Michigan Rep. David Curson’s campaign wins him a brief tenure on Capitol Hill

From the moment Rep. David Curson (D-Mich.) was sworn in last month as a newly-minted member of Congress, he was a lame-duck lawmaker with a political future measured in weeks.

Curson was thrust into the middle of a House chamber focused on negotiations aimed at averting the “fiscal cliff” of spending cuts and tax rate increases set to take effect in the new year. 

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All of this is just fine with him. 

Curson made the budget crisis the centerpiece of his “shoe-string” congressional campaign and said it will dominate his brief stint on Capitol Hill. 

“I’m fortunate because I don’t have the hundreds of issues that all these congressmen deal with every day that are working their way through the system,” he told The Hill.  “I am pretty focused on what is here.”

Curson took office Nov. 13, a week after a special election to fill former Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s (R-Mich.) seat.

His term expires whenever the 112th Congress finishes its business at the end of the year — giving him six to seven weeks to make an impact in Washington.

Less than a month after the election, Curson has already assembled his own staff of nine while taking other members up on offers to help him navigate the Capitol. 

The staff vacancies were relatively easily to fill despite the lack of job security, Curson said. 

Many of his new aides worked on campaigns this cycle and had a break to fill until taking up positions with other lawmakers in the new Congress.

“All these people are hugely qualified and most of them worked on campaigns and didn’t have a job until January,” Curson said. “They had a void to fill, and I had a place for them to fill it.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) staff helped Curson get the lay of the land early, and various Michigan representatives have also made their staff available to him.

Curson said he initially worried that his new colleagues wouldn’t take his incumbency seriously. 

The opposite has turned out to be true, however. 

Pelosi ushered him to the front of the line at his second caucus meeting to speak, he said. She also assigned him to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“It has been amazing how I have been accepted,” Curson said. “That has been the biggest surprise in this whole adventure.”

Curson has spent the better part of his life engaged in negotiations, as a representative for the United Auto Workers union for 39 years. He said that experience allows him to bring an outsider’s perspective to Washington.

“I have always been on the other side of the table from someone who believed differently from me,” he said.  “And the only way to succeed is to make sure when everybody leaves the table, they can go back to their constituency and say ‘we got this piece.’ ”

Curson’s short stay in Congress is as unique as the campaign that got him there.

Michigan’s 11th-district race was marked by a confusing set of circumstances spurred by McCotter’s abrupt resignation.

On Election Day, the district saw two separate contests that featured two different Democratic candidates running against a single Republican opponent.

The two votes were made necessary because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding McCotter’s departure. 

McCotter — who briefly entered the GOP presidential race — was already slated to give up his seat after failing to gain enough valid signatures to get onto the ballot this year.

But he left office early amid allegations in July that his campaign forged some of those invalid signatures, triggering a separate special election to fill the remainder of his term.

Curson never considered running for the Democratic nomination in the general election to fill McCotter’s seat. 

He said he didn’t plan on running in the special election either, but came to the conclusion that his union background gave him the best chance at a win. 

Fellow Democrat Syed Taj decided against running in the special election so he could focus all his attention on the general.

Both ran against Rep.-elect Kerry Bentivolio (R-Mich.), a reindeer farmer and Tea Party favorite who will fill the seat in January. Bentivolio lost the special to Curson, but defeated Taj in the general. 

Democrats paid Curson’s campaign little more than lip service, focusing instead on trying to help Taj beat Bentivolio in the general. 

At one point, the Democratic Party left Curson’s name off a key mailer because it didn’t want to confuse the electorate.

“Every speech I made, every piece of literature I put out, I had to take a portion of that and clarify that I wasn’t running against the Democratic candidate,” he said. “It was important in my campaign. And it wasn’t so important in theirs.”

Curson made due on a limited campaign budget, soliciting the help of his family and friends. 

He raised $33,000, compared to his opponent’s $330,000. Curson’s campaign manager was the only staffer on payroll — who, Curson jokes, still hasn’t been paid.

His and his wife’s cellphones made up the primary contact number for the campaign.

“I don’t think our campaign was nonexistent,” Curson said. “I think it was invisible, if you weren’t looking for it, because we didn’t do things on TV or radio. We didn’t have the money to do it.”

Curson was selected to run in the special election in part because his deep roots in the auto union allowed him to organize an army of foot soldiers to knock on doors and make phone calls in the absence of resources. 

The 11th district relies heavily on the auto industry.

Bentivolio’s campaign said it paid almost no attention to the special election and cited the district make-up as the reason for the loss.

The special and general elections were held in the same district with slightly different boundaries. 

Decennial redistricting made the new map more hospitable for Republicans, but Curson’s special election was held in the pre-drawn district.

Curson said he loves the work in Congress, but will likely not challenge Bentivolio in 2014 for a full term.

“The political part of it — asking for money and always being in a campaign — it doesn’t appeal to me at all,” he said.