HEADING HOME

Senator Tom Casperson and Gov. Jennifer Granholm hold up the legislation he sponsored, known as the Crib Truck Bill. In this photo, the governor had just signed the bill making it a law.

By Joseph Zyble.

While many candidates and incumbents are hoping to win elections this month, Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba is working on wrapping up his political career. It’s not simply the fact that he has reached the eight-year term limit allotted to state senators in Michigan. Sen. Casperson’s decision to step away from political office came after he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer earlier this year.
The Escanaba native has spent most of the last 16 years as a Michigan legislator, serving as senator for the 39th district, an area that encompasses most of the U.P., since 2010, and as a state representative for the 108th district, which includes Delta, Dickinson and Menominee counties, from 2002-2008.
Obviously, contracting a serious illness was never part of the plan. Likewise, becoming a state legislator hadn’t been part of Casperson’s initial plans either. He was always going to work in the logging industry transporting logs to mills in his family’s trucking business.
“I knew when I was 11 years old, without a doubt, that’s what I was going to do. I never wavered from that. I had a lot of passion toward it and dedicated most of my young adult life to it,” he said.
The trucking company of Casperson and Son was started by his grandfather. The business had been passed on to Tom’s father. His mother, who was a stay-at-home mom, helped with the bookkeeping.
“It truly was a family run operation. My parents were hard working and I would classify them as old fashioned,” he said. “My two sisters and I were raised in a traditional home like that.”
He went from high school straight to the family business starting at the bottom.
“When you’re underneath trucks greasing them, changing brakes, washing them and doing those types of things, you’re definitely starting out at the bottom,” he said.
Casperson would learn every aspect of the business and it was eventually passed on to him by his father.
“I did everything. That’s what small business owners do. They’re probably skilled at everything, but not really a professional at anything,” he said.
Hauling logs in the big rigs was the main job. He traveled thousands of miles to and from mills in locations like Escanaba, Quinnesec and Sagola.
“As the trucks got better we could travel further. Eventually, we hauled over to the east end. We actually hauled wood over to Canada at times, and would bring wood from Canada back our way. We were pretty much hauling all over the U.P.,” he said.
It was good work and he enjoyed it, though things didn’t always go well. On occasion, a harrowing incident would occur.
“Sliding backwards down an icy hill in a loaded logging truck is not an easy thing to take, and it can be quite frightening depending on the size of the hill. I’ve had those types of moments,” he said.
One of his worst days in the logging industry was when he met a parcel delivery truck head-on along a winding gravel backroad; the driver of the delivery truck was injured in the accident.
However, it was an accident that he was not involved in that led him down a political path. In 1998 a woman and her two-year-old daughter were killed when a log-hauling truck lost its load on a western U.P. highway.
“That pushed me right over the top. I watched a lot of good people come together to try to fix this problem in our industry so these things didn’t happen to other people.” He said. “We just seemed to hit a brick wall every time we talked to the government side of things; in this case it was MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation).”
Casperson said he felt that Lansing officials were creating unnecessary obstacles that prevented establishment of an effective policy that would make the highways safer as log hauling continued, and so the effort failed.
“I never could accept that. I spoke with my wife afterwards and I said if I ever get the chance, I’m going to try to change things,” he said. “The opportunity came and that’s when I ran for office.”
Following his election, he began his service as a state representative in January 2002.
Fresh from the north woods, the optimistic junior legislator got a first-hand look at how difficult it was to create policy in Lansing.
“It was tough to see how long it would take to try to solve some of the problems we were faced with because you had to convince a lot of other people. There was some frustration in that it seemed like we were more eager to schedule the next meeting versus trying to solve something,” he said.
As a small business owner, he had to resolve a myriad of problems that would confront him in any given week.
“I thought I could do that in Lansing: give me a problem and I’ll figure it out and get it solved. But it doesn’t work that way. You really have to have to go through things methodically and convince a lot of people that whatever the solution is it’s the right way to go.
“I learned to appreciate that later after I was in office for a while. I’m glad that it’s not a quick thing and that you do have to convince people, so that we don’t end up with dictators pushing agendas with no way to stop it. I think the system works; it was just a little frustrating starting out in it,” he said.
Though a political novice, his real world experience was very helpful.
“Having a background working with natural resources, I have served in that capacity. I’ve served on the transportation committee since the time I started and have chaired it for the past eight years. My life experience in those worlds, those fields have helped me to shape policy. Because you’ve done it, you know what works and what doesn’t. It makes it easy to take a stand on these things,” he said.
His first bill to become a law was devoted to the issue that got him into politics. It was known as the Crib Truck Bill, and it established new standards for hauling logs that greatly improved their safe transportation.
“It was pretty sweet because what we had proposed from the industry side of it, at one point MDOT said that would never happen, that they wouldn’t go along with us,” he said. “When I got there as a legislator, I started moving forward on it. It was certainly a bipartisan effort. I served under Gov. Granholm and she agreed with us and signed it into law. It was very satisfying to see that happen.”
As both a representative and as a senator, Casperson has worked on a number of bills that have become law. He feels that one piece of legislation in particular will have the greatest and longest impact in the Upper Peninsula and the rest of the state; it is known as Part 632 and it governs underground mining in Michigan.
“It’s a bill I was asked to sponsor. There was no standard for underground mining of that type in Michigan at that time. This bill put a standard in place that we believe is the toughest standard in the country and maybe the world. If (companies) can meet these standards, we think it’s good to put Michigan people to work under the standards,” he said.
“We had bipartisan support in both the house and senate, and ultimately Gov. Granholm signed it,” he said. “It’s what the Eagle Mine is governed under. The future of mining in Michigan really is going to be blanketed under 632.
“As I travel through the district today, we’ve got other mining companies looking at new sites. Everywhere I go, 632 is talked about as the gold standard. If companies can meet it then they should be able to start mining,” he added.
One of Sen. Casperson’s great disappointments during his time in Lansing was the veto of a bill he authored which would have given clarity and guidance for projects and issues that involved biodiversity.
“The concern was that the concept of biodiversity was too broad of a spectrum. There were no parameters around it. Departments could block you from doing just about anything; all they had to do was claim there was a biodiversity concern and you were done. You couldn’t do anything with the property,” hesaid.
Sen. Casperson said that there are more than 20 biodiversity programs and over a million acres of land in Michigan set aside for biodiversity uses.
“Our argument in the debate, and there was a lot of debate, was how much more of this restricted type of land is needed to balance out the environment? How much should we have? I asked how many programs do we need where we can all agree we have enough? I could never get an answer,” he said.
Sen Casperson said land that is annexed for biodiversity reason isn’t necessarily available for the public to use.
“That’s not how it works. In many cases roads are blocked off and people aren’t allowed to go in,” he said. “We felt it was important that if you’re going to do that, you better have a pretty good reason and you need to explain it to the legislature.”
In his last few weeks in office, Sen. Casperson is working on similar legislation that would clarify and govern issues related to usage and protection of wetlands. The goal is to define what is allowable and what is prohibited when it comes to wetlands. While there are rules in place at present, a caveat in the law gives officials discretion on all of the rules.
“The last paragraph in the present rules state that if someone from the department feels there could be some detrimental environmental impact, then they can stop a project or development all together,” he said. “What we’re finding in the U.P. is that for the most part the answer is no. So even if you fall under the criteria spelled out in the rules that allows you to use your property, the field people go out and they’ll use something they believe is detrimental to the environment and they’ll stop the project.”
He cited a current example of a farmer who has three acres considered wetlands, a small enough area under the current law wherein he should be able to use his land unfettered. However, state environmental officials have halted the man’s project.
“We’re working to straighten it out for the farmer, but we shouldn’t have to do that,” Sen. Casperson said.
“I’m trying to make it crystal clear so that we protect wetlands, but we also protect people’s personal property rights. The rules were designed to be what I would say are reasonable, so that wetlands are being protected. We can’t trample people’s personal property rights for every little frog pond that’s out there.”
Sen. Casperson chairs the Natural Resources Committee, which has been working behind the scenes to come up with a way to resolve the issue of the aging Line 5 oil pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac. The committee invited experts from Michigan Technological University to devise a solution. Their plan, which was revealed recently, would create a tunnel beneath the straits in which the oil pipeline would be housed. The senator said that many people who have seen the details of the plan are impressed with it and are supportive.
“Right now a lot of people are leaning that way. For me, it’s another opportunity, another alternative. The beauty of this plan is it’s not just Line 5. It would allow us to run electrical lines to the U.P., which would resolve some of our electric problems. Telecommunications lines could run through there as well. A tunnel would make it financially feasible,” he said.
So how did a Republican with no formal college education get elected to serve in a region of Michigan that hadn’t elected a Republican into office since WWII?
“That’s a good question,” the senator said laughing. “I think the U.P. lines up with Republican philosophies, not on everything, but if you put a scale with the two parties on either end and ask most people where they stand on issues, I think the scale would tip toward the Republican side more than the Democrat side,” he said.
He noted that he and all of his family were Democrats when he was growing up.
“The Democratic Party fit our family back then, I think certainly more than it does now. I think that’s what’s happened up here for many people,” he said. “When I ran for office I thought it was important to be honest about where I stood on that scale, and I won.”
When he leaves office, Sen. Casperson is hopeful that people will remember him as someone who would always take the time to really listen to others even though he may have politically or philosophically disagreed with them.’
“I’ve tried not to jam other people’s efforts or carve people out. I’ve always tried to be fair. The evidence of that is some of the people I’ve become friends with and who I’ve worked with,” he said.
A few of the Democrats he has built friendships and good working relationships with in Lansing include Sens. Morris Hood, Rebekah Warren, Ian Conyers and the late Rep. John Kivela.
Senator Casperson said he won’t miss some of the pressures that come with the role of legislator, but he will miss being able to help people.
“There are so many things that crop up now where I know who to call, who to talk to to try to fix an issue. I enjoy helping constituents. If you can help out a constituent and get something resolved for them that’s a really good feeling. I’m kind of hitting my stride now, but now I have to leave,” he said.
Health wise, Sen. Casperson feels pretty good today, about as well as anyone could hope to feel four months after being diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.
“I’ve been on an oral chemo and I will say it’s absolutely been working. The cancer is going in the right direction,” he said.
Recent scans show that the cancer that had spread into his bones has disappeared.
“I had incredible pain with the cancer in my bones. All that is gone. It’s all gone other than I have a cough in my lungs yet. They’re monitoring that and may begin another treatment to address it,” Sen. Casperson said.
Though he’s not planning on retiring permanently, he will take it easy for a while and focus on his health.
He and his wife of 36 years, Diane, who has survived two bouts of cancer and written a book about her experience, will work on upgrading the cottage they enjoy in the Hiawatha Forest.
“When I was a younger guy I had the need for speed. I used to love snowmobiling and jet skiing, and just turn ‘em loose. Now I’ve turned into a pontoon boater,” he said laughing.
“I love being (at the cottage). It’s quiet, the phone doesn’t work. We’ve been doing some remodeling and I’ll be putzing around up there,” he said.

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