Michigan Dems look to reshape MSU Board of Trustees

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Brianna Scott, a Democratic nominee for Michigan State University Board of Regents.

East Lansing — Thousands of Michigan Democrats hoping to build a “blue wave” gathered Saturday at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center to round out their ticket in preparation for an election that is just ten weeks away.

Gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer and other primary winners pumped up Democrats during a series of caucus meetings before activists voted on a series of education nominations, including a heavily contested race for two open slots on the MSU Board of Trustees.

Muskegon attorney Brianna Scott and Kelly Tebay, a fundraiser for United Way of Southeast Michigan, won the MSU nominations in a race that drew an unprecedented nine candidates who filed for the unpaid post in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal.

"We are going to win in November," Scott said in an emotional victory speech. "We are going to make change at Michigan State University. We are going to get (Interim President John) Engler out of there."

Tebay, a sexual assault survivor, promised students that if elected she would work every day "to make sure your voices are heard going forward, starting on Jan. 1."

Democratic activists also nominated Tiffany Tilley, a realtor and Democratic activist from Southfield, and Macomb Intermediate School District chief academic officer Judy Pritchett for the state Board of Education.

Adjunct professor Paul Brown and attorney Jordan Acker won nominations for the University of Michigan Board of Regents. Dr. Anil Kumar and former Detroit chief Technology Officer Bryan Barnhill won nominations for the Wayne State University board of Governors.

The two MSU board seats up for grabs are currently held by GOP Trustees Brian Breslin and Mitch Lyons, who are not seeking re-election. Republicans held their own convention earlier Saturday and nominated businessman Dave Dutch and entrepreneur Mike Miller, the only candidates for the posts.

State House Minority Leader Sam Singh, an East Lansing Democrat whose district includes MSU, said he’d never seen so much interest in a race for a down-ticket education post nomination.

“Obviously Michigan State University has gone through one of its most difficult times as an institution, and I think that has woken up a lot of people to the governance,” Singh said. “I think the whole board should go, but because of the process, it will take time, and so the best way is to change some of the dynamics on that board, and I think we’ve got great candidates.”

Democrats choose between six MSU candidates after one dropped out earlier in the week and two failed to secure enough convention-day signatures to make the ballot. Convention voting was delayed at least twice due to problems with the candidate list. The race highlighted the opening day of the convention, which will continue at the Breslin Center Sunday morning.

Most higher-profile races were settled at a party endorsement convention in March, where activists chose Dana Nessel for attorney general, Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state and Sam Bagenstos and Megan Cavanagh for the Michigan Supreme Court. Those candidates will be formally nominated Sunday, along with Garlin Gilchrist, Whitmer’s running mate and pick for lieutenant governor.

Whitmer and Gilchrist rallied with the Democratic Party’s labor caucus earlier Saturday, vowing to fight for worker rights in the wake of a Republican reign in Lansing that made Michigan a right-to-work state and repealed a prevailing wage law for construction workers.

“We’re tired of government that doesn’t care about us,” said Whitmer, a former state senate minority leader from East Lansing. “We’re tired of government that doesn’t care if our kids have good schools. We’re tired of government that doesn’t provide clean drinking water. We’re tired of government that attacks our ability to collectively bargain.”

Democrats seeking to flip the state and U.S. House are especially optimistic about the 8th Congressional District, where primary winner Elissa Slotkin is taking on incumbent U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester.

“We’re going to flip the damn district,” Slotkin, a former defense official in the Obama administration, told local activists in an enthusiastic caucus speech.

If Slotkin wins, “we take back the U.S. House of Representatives,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who also touted her own re-election campaign against Republican nominee John James. “It starts right here in this district.”

In a separate caucus speech, Benson told activists that as secretary of state she’d fight to protect “your voice, your vote” and secure Michigan elections during what she called a ‘transformational moment” for democracy.

The former Wayne State University Law School dean was awaiting results from the Republican convention, where Eastern Michigan University Regent Mary Treder Lang eventually won her party’s nomination, but said her GOP opponent would not change her campaign.

“No matter who the other side puts up, the choice is going to be clear,” said Benson, who was also the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2010. “I’m going to be ready to do this job on day one. I’ve been preparing my entire career to make our democracy accessible and secure.”

Bagenstos, a civil rights attorney and University of Michigan Law School professor, called on Democratic activists to help break “20 years of Rick Snyder-John Engler domination of the Michigan Supreme Court.”

Republicans currently enjoy a 5-2 majority on the state’s highest court, with four justices initially appointed by Snyder and one by Engler.

"We need a strong state court because of what Donald Trump is doing to federal courts," Bagenstos said, referencing appointments by President Donald Trump.