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Former U.S. Rep. Benishek, who represented northern Michigan and U.P., has died at 69

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Former U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, a surgeon who represented northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula in Congress for three terms, died Friday at age 69, his family said.

Benishek, a Republican from Crystal Falls, championed military, veterans and conservation issues while in office from 2011-17, targeting the Department of Veterans Affairs, spending he considered wasteful and policies that were frustrating veterans. 

His sudden death was apparently heart related, according to former staffer Michelle Lane.

Benishek is survived by his wife, Judy; five children and five grandchildren.

“We are heartbroken by the sudden loss of a loyal friend, a loving husband, a dedicated grandfather, and a tireless advocate for Northern Michigan," his family said in a statement.

"As a doctor and surgeon, Dan saved countless lives in our community. His work in Congress made a difference for veterans across the country and protected Michigan’s natural wonders for years to come. He will always be remembered by his family and friends as a strong leader, a caring healer and an unwavering patriot.”

Dan Benishek

Benishek served on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Veterans Affairs committees.He worked part-time at the Iron Mountain VA Medical Center for 20 years as a surgeon and was the father of a daughter who is a veteran.

“Dr. Dan as we all knew him was about as solid and respected as a colleague could be," said U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, the delegation's senior Republican.

"He had the same good doctor-patient relationship as he did with his many constituents. Always a strong voice for Michigan — especially the U.P.”

Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland, described Benishek as "a cheerful advocate who fought with passion for common sense U.P. values.

"I am proud to call him a friend and he will be deeply missed," Huizenga added.

Benishek was born in Iron Riveron April 20, 1952. He and his brother were raised by their mother after their father died in a mining accident when Benishek was 5 years old. His mother worked at his grandmother's hotel and bar, the Iron River Hotel, and the brothers grew up helping out at the establishment for $10 a week — making beds, mopping floors and carrying beer after school — until Benishek turned 18.

He left for the University of Michigan with $2,000, and his drive to the campus in Ann Arbor was his first time to Michigan's Lower Peninsula. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1974 and earned his medical degree from Wayne State University Medical School in Detroit in 1978. He then returned to the U.P.

"It was a privilege to serve with Dan, who was always happiest when he was in his beloved Upper Peninsula," said former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, who now serves as Macomb County Public Works Commissioner.

"Prayers to his family. RIP great Yooper Patriot."

Benishek ran for Congress after being outraged by the $800 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress in 2009.

Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls

The physician went from an unknown political novice to doing hits on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News within a short window. 

He was especially critical of the federal health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, that his predecessor, Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Menominee, played a role in passing.

Benishek won election to Congress with the help of tea party enthusiasts. He upset state Sen. Jason Allen by 15 votes out of 100,000 cast in the 2010 GOP primary. Two years later, he won over Democratic challenger Gary McDowell by fewer than 2,300 votes.

When he first ran for office in 2010, Benishek endorsed term limits and pledged to serve just three terms in the U.S. House. He later announced he'd pursue a fourth, citing his "ability to serve millions of veterans every day as a leader on veterans’ issues in the House."

"My training as a physician taught me to never walk away from a patient and I can’t start now," he wrote in The Detroit News in 2015.

"My focus has been on helping to provide an environment that will get government out of the way of job creators and allow our economy to grow. We’ve worked to bring businesses, educators and the community together to improve and expand vocational education opportunities for individuals so they can gain the skills needed to secure good paying jobs."

Benishek

He later reversed himself amid criticism from Democrats, deciding not to run in 2016.

Benishek in Congress worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on her fight to reform the prosecution of sexual assault in the military. He also helped enact legislation to designate the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as protected wilderness, his family said.

His final years were spent with his family and enjoying his camp in Ottawa National Forest, they said.

Benishek was succeeded by U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, in 2017.

Bergman said Saturday he was “deeply saddened to learn of the untimely passing of Congressman "Dr. Dan Benishek.

“Dr. Dan was passionate in his love for the Upper Peninsula, a respected physician, and served Michigan with sincerity and honor,” Bergman said in a statement.

“While there will be much more to say about his life and legacy in the days ahead — Judy, the Benishek family, and all of Team Benishek will be in our prayers during this time of grief.”

mburke@detroitnews.com