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In 'tea party' era, the GOP's 'Red Fred' is no longer green

For years, some conservatives called 13-term Rep. Fred Upton "Red Fred."

The Michigan Republican voted for amendments strengthening the Clean Air Act. He cosponsored a bill to phase out incandescent light bulbs. His website said that "climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions." So conservatives fumed late last year when Upton took the gavel of the influential panel that oversees environmental regulation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

But the rise of the "tea party" movement, with its attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency and climate science, has pushed Upton to reinvent himself. Once a moderate, Upton emerged from an unusually close primary against a tea party candidate and a tough fight for the panel chairmanship as the standard-bearer for the Republican push to block the Obama administration's major environmental initiatives.

Upton's about-face illustrates how the tea party and its wealthy supporters, among them the Koch brothers, have stymied environmental agendas for improving air quality and public health both in his district and nationwide. Under pressure from Upton, other Republicans and industry lobbyists, the administration has delayed or weakened several critical environmental regulations in recent months.

Though Upton remains unfailingly polite, he has gone on the attack, shepherding through the House a bill to strip the EPA of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, he has removed the climate change language from his website, and plans to hold hearings reexamining the light bulb standard he had championed three years ago.

"From what I've seen, the old Upton who five, six, eight years ago would have been more moderate on votes and parted company with his party, that old Upton is gone," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, who served in the Ford administration. "He's got to prove to these people that he can walk the walk and not just talk the talk."

The grandson of the cofounder of the Whirlpool appliance corporation, the trim, boyish 58-year-old Upton grew up in the southwest Michigan district he now represents.

He worked for former Rep. David Stockman (R-Mich.) as a congressional aide and later, when Stockman became President Reagan's budget guru, in the Office of Management and Budget. At age 33 he ousted a Christian conservative in the Republican primary and was elected in the overwhelmingly white and white-collar 6th District, in the southwestern corner of the state.

Although a bastion of Republicanism, the district's problems with pollution made the environment an issue. A patchwork of fruit farms, forests and rivers in rural areas, it also has an industrial legacy that is emblematic of the environmental problems facing the country as a whole.

The Kalamazoo River is laced with toxic residue from the paper mills that lined its banks, making it one of the biggest Superfund cleanup sites in the country. Like much of the rest of Michigan, the district has also suffered serious air pollution. The state is implementing a rule that would force power plants, factories and cement kilns to install equipment limiting mercury from their smokestacks. Yet Upton has fought a similar EPA rule at the national level.

"His district is the poster child for why we need EPA," said Jeff Spoelstra, coordinator of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, an environmental group. "And here we are looking at dismantling and weakening EPA's capabilities?"

Upton's staff declined to make him available for an interview. But Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. senator from Michigan and President George W. Bush's first energy secretary, said that in the nearly 30 years he has known Upton, the representative has changed little. "He's always done what he believes is right," Abraham said. "I don't see any inconsistency between who he was then and who he is now."

Retired Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a former colleague of Upton's and a strong environmentalist, spoke sympathetically of his predicament.

"I can appreciate the great difficulty he is facing," Boehlert said. "It's very difficult because of the undue influence on our present that is the tea party movement, and they have determined that EPA is the enemy and regulation is sinful."

As late as 2008, Upton fell in the middle of the League of Conservation Voters environmental policy scorecard, because he "supported clean energy tax credits, green building standards, public transportation grants and public lands protections, among other key environmental priorities," said Navin Nayak, the league's senior vice president for campaigns.

Upton's retreat from his old positions began in 2009, according to the league, and accelerated last year when he faced the most serious primary challenge in his career from a tea party candidate. After the midterm election in November, tea party groups and conservatives such as political commentator Rush Limbaugh revolted against his candidacy for Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. His own committee members ran against him.

But Upton quietly built a base that would testify to his conservative priorities.

"A lot of people were against his chairmanship basically because of his older record that showed a moderate line of voting, but he reached out to some leaders in the movement in late November and early December to say, 'I just want to make sure that we are in tune and I want to make sure to know what you people are thinking,'" said Gene Clem, president of the Southwest Michigan Tea Party Patriots in Kalamazoo. "We wanted to communicate because then we would have input because he heads a very powerful committee. Overall we're very pleased with what he has done so far."

Upon becoming chairman, Upton reassured conservatives by hiring key staffers from the energy industry and libertarian think tanks and focusing the committee on halting EPA rules that would cost coal-burning utilities, refineries and the oil and gas industry billions of dollars in new antipollution equipment.

That agenda has won praise from industry, especially as the Obama administration for now pares back its environmental goals.

"There's a growing consensus in the House and Senate that there is regulatory overreach," said Karen Harbert, president of the energy institute at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a critic of the EPA's agenda. "The Energy and Commerce Committee's work has been a very welcome sign by industry that they are taking their mandate seriously."

But it has also drawn criticism from old allies in Upton's district.

"One of my disappointments and frustrations is that Fred can really be a strong leader for how we do business and approach the environment," said Rob Sisson, the former mayor of Sturgis, Mich., and president of Republicans for Environmental Protection. "Fred isn't acting now, but he is carrying the torch for what the majority in his caucus wants."

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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