Rep. Fred Upton announces retirement from Congress, has been in US House since 1987

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U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, a genial politician who worked for the Reagan administration before winning a seat in Congress in 1986, announced Tuesday he was stepping down after his current term.

"Even the best stories have a last chapter," said Upton, R-St. Joseph, speaking on the House floor in a surprise announcement Tuesday morning. "This is it for me."

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. speaks in 2013.
Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. speaks in 2013.

While the timing came as a surprise, it was widely suspected that Upton might decide not to run for another two-year term, especially after an independent redistricting commission redrew district lines that put both he and U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland Township, in the same district.

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Former President Donald Trump endorsed Huizenga a few weeks ago and had vowed to try to unseat Upton after he, along with nine other Republicans, voted to impeach Trump for instigating the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In an email after the announcement, Trump crowed, "UPTON QUITS! 4 down and 6 to go."

Huizenga, who has been in Congress since 2011, was far more measured, thanking Upton "for his commitment, service and dedication to Michigan over the years."

"Fred’s statesman-like legacy will be remembered both in Michigan and our nation’s capital," he said.

In his brief speech on the House floor, Upton thanked his family, his wife, Amey, and his staff, his voice breaking. "Thanks again to the people of my district," he said, "who placed their faith and confidence in me all these great years."

Upton, 68, leaves Congress having served for six years as chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, a position previously held by the late U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, with whom Upton was great friends despite their political differences.

Upton has also been close to Dingell's wife, current U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who spoke through tears on the House floor following Upton's announcement, calling him "a devoted public servant ... for all of Michigan and our nation."

"To him, 'bipartisan' and 'compromise' are not forbidden words," she said. "Fred knew well that if we are going to deliver real solutions for the American people we need to come together and listen to all perspectives, no matter how complicated the issue might be."

"It's his civility in Congress that I will miss the most," she said, noting that even when they would disagree on issues, he could always make her laugh.

"Except today," she added.

Among the Michigan delegation, Upton has long been known as a friendly, even-tempered politician. He routinely told any reporter who called him congressman to call him Fred instead. An ally of the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., he joined McCain on the campaign trail when he ran for president in 2008 and laughed as the presidential candidate told audiences that Upton always looked like one of the youngest people in the room.

He is also the longest-serving active member of Michigan's delegation to Congress. With his departure, the state's longest-serving U.S. House member would be Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, if he wins reelection as expected this year. Walberg was first elected in 2006, lost in 2008 and then won his seat back in 2010 and has held onto it since. The only longer-serving current federal officeholder for Michigan is U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who served two terms in the House after being elected in 1996 before being elected to the Senate in 2000.

A descendant of the family that founded Whirlpool, the appliance company, Upton also is the uncle of model Kate Upton, who is married to former Detroit Tiger Justin Verlander. Before running for Congress in 1986, Upton worked at the Office for Management and Budget — and for former U.S. Rep. David Stockman, who was its director — during President Ronald Reagan's tenure.

Upton beat former Rep. Mark Siljander in the Republican primary in 1986 en route to his first term.

As a member of Congress he has had decided successes: In 2016, he and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., spearheaded passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill that accelerated the process by which lifesaving drugs could be brought to market, including the vaccines that are now used against COVID-19. He also has been a driving force in fighting for automobile and pipeline safety.

In 2018, President Joe Biden — then the vice president — gave a paid speech in west Michigan praising Upton's bipartisanship amid a reelection battle in what would otherwise be a strong year for Democrats. Critics noted Upton had voted several times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, though when Trump was president, he urged him not to press for repeal without a replacement ready to take effect.

While he has typically voted along conservative lines and has long championed pro-business stances, Upton also has been seen as more of moderate at various times in his career. That, in turn, brought occasional challenges against him from both more conservative Republicans and more liberal Democrats. To secure the chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, he had to overcome vocal opposition from conservative media personalities, including Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Upton took a sharp turn to the right in order to gain and maintain the chairmanship for as long as he did.

But he also has shown a willingness to buck his party — such as when he voted in favor of infrastructure legislation last year that is worth billions to Michigan.

However, that willingness to go against his party cost him. When Trump suggested John Dingell might be in hell instead of heaven during a rally in Battle Creek, Upton — seeing how it hurt Debbie Dingell — told the president to apologize, but Trump refused. Then, after Trump refused to accept that he lost the 2020 election to Biden — and held a rally in Washington telling people to keep fighting on the day Congress was meeting to certify the results — Upton had enough.

Sitting by himself in his office, he watched the rioters attack the U.S. Capitol. He was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, though the Senate failed to get the votes needed to convict him. Also voting to impeach was U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, who is running for reelection this year despite Trump's endorsement of another candidate, John Gibbs.

Some county Republican groups moved to censure Upton because of the vote, but he continued to stand by it.

Even so, Upton clearly held out the possibility of running for another two-year term, his chances helped greatly by the fact that, until a few weeks ago, Trump had endorsed a little-known state legislator, Rep. Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers, to run against him. That meant there was the chance that Huizenga and Carra would split the Republican field and Upton could win.

In February, he put out a TV ad saying he was "proud of his record," suggesting he was mounting another run.

But then, Trump suddenly announced he was withdrawing his endorsement of Carra and giving it to Huizenga instead. Carra departed the race, making Upton's reelection a far tougher task.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a former congresswoman who served with Upton, put out a statement saying his retirement "is truly a great loss for Michigan."

"Whether it was defending the auto industry, protecting the Great Lakes, supporting our veterans or our workers, Fred Upton was always there standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the trenches, working and fighting for our great state," she said. "And he did it all with honor, integrity, decency and as a true public servant who would always do what he believed was right, regardless of the political consequences."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, issued a statement calling Upton "a passionate advocate for the issues he cares about" and someone who "never hesitates to showcase his independent streak."

"We could all learn something from his tenure and strive to live and lead with the values he embodies," she continued.

Speaking on the House floor, Upton said he was guided throughout his career in Congress by the idea: "If it's good policy for Michigan, it's good enough for all of us."

He also said he felt like he had done what he was sent to Congress to do, and that, like the former Boy Scout he is, "I believe in leaving the campground better than I found it."

Contact Todd Spangler: tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Read more on Michigan politics and sign up for our elections newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Rep. Fred Upton to retire, step down from Congress