Oct. 27 2010 12:00 AM

On the campaign trail in the spirited 7th Congressional District


It’s far more likely that you’ll hear the two candidates running for the 7th District U.S. House of Representatives seat speak negatively of each other rather than positively of themselves.

Republican Tim Walberg, who wants to win back the seat, paints Democratic incumbent Mark Schauer as a free-spending liberal in cahoots with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama and accuses Schauer of “smear and fear” campaign tactics. Schauer, 49, paints Walberg as a radical conservative determined to privatize Social Security and re-write the U.S. Constitution so he can restructure the tax system.

This year is a rematch of the 2008 election. Schauer won that election by about two points to unseat 59-year-old Walberg after one term. The 7th District covers Eaton County to the southern state line, from Battle Creek to portions of Washtenaw County to the east.

Voters had a good chance Oct. 13 to watch these two criticize each other’s records in the first of four debates. It was televised live from the Charlotte Performing Arts Center.

The first question was about the automotive industry bailout. Moderator and veteran political reporter Tim Skubick asked Walberg if he would have voted for it had he not been undergoing surgery that day. Schauer claims Walberg can’t make up his mind on whether he would have.

Walberg ducked the question by saying he would have voted for a bill that “helps the economy grow.” His answer drew chuckles from the crowd.

The rest of the debate touched on Social Security, flag burning, Afghanistan, the Kalamazoo River oil spill, federal earmarks for local projects, term limits and campaign finance reporting. Walberg criticized Skubick after the debate for not asking “important questions” on jobs and the economy.

The two also claim to make political decisions based on an ideological hierarchy of three Cs: constituents, the U.S. Constitution and their own conscience. That’s how Schauer ranks them in order of importance, while Walberg puts the Constitution above his constituents.

“The Constitution is the guide,” Walberg said. In a statement that would make tea-partiers swell up with pride, he said Schauer’s belief of putting his constituents before the Constitution is “the problem. I will stand on the Constitution,” he said.

Canvassing on home turf

Schauer tries to fly back to Michigan every Thursday to campaign and spend time with his family. On Oct. 9, I joined him and a few of his staffers in a northeast Battle Creek neighborhood during a canvassing drive.

A fun fact about Schauer’s victory in 2008 is that his Michigan staff moved into the same office in Jackson that Walberg used as his headquarters. Apparently it saved the campaign some money, Schauer’s spokesman Zack Pohl said.

The first order of business was to take down the “Walberg for Congress” awning out front, Pohl added.

About 10 supporters gathered at the Battle Creek Democratic headquarters that morning, each canvassing different precincts in the area.

“This is my favorite part of the campaign,” Schauer said, because it trumps negative attack ads by Republicans. “They can’t buy direct door-to-door contacts.”

Schauer has been in the political game since the mid 1990s when he was appointed to a seat on the Battle Creek City Commission before being elected to a full term. He was elected to the state House in 1996 and served three terms before the six years he served in the state Senate. He was narrowly elected for the U.S. House in 2008, defeating Walberg in the historically conservative 7th District.

After graduating from Albion College in 1984, Schauer worked for the Community Action Agency in Battle Creek, which provides a range of services for the poor and helps underprivileged children access education.

Schauer knocked on about 12 doors in the neighborhood, reminding people on his list of “supporters” to vote Nov. 2. He told a few elderly people that Walberg wants to privatize Social Security and helped install a “Schauer for Congress” sign in one yard.

When asked about the negative campaigning, Schauer says that when Walberg does it, “it hurts him more and more,” which shows in a high unfavorable rating in polls, he said.

I saw Schauer’s moderate side — some might call it downright conservative — when I asked him about Michigan’s medical marijuana law. A report published recently by a Cooley Law School professor suggests that the U.S. Supreme Court should step in and overrule the law under the Supremacy Clause, which says federal law trumps state law.

Is federal intervention into the state’s marijuana law — approved by 63 percent of voters — a good idea?

“I agree (the law) is a mess, and I opposed the measure,” Schauer said. “Marijuana is a cottage industry. People become addicted and dependent on marijuana.”

Even if this new industry is creating jobs and helping sick people?

“I’m concerned about access to illicit drugs. I support jobs, but marijuana is an addictive, gateway drug,” Schauer said.

Roly Poly rally

This is Walberg’s fourth run at the 7th District seat, and so far he’s one for three. He didn’t make it beyond the 2004 primary against moderate Republican Joe Schwarz, won in 2006 and lost to Schauer in 2008.

At a campaign stop Oct. 19, Walberg held a Q&A with about 25 supporters in a Roly Poly sandwich shop in Jackson. Most of the time was spent drumming up ideas on how to repeal “Obamacare.”

Walberg said he had covered 300 miles that Tuesday. He wears a black leather Harley Davidson cell phone case on his right hip. He’s been riding motorcycles for 40 years, he said, and his favorite right now is a 2002 Harley Road King.

After growing up on Chicago’s south side, Walberg attended Western Illinois University, Moody Bible Institute, Taylor University and Wheaton College. He was a pastor for 10 years and served in the state House for 15 years.

Walberg did spend a few minutes talking about his idea for a “fair tax,” which would rescind the 16th Amendment and restructure the current tax system for a single, flat sales tax on everything. Walberg likes to say that this would make “drug pushers” pay taxes on their “Lexus and houses.”

He also believes Michigan should model its immigration policy after Arizona’s, even though the U.S. Department of Justice says it’s unconstitutional for police to detain suspected illegal immigrants based on appearance.

“We can do what Arizona did,” Walberg told the crowd. “It caused immigrants to flee — sadly they went to other states.”

The home stretch

The latest EPIC/MRA poll has Schauer up by six points, which is the largest gap so far in the race, EPIC/MRA President Bernie Porn said.

“He (Schauer) is running strong when you look at the rest of the Democratic ticket,” he said, pointing to a 20-point lead by Snyder in the governor’s race over Democrat Virg Bernero and Republican leads in the attorney general and secretary of state races. He too mentioned Walberg’s high unfavorable rating compared to Schauer.

“Schauer is probably very well positioned,” Porn said.

Perhaps on Nov. 3, political bygones will be bygones and the public can forget about the negative campaigning — at least for two more years. In the closing minutes of the Charlotte debate, Skubick asked Walberg and Schauer to say something nice about each other.

“He’s consistent,” Walberg said.

“I know Tim Walberg cares very deeply about his family,” Schauer said.

“I know he does too,” Walberg jumped in. “Even though he taxes them.”