Unprecedented number of candidates seek MSU trustee nominations

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

In the wake of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal, an unprecedented number of candidates are seeking the nomination of the Democratic and Republican parties this weekend for the Michigan State University Board of Trustees.

As two board seats are vacated by Republicans trustees who aren't seeking re-election, eight people will compete at the Michigan Democratic Party's convention Saturday for two spots on the November ballot. 

Meanwhile, only two candidates — businessman Dave Dutch and  entrepreneur Mike Miller — are seeking the nominations from the Michigan Republican Party, which also meets Saturday for its convention.

Democrats have more to gain because the MSU board's current makeup is four Republicans and four Democrats, said Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger of the Ballenger Report. Chair Brian Breslin and Trustee Mitch Lyons, both Republicans,  whose eight-year terms are up, are not running for re-election. 

MSU historically has had a reliably Democratic board but Republicans won many seats across the state in 2010, including those two on the MSU board, said Ballenger.

If the Democrats win one of the two open seats in November, they will regain control of the board. But the wild card would be Vice Chair Joel Ferguson, who has worked both sides of the political aisle.

If Democrats win both seats, Democrats would have a solid majority on the MSU Board regardless of Ferguson, Ballenger said.

"Every seat (the Democrats) win is a plus for them," said Ballenger.

Of the Democratic candidates, Brianna Scott, an attorney based in Muskegon, and Kelly Tebay, a fundraiser for United Way of Southeast Michigan, have garnered the endorsements of the United Auto Workers, the Michigan Democratic Party Progressive Caucus and the Michigan AFL-CIO.   

Other Democratic candidates include businessman Justin Johnson, an MSU critic who has the support of the Michigan Federation of College Democrats; Teri Lyn Bernero, director of Promise Pathway and HOPE/Promise Scholar Programs and wife of former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero; Betsy Riley, a PhD candidate at MSU; Matt Clayson, an entrepreneur; Corinne Shoop, a civil attorney, and Andy Spencer, a scientist.

Dennis Denno, a pollster and Democratic consultant, also filed to run but announced this week on his Facebook page that he was dropping out. 

Until recently, politics has never been part of being on the board, said Trustee Brian Mosallam, a Democrat.

"It's important to note that historically these seats have been about as nonpartisan as they can get," said Mosallam. "It's extremely important both Democrats win in November because Democrats have shown more of the tone and tenor and platform for inclusion, especially as it relates being less hostile toward (Nassar) survivors." 

Dutch, one of the two Republican candidates, said the next MSU trustees should not be elected based on political party or ideology.

"We need to select trustees that understand the fiduciary responsibility of a board of trustees and have the experience and conviction to guide MSU through the next eight years," he said. "We need leaders that are comfortable making tough decisions and implementing cultural change at large organizations."

Interest is high because of the Nassar scandal, and the subsequent resignation of former President Lou Anna Simon and Athletic Director Mark Hollis, Ballenger said.

Earlier this year, some Nassar survivors and others felt that the entire board should have resigned. But trustees withstood the pressure and appointed Interim President John Engler, a former Republican governor who has stirred controversy with Nassar's victims for months.

At least one candidates has experienced sexual assault, while another has a child who was treated by Nassar.

Tebay, 31, revealed she was assaulted on campus when she was a freshman at MSU during the early 2000s.

"The current culture the students are experiencing, I lived it," she said. "It’s very personal to me."

Meanwhile, Miller said his daughter was treated by Nassar years ago but she hasn't called it a sexual assault.

"Because of the recent events, there are a lot of people who want to do their duty in public service and help the university," said Miller.

But they, like the other candidates, say they're running because of other issues too, such as keeping tuition affordable.

There is a need for diversity among the candidates, said Scott, who is an African American, and for someone with expertise to help the university navigate the Nassar scandal, oversee the $500 million settlement with more than 330 of his accusers, and work with victims and their families, Scott said.

"We have to have trustees that actually have some background and experience in litigation  -- and aren't afraid of saying things to John Engler," Scott said.

Trustee Dianne Byrum, a Democrat, said it was encouraging to see so many women who are interested in getting elected to the board.

"We need more women on the board; there are only two of us," said Byrum, referring to herself and Trustee Melanie Foster. "It would be more representative of the people of MIchigan."