As this story begins, Tom Barrett is kicking off a game of Clue with his wife, Ashley, and three of their four kiddos.
It’s a hot summer afternoon, and pool time at the Barrett household is right around the corner. For now, the kids are hoping Dad doesn’t win (again). The 22-year U.S. Army veteran is Col. Mustard, of course. Barrett was a warrant officer in the service, not a colonel, but close enough.
When we last checked in on the 42-year-old former state senator, he was enveloped in the nation’s most expensive congressional race. The 2022 7th Congressional District bid was his first electoral loss, but he came away with his head held high.
Sure, he lost by five points (51.73% to 46.32%), but he and his side were dramatically outspent.
On Nov. 15, 2021, the day he announced his campaign, his opponent, Elissa Slotkin, had $4 million banked, more than the $2.7 million Barrett raised the entire 12 months of his campaign.
Barrett outperformed the rest of the Republican ticket in this new mid-Michigan-based district. Considering the bath Michigan Republicans took in 2022, Barrett didn’t do all that badly.
If the abortion-legalization ballot proposal hadn’t been on the ballot to draw out scores of new young-women voters to the polls, who knows? Maybe Barrett could be talking about reelection.
Instead, Barrett retreated to his rural Charlotte home off a dirt road after his 20,185-vote loss. He declined some full-time job offers and stuck with various consulting gigs. The law degree his spouse earned after the two first wed helped keep things afloat financially. Neither he nor her is independently wealthy.
In his heart, he kind of knew this day would come. President Joe Biden taking the country on the wrong track, in his view. Heavy inflation. A crisis at the southern border. A nation hopelessly in debt. He didn’t have faith Democrats would take security issues seriously.
As he sees it, his fears have all come to pass.
On top of that, China is more aggressively postured. It’s taking up more Michigan farmland outside of places like Mt. Pleasant and Marshall.
Michigan needs another member of Congress to stand steadfast against it all, he said.
“Frankly, I feel like I have a bit of unfinished business to do,” Barrett said.
A thin Republican bench, particularly in mid-Michigan, makes the former Apache helicopter pilot the most logical choice to win the nomination in MI-7. With his online, long-expected formal announcement on Monday (July 10), he entered the race as the sole candidate for the nomination in the August 2024 primary election.
It’s hard to see anyone coming in with Barrett’s name ID, connections to local and D.C. money or fire in the gut.
His family is “unanimously in” for another run. His kids are so used to politics at this point that none of them know what it’s like to watch a parade from the street. They’ve only walked in parades … and lots of them.
“I try to involve my kids in this with my wife,” he said. “I want them to know this is important, we’re doing it for a reason and that it matters.
“A lot of people think running for office is a glamour thing, and there are certainly elements of that, but really it is a sacrifice from the standpoint of time away from your family.”
He jokes that he doesn’t want his kids to forget what he looks like. The kids know work and the military take Dad away, at times.
Most recently, it was for a tour along the Mexican border, 100 feet from the Rio Grande. The guy who runs the water pumping facility there says the drug cartels routinely threaten his workers.
The border wall inexplicably doesn’t connect at this Texas location, apparently. One administration stopped building one piece of the wall before connecting it with another section of wall built under a previous administration.
In short, the walls don’t connect, and everybody knows it. At night, if water pumps aren’t working, his workers won’t go out without security.
A border agent told him there’s talk about putting more security cameras and sensors, but Barrett says the country doesn’t need more Ring doorbells. It needs more security agents.
“The Biden administration has been terrible derelict in this,” Barrett said. “I feel strongly about the issue.”
That’s not the only one. He earned the most conservative state senator moniker from MIRS News in 2021 because he takes strong, principled stances, arguably to a fault.
His reasoning against state-issued corporate subsidies for the General Motors plant less than a half hour from his house doesn’t fit nicely on a billboard.
The Democrats’ screams on Barrett’s no vote certainly did. One could argue it cost Barrett votes.
Still, Barrett didn’t apologize for it today and won’t tomorrow.
Taxpayers didn’t get a good return on their money when “corporate welfare” went to what amounts to $160,000 a job, as was the case with the Delta Township Assembly Plant.
They certainly aren’t getting a good “return on investment” at the planned Ford electric battery plant outside of Marshall, either, he said. The Mackinac Center is estimating each job costing $680,000. And they’re not necessarily union jobs, either, he said.
“Those jobs are going to cost taxpayers four times more than the salary that job will pay,” he said.
Barrett rattled off the numbers like he was ready to rattle off more.
As if he’s been reciting them in his head since he announced his ill-fated 2022 congressional candidacy back in 2021.
Get ready to hear them a few more times until Nov. 5, 2024.
Curtis Hertel Jr. has boxed up his Capitol office and is heading home.
The keys are turned in. His awards are off the wall.
The obligatory Facebook photo with his now-former staff is posted. A smiling Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is smack-dab in the middle, of course.
Leaving as Whitmer’s chief legislative liaison after only six months wasn’t easy, but duty calls him to eye a different job at a different Capitol.
As the dominos fell, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow opted to hang it up after 50 years in public office. U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin is emerging as her heir apparent. Now, Slotkin nudged the former state senator to take her place in the mid-Michigan 7th Congressional District.
Hertel had a dream job pushing state policy and cutting legislative deals for a governor who is constantly nagged about running for president. His commute is less than 15 minutes unless there’s traffic on Saginaw Street around Frandor.
“I believe in public service, and I believe the government can still do good things for people,” Hertel said. “I think politics has become something of a nasty business a lot of times.
“I built my career on making the arguments strong but try to make Michiganders’ lives a little better. I think Congress needs a little bit of that.”
It sounds like canned politician speak.
Except the people around him insist what Hertel says is true.
“It’s Hertel’s steadfastness and ability to deliver real results that’s most significant, particularly since he spent his entire state Senate career in the minority party,” said Kate Kelly of Truscott Rossman.
His career is all listed on LinkedIn. Legislative staffer. Ingham County commissioner. Michigan Department of Community Health liaison. Ingham County register of deeds. State senator.
The list of job titles isn’t what’s impressive. It’s what he’s done in those jobs.
The usual paper-pushing Register of Deeds Office went to war with banks illegally foreclosing on families during his tenure.
During the 2022 budget negotiations, a Republican budget staffer was caught off guard when he entered the negotiating room to find Hertel at the table. The Republicans were the majority. How did this Democratic legislator get in the room?
Hertel wasn’t only there, he helped craft a state budget that passed with nearly unanimous support. It’s a feat rarely seen before and likely to not be repeated any time soon.
A two-time Democratic Legislator of the Year by the Capitol newsletter MIRS, Hertel was nearly voted Senator of the Year in 2019, an unprecedented accomplishment for a legislator serving in the minority.
Online gaming expansion and a legalized sportsbook in Michigan probably wouldn’t have happened without Hertel. A permanent funding stream for firefighters was created because he insisted on it.
The budget wins he scored for mid-Michigan didn’t happen by pounding his fist on a podium and making a good speech. (He’s known for doing that, too, though.)
“You can live in a bubble of your own making,” Hertel said. “You can follow the people you want to hear from on Twitter, be friends with them on Facebook, live in a community that is largely people who think like you and turn on a television news show that will curate news to what your ideas and agenda are.
“It’s very easy, at that point, to see the other side as evil.”
Sure, evil people exist, he said. In reality, though, few serve in elected politics. Folks on “the other side” are just people who hold a different world view.
Hertel makes it his mission to soften their edge. He starts with honest, person-to-person conversation.
What do they have in common? Kids? Hertel has four. A favorite sports team? Hertel loves Michigan State, the Detroit teams and his fantasy sports team. The latest Netflix show? Exercise routines?
Whatever it is, Hertel finds it. He makes personal connections that evolve into professional ones.
As Republican pundit Bill Ballenger pointed out, “Hertel has the ‘gene’ of a natural political family.” Combined, his family has 50 years of elected public service.
His late father, Curtis Hertel, was a former Michigan speaker of the House. Two of his uncles served in elected office: Dennis as a congressman and John as a state senator. His younger brother, Kevin Hertel, was elected last year to the state Senate.
While not an elected official, his wife, Elizabeth Hertel, serves as the state’s Department of Health and Human Services director.
Her boss is Curtis’ old boss … the one he hated to leave after six months. The governor.
As it turns out, Hertel was the right person at the right time.
Whitmer finally had a one-vote Democratic majority in the state Senate and a one-vote Democratic majority in the state House. The previous Republican Legislature inexplicably left office with $10 billion on the balance sheet.
The laundry list of John Engler/Rick Snyder-driven public acts that Whitmer and her supporters wanted repealed stretched higher than the new scaffolding inside the Capitol dome.
The governor needed an experienced hand to get as much through the Legislature as quickly as possible. In this town, one-vote majorities can evaporate quickly. Illnesses, unexpected departures, new opportunities, whatever.
Things needed to be passed. Now.
Hertel got it done. Whether in the majority or minority, he said he plans on doing the same in Congress. This run won’t be easy, and he knows it.
MI-7 may be, again, the country’s most expensive race. He’s going to miss his wife. He’ll miss some of his kids’ events. The nation’s Capitol is a lot further away than the state’s Capitol. He’ll be working with 534 other lawmakers instead of 147. The stage will be much bigger.
“It’s a big ask,” Hertel said. “It’s giving your life, but I’m ready to do that.”
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