However else one chooses to characterize Congressman Fred Upton’s career in the U.S. House of the Representatives, one cannot say that it has been a short one.
Upton has held onto his seat in Michigan’s 6th Congressional District for nearly three decades, fending off Democratic contenders in 12 prior elections.
However, his most recent challenger, Democrat Mike O’Brien, believes that this is the year that the district’s voters sends the Republican incumbent packing from his office on Capital Hill.
“Now is the best time for someone to run against Upton,” O’Brien said. “His voting record no longer represents the mainstream. That’s not just my words. I’ve spoken with people in Kalamazoo, both Republicans and Democrats, who believe he no longer represents their interests.”
O’Brien has been echoing this sentiment since he announced his candidacy back in April: that Upton, once lauded by many voters in the district for decades for his moderate stance, has shifted his policy decisions to the far right, to detriment of the people he represents in Congress.
Local voters only need to look at Upton’s voting record over the last five or six years to see how his views have transformed, O’Brien said. The Democrat pointed out Upton’s vote against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which ensures equal pay for women, and his changed stance against carbon emission regulation as two areas where the congressman has gone against the interests of his constituents.
“People have told me they want to be represented,” O’Brien said. “They want their interests heard.”
For O’Brien, the concept of representing the interests of voters is his primary reason for running against Upton, the candidate said. However, his motivations for running for public office go beyond serving only his district, he added.
“I’m very much a product of the country and what this country can do for its citizens,” O’Brien said. “I feel great about the race we’re running and the reasons we’re running. But at the end of the day it’s about service to our country.”
This sense of duty to his country and its government is born in part due to his service with U.S. Marines, which he enlisted with in 1984 in order to “repay his debt” to the government.
“In the Marines, you come away with a certain perspective that you can’t get anywhere else,” O’Brien said. “It’s a concept of leadership, real leadership. You understand that objectives have to be met, and you have to bring people together to achieve those objectives.”
After leaving the Marines and marrying his high school sweetheart, Teresa, he went back to school, graduating from Washington University in 1994. From there, he worked various different jobs in the private sector, including heading the real estate department of Holland-based trucking company USF Holland before him and his family started their own farming operations, which he closed down during the recession of 2008. Today, O’Brien works as a project manager with furniture company Herman Miller.
“Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in the business world,” O’Brien said. “You don’t get anywhere with a stalemate mindset. It takes leadership, people skills and the ability to bridge gaps.”
Besides the challenges O’Brien faces by opposing a such deeply entrenched incumbent like Rep. Upton, the Democratic candidate also must face an opponent who can easily outspend him. According to opensecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks campaign spending, Upton raised over $3.1 million in funding last year.
In comparison, O’Brien has raised significantly less, though he was able to raise $95,000 two months after declaring his candidacy.
“From day one, when I kicked off the campaign, I knew we couldn’t run against [Upton] in terms of money,” O’Brien said. “If our message resonates, and people go to the polls, that’s what matters.”
Just like in the U.S. Presidential election, one of the main issues surrounding this year’s congressional election is unemployment, which is currently resting around 8.5 percent here in Michigan.
One of the main ways O’Brien plans to combat this trend is to create additional local manufacturing jobs, which he says Upton is fighting to export overseas. The Democrat said he wants to reverse tax policies that help drive manufacturing jobs out of the district, replacing them with incentives that would bring them back.
Another way O’Brien said he would tackle unemployment would be to invest in the repair of local infrastructure needs.
“Last year, we had the warmest winter on record here in Michigan,” O’Brien said. “We could of had thousands of people working on bridges and other projects.”
The candidate also has strong feelings about various social issues, including women’s abortion rights, which have come under fire from a number of Republican politicians in recent months.
“It’s appalling and very troubling that we are revisiting these issues,” O’Brien said. “Women make up half of our population, and they should be able to determine their own destinies and make their own decisions about their bodies and their health.”
O’Brien weighed in on the state of higher education in the district as well.
“We have to double down in our investment in education,” he said. “One of the most compelling issues we face today is a lack of well-educated workers.”
O’Brien said he was especially troubled by the recent debates over the interest rates for federal student loans, which congress voted against doubling in June.
“When I came out of the Marine Corps, I went back to work to put myself through college,” O’Brien said. “Federal Pell grants and Stafford loans, that this nation helped to establish, helped me graduate from [Washington University] with honors.”
While most of this nation’s voters attention will be devoted to the Presidential contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, O’Brien said that WMU’s young voters should care about who they want representing them in congress, whether that be him or Rep. Upton.
“[Students] should care about their own futures, and they need to be actively, actively engaged in the democratic process,” he said.