans who founded the group, A Call For American Renewal, which rejects what it calls extremist elements within the GOP.

Its leaders called for a return to the founding ideals of the Republican Party "or else hasten the creation of an alternative."

"I think President Biden is right that our country needs a healthy two-party system, and the Republican Party is not healthy right now," Mitchell said at the time. "The extremes in both parties, the right and left, are pulling this country off a cliff."

mburke@detroitnews.com