The first Congressional District is one of the most competitive races in the state. Incumbent Republican Dan Benishek is retiring. That leaves a race between retired United States Marine Corps lieutenant general Republican Jack Bergman, former head of the Michigan Democratic party Lon Johnson, Green Party Candidate Ellis Boal, and Libertarian Diane Bostow.
On Friday Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie hosted a debate between Bergman, Johnson, and Boal.
The debate was the last time the candidates will appear together onstage before the election. All but Libertarian candidate Diane Bostow were in attendance.
Republican Jack Bergman positioned himself as coming from outside ‘business as usual politics.’
“If all you’ve ever done is be inside a political system that’s all you know. We need more people in leadership roles, AKA congressmen, senators, presidents who have actually been successful outside of the political system.”
Bergman said, at least in the 1st district, having Trump at the top of the ticket is an asset.
In a district that has had a republican representative since 2011, democrat Lon Johnson is working to highlight the differences between himself and Bergman.
“You know I’ve gone to every single candidate forum that’s been held here. Once again we were all surprised that Jack made it – he’s missed the last nine previous debates. You need a member of congress who is going to show up and work hard day in and day out.”
The Green Party’s Ellis Boal, now in his fourth congressional run, said environmental concerns are at the heart of his run.
“Well global warming is the most important issue, right now we have a congressperson, Dan Benishek, who says climate change is a hoax. I can’t believe that.”
A panel of students fielded questions from the audience throughout the roughly hour and a half debate covering everything from social security to global warming and campus sexual assault.
On several issues – like gun control – the candidates held similar positions.
Johnson: “The NRA has given me an ‘A’ rating.”
Bergman: “I swore an oath to protect the constitution of the united states against all enemies foreign and domestic. Part of that constitution is the second amendment.”
Boal: “I mean the 2nd amendment is in the constitution and we all have to defend it.”
But for things like social security, medicare, and infrastructure the candidates sparred over differences.
Johnson in particular highlighted differences in how each candidate would respond to social security.
“I’m opposed to privatization, this is a big big difference between Jack Bergman and me. He seeks to privatize social security and send it off to Washington. I just believe slipping a middle man into profit off what you’ve worked a lifetime for isn’t right.”
On infrastructure Bergman fired back at Johnson’s proposal to bring mass transit to the U.P.
“You don’t have the population density to justify investment into mass transit in the upper peninsula. You think we need mass transit in the UP, I’d suggest you have no idea what it means to be a yooper.”
This isn’t the first time questions about who best represents the U.P. have come up. If Johnson wins he’d be the first representative of the 1st district in one hundred years who didn’t live in the U.P.
But Bergman has received an equal amount of criticism from Johnson about his yooper status.
“Time and again we’ve asked for transparency from Jack Bergman. He said he’s been living full time in Watersmeet since 2010 when the fact is he was on a school board in Louisiana until this year regularly attending the meetings. I don’t think he was commuting from Watersmeet.”
For his part Bergman dismisses those charges and says what matters is who best represents the U.P.
“It’s not where you were born it’s what are your values and where do you fit?”
For the voters who attended the debate it was a good opportunity to explore their options.
“I had a lot of questions that I had answered.”
Chris Hadfield was in the audience. He said he’ll be voting for Bergman.
“Actually a couple of the candidates answered the questions pretty similar to what I like to hear.”
Adele Easterday is from Sault Sainte Marie. She said she appreciated hearing from the candidates
“It was fantastic, it was so good to get three different perspectives and very diverse perspectives except when it comes to the environment.”
For many of the voters who came, their minds were already made up about how they will vote on November 8th. But all of them said it was important to get to see their candidates in action.