Column: Casperson excelled at public service
ESCANABA — An economic development adage states that one need not know how to build an economy; rather, one needs to build relationships with those who know how to do so.
As I saw when I had the honor of working with him in the legislature, Tom Casperson demonstrated through his public service that genuine relationships are also at the heart of being an effective policymaker. While Tom surprised the political establishment when he was elected to the State House in 2002, for those that knew Tom prior to being elected, it was no surprise that he excelled in a profession that is centered on relationships.
At the center of how Tom approached relationships was his faith – which motivated him to lead with kindness and instilled in him the sincerity to build relationships through the patience to listen, the humility to empathize, and the wisdom of the heart.
More simply, in both his private life and his public service, Tom honored the two greatest Commandments: to love God and to love people. Tom did both with passion.
It was that same passion Tom had for “God’s Country.” Issues need passionate champions. Although his humility would prevent him from even thinking it, the Upper Peninsula has had no greater champion than Tom Casperson.
Evidence is found in the fact that, as a legislator, Tom authored 118 bills that became law. Or, another way, between Dominick Jacobetti’s first year of service in 1955 and Tom’s last in 2018, the U.P. had 44 men and women serve in the legislature. Together they authored 872 bills into law – meaning that in just 14 years, with 13% of all public acts, Tom averaged about twice as much legislation signed into law annually as even the most prolific U.P. legislators, including legends like Jacobetti and Mack.
Despite that success, in his heart, Tom remained true to his first campaign slogan, which embodied the work ethic he learned in starting to work for the family log truck business at age 11: “A Working Man Working for You.”
Tom’s work not only touched all corners of the U.P., but it literally changed Michigan’s landscape, often solving complex, unresolved issues decades in the making, like funding to rebuild the Grand Marais Breakwall, creating a Regional Transit Authority in Detroit, and requiring the state to create a strategic land management plan. But the work about which Tom was most proud was his everyday effort to stand up for Yoopers being unfairly burdened by government overreach – the very issue that led Tom to first run for office.
While faith guided Tom, realities motivated him. Realities like in his lifetime, the Upper Peninsula’s K-12 population shrank 48% (going from 71,000 students in 1970 to 36,000 students last year – meaning that, in today’s dollars, the U.P. is losing over $175 million a year in student funding).
Realities like that are why Tom’s tireless efforts to support our economy were so important. For example, his leadership in authoring the legislation that permitted the Eagle Mine (which passed without a single “no” vote despite its contention) has resulted in over $1 billion in investment into the Upper Peninsula and over 400 family-sustaining jobs.
Tom is especially remembered this weekend, with the Escanaba River Bridge being renamed in his honor and with a public memorial celebration – tributes which his family have expressed have helped to lift them up.
Those events are also a fitting reminder for us to follow Tom’s example in addressing the challenges of and opportunities for the region – leading with kindness, collaboration and passion. Doing so will also certainly lift us “U.P.”!
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Marty Fittante is the CEO of InvestUP, a regional economic development organization whose mission is to drive prosperity for the Upper Peninsula. Prior to assuming that role, Fittante served on Tom Casperson’s staff in both the Michigan House and Michigan Senate.