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Labor declines to endorse two controversial incumbents for MSU, WSU boards

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Two incumbents seeking re-election to the governing boards of Michigan State and Wayne State universities failed to get the endorsement of the Michigan AFL-CIO for the 2020 election. 

Joel Ferguson, who has served on the MSU Board of Trustees since 1986, and Sandra Hughes O'Brien, who has served on the WSU Board of Governors since 2013, did not get the endorsement of the state's influential statewide federation of labor unions, which announced its recommended candidates Wednesday.

Joel Ferguson

The AFL-CIO endorsed Rema Vassar, an educator and researcher, along with incumbent Trustee Brian Mosallam for the Michigan State board. For the Wayne State board, the labor organization endorsed incumbent Shirley Stancato and Eva Garza Dewaelsche, president and CEO of SER Metro-Detroit Jobs for Progress, a workforce development organization in southwest Detroit.

Both Ferguson and Hughes O'Brien are high-profile Democrats who have been involved in controversial issues.

Among contentious issues for MSU's Ferguson were his nationally reported comments during the Larry Nassar scandal that the university had other concerns beyond "that Nassar thing." 

Hughes O'Brien has been a leading voice in a faction of the Wayne State board that has worked to remove WSU President M. Roy Wilson and was the subject of a report that said she allegedly has intervened in daily operations of the university. 

She said that her work on behalf of the university is about holding officials accountable, which is very different from reasons why Ferguson has been a lightening rod in the Nassar scandal. 

She was disappointed about the AFL-CIO not endorsing her, but said she is not worried. She said she didn't get the endorsement of The Detroit News or Free Press when she ran in 2012 but went on to get the Democratic Party's nomination and won with more votes than then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney. She became WSU's first board member of Latino heritage.

"I have served on the WSU Board of Governors for the past eight years, and I will be aggressively pursuing the party’s nomination to continue to serve on the board," O'Brien said.

Ferguson, who recently joined Twitter and announced he was seeking a fourth term, emphasized that the Democratic nominating convention is not until August.

"August is quite a ways away," Ferguson said. "The convention is made up a cross section of people."

WSU board member Sandra Hughes O'Brien

In other races, the labor organization announced that it endorsed the two incumbents seeking reelection on the University of Michigan Board of Regents, Mark Bernstein and Shauna Ryder Diggs.

The AFL-CIO said in a statement that the endorsements represent the support of more than 50 affiliate unions and constituency groups, which represent more than 1 million active and retired members in Michigan. 

"Together we can once again build a prosperous economy where we all have a fair shot at the American dream, and that starts with education," said Ron Bieber, Michigan AFL-CIO president. "Every one of these candidates will work to build an education system that lifts up students from preschool through higher education. We're proud to back all of them, and we'll do everything we can to support them through the election and their terms in office."