2009-06-20 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

National Spotlight on Stupak and Upper Peninsula
By George Weeks

U.S. Representative Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) gave the presidents of General Motors and Chrysler a welldeserved earful on what their abrupt dumping of nearly 2,000 dealerships is doing to rural America.

Stupak, whose sprawling 31-county 1st Congressional District is about as rural as districts get, presided in shirtsleeves at a packed, five-hour hearing Friday of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on how the two firms are restructuring under the federal bailout deal.

"I'm a vast rural area," said Stupak in asking how the companies can possibly service their vehicles with so many miles between the dealers that are left. "You don't get any more rural than me. I don't have any metro areas."

"I'm very familiar with your district," Chrysler President James Press said of the district that is the second largest east of the Mississippi. "I go there weekends."

GM President Fritz Henderson (whose earlier declaration that "The GM that many of you knew is history" is on point for both struggling companies) told Stupak's subcommittee that the dealer closing plan seeks to leave owners of GM cars with nearby access to dealers.

Stupak, who has an Oldsmobile with nearly 200,000 miles on it that he is now "nursing along," questioned how good servicing access could be possible with the closings in such places as Marquette, Escanaba, and Cheboygan.

All members of the subcommittee and the dealers who appeared at the hearing had similar tales of woe from Oregon, Texas, and elsewhere. The auto execs squirmed but, of course, they're dealing with a bailout hand dealt by the Obama administration and Congress.

At the outset of the hearing, Stupak said:

"For much of the past 100 years, General Motors has been the largest automobile company in the world. The Detroit three -- GM, Ford, and Chrysler -- have fueled the engine of Michigan's economy as well as the economy of the United States for generations. Through their vehicle manufacturing, countless suppliers, and a vast dealer network, the automobile industry has created and supported millions of jobs.

"With the recent global financial collapse, much of the domestic auto industry has been brought to its knees. In 2008 GM and Chrysler lost $30.9 billion and $17 billion, respectively, and in order to survive, they both recently filed for bankruptcy. In the bankruptcy process, GM has announced plans to close roughly 1,200 dealerships and Chrysler announced plans to close 789 dealerships nation-wide.

"The federal government has loaned billions of dollars to GM and Chrysler in an effort to help stabilize them. Billions more have been committed to assist them while emerging from bankruptcy."

Seldom, since his election in 1992, has Stupak had such a high-visibility week on Capitol Hill, given the national attention given to his subcommittee hearing and the "Cash for Clunkers" bill on which he played an instrumental role in negotiating an agreement on a bill sponsored by Senator Debbie Stabenow.

The House passed legislation to create a program that will provide cash vouchers up to $4,500 at auto dealerships for consumers to trade aging, less fuel efficient automobiles for modern, fuel efficient models.

"The Cash for Clunkers program accomplishes a dual task of reducing emissions and stimulating sales in the auto industry," Stupak said. "Cash for Clunkers provides an incentive for Americans to do their part to reduce emissions without imposing new regulations on the industry or consumers. This is a win-win that results in cleaner cars on the road and an increase in sales for the struggling auto industry."

Also last week, Stupak urged Governor Jennifer Granholm to reconsider her plan for closing Northern Michigan's prisons and prison camps slated for closure as part of an effort to address Michigan's record budget shortfall. Stupak noted that six of the eight facilities slated for closure are located in his district.

"I respect the difficult decisions the Governor and members of the state legislature must make in addressing the budget crisis," Stupak said. "But as our nation and state work toward economic recovery, now is not the time to abandon the communities and workers that have supported our state's prison system for decades."

Stupak's prison pitch to Granholm is not likely to prevail. Nor as of this writing has there been a response to Stupak's pitch to President Barack Obama that some Guantanamo detainees be sent to a vacant Upper Peninsula prison in Manistique.

Obama: Yooper is "cool"

Among those asking President Obama questions at his Wisconsin town hall meeting in Green Bay last week was Matt Stein, who teaches social studies at North Central Area Schools in Menominee County.

Before getting to the substance of education issues, there was this initial exchange, as cited by the official White House transcript, which used "UPers" rather than the customary "Yoopers":

THE PRESIDENT: Is that what you call yourselves, UPers?

Q: Yes. (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, that's cool. (Applause.) All right.

Q: Proudly, we call ourselves UPers. (Laughter.)

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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