Tim Walberg's Moment
The Trump revolution is opening doors for the conservative congressman.
by Julie Halpert
From the April, 2017 issue
Congressman Tim Walberg believes that what resonated with voters this past election was his message of inclusivity, specifically the four-term Republican's efforts to work with Democrats. "While I am a conservative and represent a diverse district, I do my best to do it in a bipartisan way," he says in a telephone interview from his office in Washington, D.C.
That might surprise people who followed Walberg's campaign. Last year the airwaves in Michigan's Seventh District burned with attack ads. Democrat Gretchen Driskell scorched Walberg as "Trade Deal Tim," while Walberg accused the former Saline mayor of lying about his record on trade and exaggerating her professional credentials. Bridge Magazine's "Michigan Truth Squad" called Driskell's ad accurate but issued a "foul" on Walberg's.
The Seventh was a swing district when Walberg was first elected in 2006 but is now "so gerrymandered it's difficult for any Democrat to win," says former Democratic state rep Pam Byrnes, who lost to Walberg in 2014.
Still, Democrats had high hopes last year. After an early poll showed Driskell ahead, money poured in. She ended up spending $2.5 million--but Walberg spent $2.6 million and rolled up his biggest win yet, gaining 55 percent of the vote to Driskell's 40 percent.
Driskell spent election night surrounded by roughly 100 supporters at the Village Conference Center in Chelsea. "I've run twelve times and never lost. That took a little bit of getting used to," she says.
Walberg's strongholds were Eaton, Jackson, Lenawee, and Monroe counties, all of which also went for Donald Trump. But he also almost carried Washtenaw County, which Trump lost by a 2:1 margin. And a look at the election map shows an urban-rural split mirroring the national political map: the cities went overwhelmingly to Driskell, while Walberg won most townships.
Walberg was not initially a Trump supporter, and says he is unsure of the impact that the Trump effect had on his race.But he notes that this was the first
time that the top of the ticket did better than he did--Trump won 56 percent of the vote in the Seventh. "I represent a district that has Sanders supporters," Walberg says. "I wanted to make sure I do the best for [all] my constituents."
It's standing room only at the Dexter Forum meeting, as over three dozen area residents gather for their bimonthly discussion of issues important to the local community. Run by Karl Fink, a Republican, and John Hansen, a Democrat, the forum is intentionally bipartisan; members heard from both Walberg and Driskell during the campaign.
First-time attendee Shelly Vrsek introduces her new group, Indivisible Dexter. She explains that she's a social worker who works with refugees, many of whom get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. The Indivisible group, she says, will be advocating for people who are underrepresented.
Respecting the forum's nonpartisanship, she doesn't mention that Indivisible Dexter is part of a national organization focused on fighting the Trump agenda. Outside the meeting room, she explains that they're monitoring Walberg's voting record--which often diverges from the group's principles in such areas as economic justice, health care, and gender and racial equality.
An evangelical Christian who has co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation and self-described "tea partier before there was a tea party," Walberg is often at odds with his liberal constituents. But he's also cosponsored bills with Democrat Debbie Dingell, and local officeholders say he's open to their concerns. "He is thoughtful," says Fink, a former circuit court judge who has known Walberg since 2007. "He's willing to listen."
Walberg is a paradoxical politician--a fiery enemy of Planned Parenthood and the Affordable Care Act who also speaks with feeling about serving people across the political spectrum. And while he's one of many Republicans who promoted the anti-Obama "Birther" myth, he's surely one of the few who also has an African son-in-law.
Two American flags fly on the front porch of Walberg's home, an immaculate white farmhouse on a gravel road ten miles from the hamlet of Tipton. A Chicago native, Walberg moved here in 1978 to pastor the Union Gospel Church down the road. Though well tended, the church appears to no longer be active.
Walberg's communications director, Dan Kotman, won't share where the congressman and his wife, Sue, now worship - he says the congressman tries to keep his family out of the spotlight. However, daughter Heidi, one of their three grown children, is public about her work as a missionary for West Rome Baptist Church in nearby Manitou Beach: she and her husband, Prince Sabena, are partners in a mission in Uganda.
Walberg himself left the pulpit after four years to run for the state house in 1982. In sixteen years in Lansing, he earned a reputation as a member of the "No Caucus" that opposed all tax increases and expansions of government. Term limited in 1998, he worked for a nonprofit, then raised money for the Moody Bible Institute before returning to politics in 2004 to run for the open Seventh District seat. Moderate Republican Joe Schwarz won that year, but Walberg came back to oust him two years later in a campaign heavily financed by the free-market Club for Growth with help from Right to Life of Michigan.
Walberg's conservative politics haven't changed in the intervening decade, but the national backdrop has: his fifth term is his first in a Republican majority with a Republican president. One of the first to benefit from that power shift was Betsy DeVos, the charter school advocate who is now Trump's Secretary of Education.
Individuals and PACs associated with the DeVos family's Amway and Alticor Corp. have donated more than $85,000 to Walberg's congressional campaigns, trailing only the Club for Growth and Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Maroun's Centra, Inc. Is Walberg influenced by such contributions? "I think it's the other way around," says Fink, who also contributed to Walberg's campaigns. "People give money to candidates that support positions that they support."
Donna Lasinski, who was elected to Driskell's former state house seat in November, questions the DeVos appointment. The former Ann Arbor school board member says she's concerned "that DeVos's experience does not represent the type and kinds of education that the vast majority of our students enjoy and succeed with."
"Knowing Betsy DeVos, all she wants is quality education of every kind--public, private, charter, home school--to make sure that every child who learns differently in various ways, through various educational experiences, that they all have the opportunity" to do so, says Walberg. "I believe, working with her, we will enhance public education with competition."
Lasinski's other big concern is that the Republicans are now in a position to achieve something Walberg has long advocated: repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Lasinski points out that since it was implemented, 600,000 more people in Michigan have insurance, "so if the ACA is changed, there will be a direct impact on the citizens of the state." Indivisible Dexter's Vrsek says her group also worries that people could lose health care if the ACA is repealed.
"The word that's coming out there from the Indivisible group and others that we're throwing people off of their health care coverage in order to repeal or replace Obamacare is absolutely false," Walberg counters. "Let it be known: on a key issue like health care reform, we won't leave people hanging. We'll do something that makes it better for them and do it in an orderly fashion." He adds that while more people have health insurance under the ACA, they're often unable to afford it, due to increased out-of-pocket expenses and high premiums. He has pledged to replace it with a plan that increases competition, allows for purchase of health insurance across state lines, and expands the variety and scope of available plans. High-risk pools would cover people with preexisting conditions, and young people could still stay on their parents' insurance until the age of twenty-six.
Unconvinced, ACA supporters across the country have been packing Republican town hall meetings to voice their concerns. On Valentine's Day, protesters rallied by Indivisible Dexter and the Saline group Stronger Together delivered 20,000 "conversation" candy hearts to Walberg's Jackson office. Their goal was to arrange a meeting with Walberg in person, but it hasn't happened so far.
"Walberg is only interested in the constituents who voted for him or gave money to his campaign," charges Stronger Together co-founder Mark Hensel. Vrsek said Walberg did hold a telephone town hall the previous evening, but with little advance warning and no opportunity for questions. "That's pretty much his MO," she says.
Kotman, the communications director, says that since Walberg was in Washington for votes, groups have been offered the option of a video conference to share their concerns with him. And Walberg says he's proud of his record on accessibility.
"People who are saying I have not been accessible just haven't taken advantage of the multiple town halls," he says. He points out that he's number one in the Michigan delegation for the most live town halls held: eighty in-person events over the last two years in the seven counties of his district, including Washtenaw. Walberg has already held one live town hall and four tele-town halls this year, with more expected. "We will continue to be open and available to our constituents," he says. At press time, however, his website did not list any upcoming district events, and an aide in his local office was unsure when and where Walberg would next be available.
"We do not see much of him," says Jane Pacheco, a member of the Chelsea City Council who voted for Driskell. But mayor Jason Lindauer says Walberg and his team are in the city often. "Walberg has gone above and beyond in communication, making himself available to citizens, and has been part of the solution when he can be," Lindauer says.
Brian Marl, who succeeded Driskell as mayor of Saline and voted for her, disagrees with Walberg on some issues. He also has concerns about how closely aligned Walberg will be with President Trump, whose "fickle" behavior he finds "somewhat alarming." But Marl says he recently sat down with Walberg for coffee and had a "good discussion" about a host of matters, including substance abuse and the importance of international commerce in the local economy. "I'm cautiously optimistic he'll be helpful when he can, and at a bare minimum he'll be accessible if we have questions or concerns as it pertains to the federal government."
Lima Township supervisor Craig Maier says Walberg's presence there has been pervasive. "He always made it a point to come out to a lot of community events and socialize ... We feel like he's listening to us."
Few liberals share that feeling. Vrsek is among those worried that LGBTQ rights could suffer. "We want all humans to be treated with dignity and respect, and we're afraid we're losing it," she says.
Though Walberg opposes marriage equality, "I don't think you can see an instance where I have not been inclusive," he counters. "There is nothing out there that says I don't respect individuals." He says he will equally represent everyone in his district.
Hensel is concerned about Trump's immigration ban, which he says is antithetical "to everything I have understood our country to be about." When Trump proposed barring Muslim immigrants during the campaign, Walberg called it unconstitutional. But after the president stopped citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, Walberg issued a supportive statement--though he did call for sparing green-card holders and "those who have served alongside our troops on the battlefield."
Pam Byrnes, for one, isn't giving up on influencing Walberg. "The more people approach him and deal with him on policy issues, I'm hoping he'll pay attention and respond." The goal, she says, will be to "keep his feet to the fire and make sure that he is responsive."
Walberg says he will support programs that will benefit all his constituents, including road and bridge construction and implementing major tax changes to give businesses incentives to expand. And he's intent on responding to the varying interests of his constituents. "I will continue to be there for them, listening to their needs, whether we agree or disagree."
Pacheco hopes ultimately people can come together to work on issues affecting the community. One of the strengths of Chelsea and other western Washtenaw towns, she says, is that "people don't wear their political affiliations on their sleeves" and have friends all over the political spectrum.
"In a small town, people concentrate on cohesion, not divisiveness," she says. "We work together. I'd like to see that."
[Originally published in April, 2017.]
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