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It was at an otherwise innocent dinner table discussion a year ago when the Ivy League professor turned businessman received a surprise challenge from his 14-year-old daughter.

That became the moment Sandy Pensler knew would help propel him into politics and a run in 2018 for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Michigan.

"I am griping about all these policies that Debbie Stabenow, I think, is doing wrong," Pensler said recently, referring to the longtime Democratic senator. "And my daughter looks at me and goes, 'So, Dad, what are you going to do about it?' Cause that's my common refrain to her whenever she's griping about something.

"And I looked at my wife and said, 'I think it's time.'"

Even though his wife resisted following months of conversations, Pensler decided to jump into the race and contributed $5 million of his own fortune to his campaign. He is in a tight contest for the GOP nomination with Farmington Hills businessman and military veteran John James, 37.

Pensler and James have been trying to outdo each other in their support of President Donald Trump, said David Dulio, professor and chairman of the political science department at Oakland University.

"James has lagged behind Pensler in fundraising but has been impressive in earned media," Dulio said. "He's been on Fox News quite a bit, which is great for a GOP primary.

"The latest polls indicate that it's a dead heat. It'll be a sprint to the finish line for both candidates."

Pensler, a Grosse Pointe financier who owns several businesses, including four detergent manufacturing plants, used his early cash advantage to air ads during the Super Bowl in February. They highlighted his background and raised his name identification. 

But the 61-year-old businessman also has a law degree and economist background that allows him to talk about the impact of tariffs, trade and tax cuts as easily as he can describe the intricate process to make and package detergent.

Born in Detroit, Pensler went from working in a cinder-block factory at 18 to teaching economics at Harvard and Yale universities. He also advised boards of General Electric, Time-Warner, Sprint and Chrysler as a turnaround specialist.

When he started his own company, Pensler said he went four years "without making a penny."

The Trump card

So he knows something about challenges. Pensler ran into another obstacle last week when Trump tweeted out his endorsement of James. Pensler has said he supports the president and thinks he's doing a terrific job regarding tax cuts and the economy.

The private equity firm owner had one personal dealing with Trump decades ago in the mid-1980s when Pensler said he tried to help a struggling firm sell the New York Mets to the then-real estate mogul. No deal happened.

“We had a little altercation over some stuff, but that’s all,” Pensler recounted to The Detroit News in September during the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.

While most of the traditional endorsements from Right to Life and other conservative groups have gone to James, Pensler has garnered GOP support from former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

A tour of his Korex Company plant in Wixom shows a man who seamlessly converses with his employees, who flashes smiles as he greets them or walks by. Even with dress slacks and expensive shoes, he gets on the manufacturing line to help.

On a recent sunny day at his main plant, Pensler sat outside on a worn wooden park bench in between a cluster of trees, eating lunch, as employee after employee came out to confer with him.

"He's a very, very smart guy. I've seen what he actually did for our company. He changed our company for the better," said Kenneth Underwood, 43, of Westland, who is a Korex supervisor.

"He interacts with people well. We've had previous owners and I really and truly think he's the best, and it's not because he's running for the Senate. He really has great ideas on how to make our place a lot better."

Education, welfare reform

Some of the things Pensler wants to tackle as a senator: a falloff in quality education in the state, the need to retain programs for local military bases, and more welfare reform. "Look, I don't really know her," he said referring to Stabenow, "but I think her policies have been wrong."

But Pensler also has had tough words for his opponent. While James his painted him as "Liberal Sandy Pensler," the Pensler campaign has all but called James a liar, attacking him for donating to Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, a Democrat who supports sanctuary cities, and accusing him of misrepresenting Pensler's positions.

The Pensler campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging James  illegally coordinated with an outside group in violation of federal rules. The complaint highlighted two commercials and alleges footage of Pensler making comments about Trump was shot by the James campaign and shared with Outsider PAC.

James' campaign says the footage is from the Bloomfield Township public television's coverage of a forum hosted by the Birmingham Republican Women's Club. That footage is posted publicly on the video website Vimeo.

"I'm going to Washington to shake things up," Pensler said. "I'm not going to be part of the establishment. I'm not going to get a lot of the establishment endorsements. It hasn't been my focus. Frankly, Donald Trump's not a bad model for that."

As for his opponent, Pensler said: "My guess is a few weeks from now, John will be trying to help me."

William Hartman, 59, of Wyandotte, who said he's already voted for Pensler via absentee ballot, supported the financier "because he took a business from nothing to being a large company" that employs a lot of people.

"He's also not throwing mud on his competition," Hartman said. That action, he said, "turns me off because the opponent should be talking about their positive attributes and not knocking down the other person."

Pensler is, he said, "very down to earth and not pretentious." He first met Pensler last week at a GOP Pizza and Politics dinner forum.

At the event in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Detroit across from Comerica Park, Pensler was one of the last to speak to the GOP faithful.

Although there were divided loyalties in the room and some were openly supporting his opponent, it didn't stop Pensler from engaging attendees during and after his speech.

Frank Hamet, 53, a fourth-grade teacher in Woodhaven, said he appreciates Pensler's Ivy league background, business acumen and honesty in admitting he failed in certain aspects of business but kept going.

"He's self-made," Hamet said. "So he knows what's it's like to experience it. There's risks when you start a business."

Pensler's wealth is also an advantage, he said.

"And when you have money, you are not beholden to special interests," Hamet said. "And I think that that's an issue with a lot of people in politics."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

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