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In 'tea party' era, the GOP's 'Red Fred' is no longer green

Long a moderate on environmental issues, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan has changed course.

June 11, 2011|By Neela Banerjee, Washington Bureau
  • Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), right, confers with Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas). Upton's change in his environmental stances followed a tough primary challenge from a "tea party" candidate and a contentious fight for chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), right, confers with Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).… (Jonathan Ernst, Getty Images )

Reporting from Kalamazoo, Mich. — For years, some conservatives called 13-term Rep. Fred Upton "Red Fred."

The Michigan Republican voted for amendments strengthening the Clean Air Act. He cosponsored a bill to phase out incandescent light bulbs. His website said that "climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions." So conservatives fumed late last year when Upton took the gavel of the influential panel that oversees environmental regulation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But the rise of the "tea party" movement, with its attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency and climate science, has pushed Upton to reinvent himself. Once a moderate, Upton emerged from an unusually close primary against a tea party candidate and a tough fight for the panel chairmanship as the standard-bearer for the Republican push to block the Obama administration's major environmental initiatives.

Upton's about-face illustrates how the tea party and its wealthy supporters, among them the Koch brothers, have stymied environmental agendas for improving air quality and public health both in his district and nationwide. Under pressure from Upton, other Republicans and industry lobbyists, the administration has delayed or weakened several critical environmental regulations in recent months.

Though Upton remains unfailingly polite, he has gone on the attack, shepherding through the House a bill to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, he has removed the climate change language from his website, and plans to hold hearings reexamining the light bulb standard he had championed three years ago.

"From what I've seen, the old Upton who five, six, eight years ago would have been more moderate on votes and parted company with his party, that old Upton is gone," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, who served in the Ford administration. "He's got to prove to these people that he can walk the walk and not just talk the talk."

The grandson of the cofounder of the Whirlpool appliance corporation, the trim, boyish 58-year-old Upton grew up in the southwest Michigan district he now represents.

He worked for former Rep. David Stockman (R-Mich.) as a congressional aide and later, when Stockman became President Reagan's budget guru, in the Office of Management and Budget. At age 33 he ousted a Christian conservative in the Republican primary and was elected in the overwhelmingly white and white-collar 6th District, in the southwestern corner of the state.

Although a bastion of Republicanism, the district's problems with pollution made the environment an issue. A patchwork of fruit farms, forests and rivers in rural areas, it also has an industrial legacy that is emblematic of the environmental problems facing the country as a whole.

The Kalamazoo River is laced with toxic residue from the paper mills that lined its banks, making it one of the biggest Superfund cleanup sites in the country. Like much of the rest of Michigan, the district has also suffered serious air pollution. The state is implementing a rule that would force power plants, factories and cement kilns to install equipment limiting mercury from their smokestacks. Yet Upton has fought a similar EPA rule at the national level.

"His district is the poster child for why we need EPA," said Jeff Spoelstra, coordinator of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, an environmental group. "And here we are looking at dismantling and weakening EPA's capabilities?"

Upton's staff declined to make him available for an interview. But Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. senator from Michigan and President George W. Bush's first energy secretary, said that in the nearly 30 years he has known Upton, the representative has changed little. "He's always done what he believes is right," Abraham said. "I don't see any inconsistency between who he was then and who he is now."

Retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a former colleague of Upton's and a strong environmentalist, spoke sympathetically of his predicament.

"I can appreciate the great difficulty he is facing," Boehlert said. "It's very difficult because of the undue influence on our present that is the tea party movement, and they have determined that EPA is the enemy and regulation is sinful."

As late as 2008, Upton fell in the middle of the League of Conservation Voters environmental policy scorecard, because he "supported clean energy tax credits, green building standards, public transportation grants and public lands protections, among other key environmental priorities," said Navin Nayak, the league's senior vice president for campaigns.

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