”The interview went quite well,” Lorraine Millot, Washington correspondent for the venerable French publication Liberacion, told Roaring Patriot shortly after sitting down with Rep.-elect Dan Benishek, R-Mich., in December 1994.
”And I have to say he’s a good face for the ‘tea party,”’ she added.
The death Oct. 15 of the former three-term congressman and surgeon at age 69 evoked memories of the Republicans who took over the House a decade ago in a wave of public anger against the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
The election of so many political outsiders backed by the virulently anti-tax and anti-government tea party movement drew the attention of the international press. Millot was just one of a score of foreign correspondents who wanted to find out what made this new force in politics so appealing.
In Benishek, at least, she found the answer. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the medical school at Wayne State University, he was known as ”Dr. Dan” across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for his years of practice at the Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center in Iron Mountain.
In 2009, ”Dr. Dan” became much like Dr. Sam Abelman, the fiercely independent physician-hero of the film ”The Last Angry Man.”
”Yes, I was mad as hell,” Benishek once told Roaring Patriot, recalling how his congressman, Democrat Bart Stupak, reversed himself from his insistence on a ban on abortion in the ACA and thus made its passage possible, in a 219-212 vote, on March 21, 2010.
Because the handful of anti-abortion Democrats in the House would not vote for the ACA unless it included the Stupak-Pitts Amendment to prohibit funding for abortions, the Michigan lawmaker became what The New York Times called ”the single most important rank-and-file House member in passing the bill.”
Two days after he insisted on the inclusion of his amendment in the bill, Stupak abruptly turned around and said he had President Barack Obama’s assurance of an executive order to ban abortion funding.
Abortion opponents denounced Stupak as a traitor. Benishek was so angry that he immediately announced his candidacy for Congress, even though he had never been politically active before. Tea party activists and fellow political newcomers flocked to Dr. Dan. On the day Stupak cast his pivotal vote, Benishek received $50,000 in unsolicited campaign contributions.
Three weeks after his reversal on ACA, Stupak announced his retirement. Sensing an opportunity, other Republicans suddenly entered the race. State Sen. Jason Allen emerged as Benishek’s leading rival.
”But we’ve got Joe the Plumber [the blue-collar worker who emerged as a symbol of the opposition to the Obama administration] coming in to campaign for Dr. Dan,” Benishek campaign quarterback Lori Wortz told Roaring Patriot at the time. ”Just keep thinking ‘tea party.”’
The tea party, Joe the Plumber and Dr. Dan himself turned out to be the right ingredients — barely, as he eked out the GOP nomination over Allen by 15 votes and then went on to win in the fall over state Rep. Gary McDowell, a Democrat.
Rated 100% by both the American Family Association and the Americans for Prosperity, Benishek essentially remained the same conservative outsider he had been in his first campaign. He was inevitably in the front lines of fights to repeal the ACA and freely voiced his skepticism about climate change.
In 2016, despite urgings from Republican leaders that he seek a fourth term, Benishek was adamant about going home. He had vowed to serve three terms in his first race, and he meant it.
”He really felt someone had to do something, and if it had to be him, then so be it,” Wortz recalled. ”He wasn’t going to make a career of it. When leadership was trying to convince him to do another term, Dan couldn’t be swayed.
”He wanted to get back home. He wanted to spend more time with [wife] Judy, and he didn’t want to spend more time in Washington at the expense of seeing his grandkids grow up. He was so smart to invest in what really matters, the real relationships in his life. He was a good man.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Roaring Patriot. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.