Schuette embraces career experience as benefit in GOP run for governor

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
State Attorney General Bill Schuette applauds at the State of the State Address in Lansing in this Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018 file photo.

From the back of a hay wagon on a muggy June day, Bill Schuette gave a familiar speech to a crowd of Jackson County farmers and politicians.

He’ll be the paycheck governor, Schuette said. He’ll improve reading levels. He’ll find a solution to high auto insurance rates. And he’ll repeal taxes harming Michigan families.

Throw in a few mentions of President Donald Trump's endorsement, and the campaign message is practically complete. 

Schuette has had time to perfect the message over the past 34 years.

The 64-year-old Midland Republican has served as a member of Congress, a state senator, a state appellate judge, Michigan's agriculture director and the state’s top law enforcement officer. And he doesn’t shy away from the title of career politician in an era when political outsiders like Trump have resonated.

“I think my experience is an asset for us to win again,” Schuette told The Detroit News, referring to a possible third consecutive term by a Republican. “You better have the strongest, toughest, most experienced hand to be the next governor.”

But the extensive record also provides potential ammunition. Opponents have criticized Schuette's calculated climb to the top, including the alleged politicization of cases in the Flint water crisis and other issues he has prosecuted as attorney general.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette, currently the Michigan attorney general, speaks at a campaign event on the Weir farm in Southern Michigan near Hanover.

And experience didn't deter him from using state office staff to witness and notarize sale documents for millions of dollars in personal property in the Virgin Islands. Michigan law prohibits state officials and employees from using state personnel resources and property “for personal gain or benefit.” Violations are considered civil — not criminal — infractions punishable by fines.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley has argued that Schuette abused his office. East Lansing attorney Mike Nichols, who is co-hosting a July 22 fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Gretchen Whitmer, filed a complaint with the Ingham County prosecutor that was passed along to the FBI, where it faces an uncertain fate. 

Schuette officials have brushed the allegations aside as a phony attack from a disgruntled partisan trial lawyer who defended ex-State Rep. Cindy Gamrat against Schuette's prosecution.

After three decades of politicking, Schuette is energetic, articulate and loves to campaign, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state legislator and head of The Ballenger Report. Despite suspicions among some voters about career politicians, Schuette's experience is his greatest asset, Ballenger said.

“All things being equal, I think people are reassured by somebody with his depth and breadth in public office," he said.

Schuette shifts message

Seemingly confident of an August victory, Schuette has started shifting his message in debates and interviews away from his Republican opponents and toward the opposing party.

“The Democratic challengers, it’s a race to the left," Schuette said.

"It's who’s the most progressive, it's more taxes, more rules and regulations, single-payer health system, it’s just a Granholm Part 2,” he said about Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic governor from 2003-10 whose term coincided with a large loss of jobs.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette, currently the Michigan attorney general, talks with  guests as he campaigns at an event on the Weir farm in Southern Michigan near Hanover.

The pivot toward the general election occurs as Democrats have focused on Trump's below-50 percent approval rating and predicted a blue wave of victory come November.

In Michigan, a bevy of ballot proposals from legalized marijuana to a political redistricting commission are expected to drive up participation by Democratic-friendly voters.

“The question remains: What about the Republicans?” said pollster Steve Mitchell. “Will they vote with the same intensity and enthusiasm as Democrats?”

Schuette’s not-so-secret weapon heading into the August primary is his Trump endorsement, said Mitchell, who heads the East Lansing-based Mitchell Research & Communications. The endorsement and Schuette’s experience bode well for the attorney general, he said.

“He understands campaigning more than anyone because he has been doing it at all levels since 1984,” Mitchell said.

A career in public office

Schuette’s passion for politics grew from the loss of his father to a heart attack when he was 6, an event he called one of the "most impactful" in his life.

About 15 years later, when Schuette was 21, his mother remarried. His new stepfather was Carl Gerstacker, chairman of the Midland-based chemical giant Dow Chemical Co.

Schuette's stepfather was a corporate titan, and his father, William H. Schuette, was at one time a rising star at Dow and an accomplished high school athlete in Cleveland. Afraid that he couldn’t match their athletic or business acumen, Schuette said he sought another road.

“And that’s why I kind of gravitated toward this,” he said about his political career.

Schuette attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service for his undergraduate degree and gained his law degree from the University of San Francisco School of Law.

He spent several years working on presidential campaigns and in a local law firm, before pursuing office himself. 

In 1984, at the age of 31, Schuette won his first election to the U.S. House. He served three terms before losing a 1990 run against Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit.

Levin's “kindly eyeglasses” masked a “brawler,” and the ill-advised campaign was motivated by hubris, Schuette wrote in his 2015 memoir “Big Lessons from a Small Town.” The campaign damaged his relationship with Gerstacker, who had counseled Schuette against running, and temporarily halted his political climb.

“Having never lost anything of that magnitude before, my Senate race was extremely painful, both publicly and privately,” Schuette wrote in his memoir.

After the defeat, Schuette married Cynthia Grebe, a Grand Rapids television anchor who had grown up in the same neighborhood and school system as Schuette. The couple has two grown children.

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette, currently the Michigan attorney general, stumps from the a farm wagon at an event on the Weir farm in Southern Michigan near Hanover.

Schuette started to recover when then-Gov. John Engler hired him as director of Michigan's agriculture department. He subsequently was elected a state senator for eight years and a state Court of Appeals judge for another eight years. 

In 2010, Schuette sought higher office and was elected attorney general. He hasn't shied away from highly visible and controversial cases, such as joining other state attorneys general in opposing rules and policies of the Democratic Obama administration.

Two years ago, he opened a probe into Flint's lead-contaminated water crisis and has charged 15 former and current city and state officials with crimes and misdemeanors. Schuette charged six officials, including Gov. Rick Snyder's state health chief and chief medical exective, with involuntary manslaughter.

The attorney general also prosecuted former Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar, who ended up pleading guilty in what would become one of the biggest sexual misconduct cases in higher education history.

With Nassar in prison for what is effectively a life sentence, a Schuette-appointed special prosecutor is investigating what MSU knew about Nassar’s crimes and when.

The probe has caused friction with his former boss Engler, now MSU's interim president. Engler complained to special prosecutor Bill Forsyth when agents served a search warrant with television crews in tow and wondered in a letter whether it was part of an "“investigation ‘media strategy’” by Schuette's supposedly nonpolitical office. 

Engler quickly asked Schuette's campaign to remove his name from an endorsement list, saying he needed to be non-political as MSU's news leader.

Opponents take aim

Last month, a few of the more than  300 Nassar victims threw their support behind Calley, arguing that the lieutenant governor listened during the development of the Nassar case “while some politicians grandstanded.”

Schuette has denied any political motivations, arguing that the politically safe route for him would have been to file no charges.

Experts are divided about the impact of Calley's attacks on the Virgin Islands property sales and Schuette's brief use of office staff in notarizing and witnessing documents.

The property sale kerfuffle is unlikely to cost Schuette many votes, Ballenger said. 

"To me, that’s very minor and I don’t think it should be any type of disqualifying mistake," he said. 

Mitchell disagreed, arguing the issue might concern voters depending on how much it is covered by the media and attacked in campaign ads.

“When people hear that anyone is being investigated by the FBI, it gives them pause,” Mitchell said.

The FBI doesn't normally comment on any investigations it holds. Former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, a Republican who has backed Schuette, said Schuette gained little benefit from the use of staff and the FBI is more likely to investigate bribery and other cases. 

Schuette has responded to Calley's criticisms with barbs of his own, claiming the lieutenant governor wasted taxpayers' time and money when he took time away from his job to get his MBA from Harvard University in 2013 and 2014.

And Schuette has criticized Calley for pulling his endorsement of the president in 2016.

“He abandoned President Trump in the middle of the campaign and as a result, most of the Republican Party has abandoned Brian Calley,” Schuette told The News.

The way forward

At the Jackson County dairy farm, Schuette spoke to a mix of farmers, politicians and state employees who supported him. 

For Dennis and Shirley Armstrong, Schuette’s experience and his willingness “to go to bat” for conservative causes, such as his failed effort to defeat gay marriage, have garnered their backing. The Coldwater couple, once residents of Midland, have supported Schuette for more than three decades.

“He’s a politician, but they all have to be to get elected,” Shirley Armstrong said. “When it comes to doing the job, I think he sets that aside.

Linda Lee Tarver likes Calley and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, but said they lack the experience Schuette brings to the table.

“He is the most qualified, the most focused on things that need to be done,” said Tarver, president of the Republican Women’s Federation of Michigan and an African American. “He’s almost Trump-esque in that respect. He speaks to the heart of the issues.”

Those issues Schuette hopes to zero in on include tax and regulatory downsizing, education improvement and high auto insurance rates.

Trump’s tax cut in early 2018, credited for the move of Ram truck production from Mexico to Macomb County, is often touted by Schuette as a model of what can be achieved in Michigan with lower taxes.

To extend the economic effects of such a cut, Schuette plans to eliminate the Granholm income tax increase, decreasing the overall state income tax from 4.25 percent to 3.9 percent.

He’s an advocate of partnerships between schools and companies to provide students with valuable apprenticeships. And he wants to combat the state’s “outrageous” third-grade reading levels.

To do so, Schuette plans to grade schools on an A through F scale, provide grants to high performing schools, install a literacy director in the governor’s office, and create a Michigan Literacy Foundation.

He also plans to stop insurance fraud, curb frivolous auto lawsuits and increase options for drivers hurt by the state’s high auto insurance rates. His time in Congress and state Legislature will help him succeed in the endeavor, Schuette said.

“I understand what motivates the men and women in the Legislature, what they have to do to deliver and fulfill their responsibilities,” Schuette said. “I think that’s a skill set I have second to none. I will be engaged on the floor.”

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Bill Schuette

Age: 64

Hometown: Midland

Family: Wife Cynthia and two children, Bill and Heidi

Professional experience: Practiced at a local law firm. 

Political experience: Staffer for then-U.S. Rep. Al Cederberg, R-Bay City; congressman, 1985-90; Michigan agriculture director, 1991-94; state senator 1995-2002; Michigan Court of Appeals judge, 2003-2010; Michigan attorney general, 2011-present