TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Shortly after Rep. Dan Benishek arrived in Washington, staffers raised a banner that proclaimed to visitors in his Capitol Hill suite: “If you are here to ask for more money, you’re in the wrong office!”
The message was fitting for a tea party favorite who had railed against federal spending and a “nanny-state mentality” during the 2010 campaign that led to a Republican takeover of the House. But it was something new for his constituents in northern Michigan, a largely rural area where a spirit of self-reliance coexists with the reality that government — popular or not — is a crucial economic player.
For decades, Michigan’s 1st Congressional District elected representatives who sided with conservatives on social issues such as abortion while energetically seeking federal dollars for local projects — most recently Bart Stupak, a Democrat who retired after nine terms.
But Mr. Benishek aimed to fully embrace the conservative ideal. And now after two years in office, he finds himself in an unusual predicament, a politician taking heat for staying true to his campaign rhetoric rather than failing to do so. Whether he wins a second term will offer clues about how well the less-government-is-better philosophy actually plays out in the countryside and small towns where the staunchly conservative movement has flourished.
He isn’t the only tea party freshman caught between the cut-government philosophy and the expectations of constituents. First-term Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle is in a close rematch with Democrat Dan Maffei in western New York. Republican Reps. Robert T. Schilling of Illinois and Allen B. West in Florida are also fighting for their seats.
Mr. Benishek, a political newcomer and plainspoken surgeon from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula town of Crystal Falls, has experienced a sometimes rocky first term punctuated by awkward meetings with constituents, conflicting attitudes and strained attempts to find common ground between the sharp edges of ideology and the practical demands of public service.
He created hard feelings by voting to phase out federal subsidies for airlines serving small airports, even though they benefited six airports in his territory. He jolted local development officials by refusing to support continuing a federal scholarship program for student-athletes at an Olympic training center that began in the 1990s.
Mr. Benishek, 60, won by a double-digit margin two years ago. But his rematch with former Democratic state legislator Gary McDowell is considered among the tightest House races.
He acknowledges his first term has been a learning process. But he says he’s done more on local issues than many realize, including sponsoring a measure that will boost logging of national forests in his territory. He’s toured the district for gatherings dubbed “house calls with Dr. Dan.”
People back home want their share of federal money but also want the federal deficit brought under control, he says.
“Northern Michigan elected me to reduce federal spending and ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same opportunity for the American dream that we had growing up,” he said. He added that House Republicans are “trying to make some reasonable cuts in the budget and still maintain the services that we depend on.”
Michigan’s 1st District, one of the largest east of the Mississippi River, is a sprawling expanse of forests, farms and villages framed by three of the Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan and Huron. Its biggest city, Marquette, has just 21,000 residents.
Harsh winters and vast distances nurture a sense of independence and suspicion of big government, especially in the remote Upper Peninsula, where many feel so alienated from the state capital of Lansing that half-serious proposals to secede from Michigan occasionally pop up. Yet public institutions are economic pillars in the region, from the area’s three state universities to national parks that support tourism.
Census data for 2006 to 2010 show about 16 percent of the district’s workers — and 21 percent in the Upper Peninsula — had government jobs, compared to 10 percent statewide. Nearly 40 percent of the district’s residents have publicly funded health care, largely because the population is disproportionately elderly.
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