GOP Senate rivals clash on business experience

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Republican U.S. Senate candidates Sandy Pensler and John James traded jabs this week over experience and debates at the Mackinac Policy Conference, escalating their fight to take on Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.

Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler

Pensler used the annual business confab to tout his own private-sector work. But the 61-year-old Grosse Pointe businessman also challenged the business credentials of James, an Army veteran who officially joined his family’s logistics and supply chain business in 2012 and became president of the James International Group in 2014.

“John is a good guy, but he was a year-and-a-half out of business school when he started running for Senate,” Pensler said in a Wednesday interview. “Our business experiences are vastly different. His dad and his brother built a nice company, but the division he’s had … apparently hasn’t done so great.”

Pensler has worked as an economics professor and founded his own private investment firm. His campaign has labeled him a turnaround specialist who owns and operates four manufacturing plants that had faced potential closure when he bought them, including a Korex Corp. facility in Wixom that produces detergent products.

Farmington Hills businessman and veteran John James

“I’ve built small companies, and I’ve helped some of the largest in the world,” Pensler said. “I think I have a very different set of business experiences to offer to the citizens of Michigan.”

James returned fire on Thursday, telling The News he has been working in his family business since he was old enough to walk and took on a leadership role six years ago. Now 36, the Farmington Hills Republican said the firm has grown 233 percent since that time.

Pensler’s comments point to his “condescending attitude,” James said, accusing his primary opponent of trying to “buy” the Senate seat. Pensler loaned his campaign $5 million last year and has run a series of television ads that have helped him build name identification across the state.

“There is no amount of commercials or money he can spend to buy military experience,” James said. “No amount of commercial he can run or money he has that will help him to understand family business.”

Pensler said he is spending his time on Mackinac Island listening to business leaders while honing his own policy proposals, which he said set him apart in the GOP primary.  

James said he is more electable than Pensler and, as an African American, could appeal to voters of color in places such as Detroit and Flint, who often vote Democrat.

The Republican rivals have been feuding over potential debate dates and venues, and James accused Pensler of trying to avoid sharing the same stage where voters could better see their contrasts.

“If you need help with your economics homework, Sandy Pensler is your guy,” James said. “If you need help with economic opportunities in the state of Michigan, then I’m your guy.”

Pensler said he wants to debate James and has been trying to negotiate details through the Michigan Republican Party.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to have a debate with 100 or 200 people,” Pensler said. “I think we need to have something that gets broadcast coverage so the people in the state can hear and make the decisions based on substance.”

Both Republicans marked the business conference by attacking Stabenow for voting against a business and individual income tax cut plan approved by the GOP-led Congress and signed into law by Republican President Donald Trump.

Stabenow said Wednesday she voted against the tax plan because she thinks it will primarily benefit large corporations and the wealthy.

“I’d much rather have directed something that closed loopholes that take jobs overseas, focused on small business and focused on middle-class families,” she said.

If Democrats regain control of Congress next session, Stabenow said she would “not repeal all of the tax cuts” but try to eliminate loopholes she said still benefit companies that choose to do business overseas. Any savings should go towards infrastructure, such as roads and water systems, she said.

Pensler called her comments “double talk.” The tax cut plan will put more money in people’s pockets, lowered corporate tax rates to make them more competitive internationally and accelerated depreciation to encourage more capital investments, he said.

“You can always find something that’s wrong with any bill, but this was a very, very good bill and (Stabenow) voted against it, not because of the policy implications, but because of partisan politics.”

James and Pensler both said they support Trump’s economic policies, including proposed tariffs that have sparked fears of a trade war with China and other countries.

“Our president is like a rust belt Robin Hood,” James said. “People see him as somebody who will look at the establishment and say the American dream is for everybody, not just the coastal elites.”

Trump narrowly won Michigan in the 2016 presidential election, becoming the first Republican to do so since 1988, fueling GOP optimism in the U.S. Senate race. But Stabenow, who had built up a $8.8 million war chest through the end of March, said Michigan voters are “independent minded.”

“People expect you to work hard and to earn their vote and earn their support, so that’s what I do,” she said. “I suit up every day and I go to work for Michigan. Right now, I’m focused on getting things done (in Congress). The campaign will be something I focus on in the fall.”