Rep. Upton wanted to secure funding for Michigan roads. Then came the death threats.

‘I’ve never seen things as toxic as today,’ Republican says

By: - December 8, 2021 4:39 am

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) dons a face mask with the word “DIGNITY” printed on it before a news conference about immigration outside the U.S. Capitol on March 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There was never a question that U.S. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) was going to vote for the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

The $1.2 trillion legislation, which Democratic President Joe Biden signed into law last month, sends billions of dollars to Michigan to repair crumbling roads, expand internet access, invest in ports, clean up the Great Lakes, and replace the aging lead pipes that have tainted the water in communities like Benton Harbor and Hamtramck, among a slew of other initiatives, the congressman emphasized in a phone interview with the Advance on Monday. 

Plus, in a country increasingly dominated by partisanship, funding infrastructure is something the majority of Americans can agree on — even when former President Donald Trump opposed the act because it was championed by Biden and followed Trump being unable to pass a similar, but more expensive, proposal, during his presidency.

So almost exactly one month ago, Upton, who represents the 6th District encompassing Kalamazoo and a large swath of Southwest Michigan, voted for it. Immediately after, a Republican colleague of his, far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), called Upton and the other 12 Republican House members who voted for the bill “traitors” in a tweet (none others were from Michigan). In another tweet, Greene posted the phone numbers of those 13 Republicans.

After that, a flood of phone calls rushed into Upton’s office — more than 1,000 in a matter of days, the Michigan congressman said in a weekly email he sends to constituents. There were death threats and threats to Upton’s family and staff — a whirlwind of profanity-laced tirades rooted in a political environment more toxic than anything Upton said he’s seen in his 35 years in Congress. 

“You know, it’s really troubling,” Upton said during Monday’s interview. “I’ll say most of the calls were from out of state, but were pretty nasty.”

It’s scary. You know, I’ve got young staff with families. (The messages) are very threatening and really troubling. I mean, it’s not what democracy should ever stand for. We’re a nation of ideas; we can disagree on ideas. But we don’t have to be so disagreeable in terms of real personal threats.

– U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph)

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other law enforcement agencies have been investigating the calls, which brings Upton some relief, but the threats “are pretty scary,” he said. 

In one voicemail left for Upton, an individual said, “I hope you die. I hope everybody in your f–king family dies.”

The caller also called Upton a “f–king piece of sh-t traitor.”

“It’s scary,” Upton said. “You know, I’ve got young staff with families. [The messages] are very threatening and really troubling. I mean, it’s not what democracy should ever stand for. We’re a nation of ideas; we can disagree on ideas. But we don’t have to be so disagreeable in terms of real personal threats.”

That idea of respectful disagreement is one routinely cited by Upton, who was first elected in 1986 and is the current dean of the Michigan congressional delegation. He has served under Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Biden. During his decades in the House, it has been controlled by both parties and he frequently calls Democratic colleagues like U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) “good friends.” 

“I’m a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, and we take a civility pledge,” Upton said of a group of House members who aim to foster bipartisan cooperation among lawmakers. “We pledge we’re not going to work against each other. We can disagree on the issues, but it doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable.”

It’s not just Upton who has faced an increasingly hostile landscape, he noted. Violent threats against congressional members are expected to double this year, the New York Times reported in November. Upton’s Republican colleagues who voted for the infrastructure bill have faced the same menace he has, from a caller telling Rep. Adam Kinzinger (D-Ill.) to slit his wrists and “rot in hell” to another saying hoped Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) would fall down a staircase.

Closer to home, Dingell reported last week that her office was vandalized after receiving months of threats. Nothing was taken, but the door and windows were broken, as was memorabilia of her late husband, former U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn).

“They didn’t take TVs or computers or phones; they ransacked it to send their own message,” Upton said of Dingell’s office. “It’s very troubling as you look at public service.”

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell and Fred Upton at the May 2019 Mackinac Conference. Both have been vaccinated against COVID. | Andrew Roth

Across the state and country, public officials, from congressional members to school board representatives and public health leaders, are facing increasing public hostility that academics previously told the Advance is rooted in the often aggressive and violent rhetoric that emanated from Trump and his former administration and has now bled into Republican politics at the state and local levels.

The New York Times reported last month that “threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party.” A February 2021 study from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-leaning Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that a majority, 56%, of Republicans “support the use of force as a way to arrest the decline of the traditional American way of life.” Meanwhile, 35% of independents and 22% of Democrats said the use of force is necessary to “stop the disappearance of traditional American values and way of life,” AEI wrote.

The Republican lawmakers who face heightened hostility are those who cross party lines to vote for legislation backed by Democrats. Before the infrastructure bill passed, Trump lambasted conservatives who supported it as “RINOs,” or Republicans in name only, and said they should “be ashamed of themselves.” In turn, Upton said that led to the disturbing threats against him and his colleagues who voted for the infrastructure legislation.

“Some of the anger that was sent to those of us that voted for [the infrastructure bill] was the fact that Trump opposed it,” Upton said Monday. 

Upton went on to note that Trump had tried in 2020 to pass a $2 trillion infrastructure bill but wasn’t able to.

“He had no pay for it; he was simply going to add it to the debt or raise gas taxes,” Upton said. “We rejected those ideas.” 

When it became clear that Biden’s infrastructure proposal was gaining traction, some Republicans “said, ‘Just wait until we get a Republican president maybe in ‘24 or ‘28,’” Upton said. “Well, we can’t wait. I came to govern. We’ve got someone in Lansing now who ran on the theme, ‘Fix the damn roads.’ Well, you can’t fix them without money.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s gubernatorial campaign slogan was “fix the damn roads.”

I’ve never seen things as toxic as today. We lost Bob Dole yesterday, and he was a wonderful, dear friend of mine. I actually worked in his office for a number of years. Things were a heck of a lot different then.

– U.S. Rep. Fred Upton

Upton also noted that the United States lags behind other countries when it comes to infrastructure spending, another reason he voted for the bill.

“China spent more in three years on cement than we have spent in the last 100 years,” he said. “If we want to emerge at the end of the century as a global leader on trade and everything else, we better get with it on infrastructure. Whether it be broadband or roads and highways, this bill is a start but it’s not a finish.”

It’s not just his support for the infrastructure bill that has ended in Upton facing violent rhetoric from members of his own party. The Michigan lawmaker has faced intense backlash from Republican colleagues at both the federal and state level in recent years, particularly after he broke with his party and voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to try and overturn the 2020 election he lost. 

Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser, for example, casually referenced assassinating Upton and U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), who also voted to impeach Trump. During a North Oakland Republican Club meeting in March, an audience member asked Weiser what should be “done” about Upton and Meijer after the impeachment vote.

“Ma’am, other than assassination, I have no other way … other than voting [them] out,” Weiser said.

At the same meeting, Weiser called Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson “witches” that Republicans need to defeat in 2022 by “burning at the stake.”

Later, Weiser apologized for his statements, saying, “in an increasingly vitriolic political environment, we should all do better to treat each other with respect, myself included.”

“I fell short of that the other night,” Weiser said in a statement to The Hill. “I apologize to those I offended for the flippant analogy about three women who are elected officials and for the off-hand comments about two other leaders. I have never advocated for violence and never will.” 

After Upton voted to remove Greene from her spot on the House Education Committee following her statements supporting QAnon and calling school shooting false flag operations, he was censured by the Cass County GOP.

“Tonight, the Cass County GOP censured me for voting to remove Marjorie Taylor Greene from the education committee, and in their resolution they stated that ‘her comments have not been out of line with anyone else’s comment.’ Really?” Upton tweeted on Feb. 23. 

“She taunted a Parkland school shooting survivor, argued that California wildfires were started by a Jewish space laser, accused Democratic politicians of running a pedophile ring out of a pizza parlor, and questioned whether 9/11 really happened,” Upton wrote on Twitter.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has frequently spread COVID-19 misinformation and was stripped of her committees earlier this year for anti-Semitic posts. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

More recently, Upton did not back a November House resolution to censure U.S. Rep. censure Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and strip him of his committee assignment, following Gosar’s social media post that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortrez (D-New York). Upton’s office said they had no official statement on the vote. The Michigan congressman told a CNN reporter that the resolution goes “a stretch too far” by removing Gosar from his committees and that he would have been more comfortable backing solely a censure resolution.

Congress is a wildly different landscape than it was when he first took office in 1987, said Upton, who worked in the Reagan White House and for former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who died Sunday, before making his own bid for office.

“I’ve never seen things as toxic as today,” Upton said. “We lost Bob Dole yesterday, and he was a wonderful, dear friend of mine. I actually worked in his office for a number of years. Things were a heck of a lot different then.”

“It’s pretty nasty out there,” Upton said.

It’s so acrimonious that officials are leaving their public jobs, including health officials in Berrien County, though Upton did not say whether or not the threats will stop him from running for reelection. State Rep. Steve Carra (R-Three Rivers) announced in March that he plans to primary Upton, after which he landed an endorsement from Trump.

“In Michigan, we lose a [congressional] seat [with the 2022 redistricting process],” Upton said. “We don’t know what the districts are going to look like yet. Some of my colleagues are talking about moving, but I’m not moving. I was born in St. Joe. That’s where my family is, and that’s where I”m staying. We’ve never made a decision to run in the year ahead [of an election]. We’ll make a decision probably not this year. We’ll figure it out.”


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.