Engler asks Schuette to pull name from endorsement list

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Attorney General Bill Schuette has removed John Engler’s name from a list of endorsements on his gubernatorial campaign website at the request of the Republican former governor who took over this week as Michigan State University’s interim president.

Engler “can’t be involved” in election-year politics as he helps MSU navigate continued fallout from the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, spokesman John Truscott said Wednesday.

“It’s important for people to know at the university that (Engler) will not be engaging in any partisan political activity,” Truscott told The Detroit News. “This is a very serious job with a lot of work ahead of him. He won’t be diverting any attention to political activity, but he knows he has to work with people of all political persuasions.”

Schuette’s office is investigating the university’s handling of complaints against Nassar, a former university and USA Gymnastics doctor accused of assaulting more than 200 women and girls. The attorney general announced on Jan. 27 his “ongoing investigation.”

The Midland Republican is running for governor and first touted Engler’s endorsement for the GOP primary on Sept. 25, citing comments Engler made to a reporter with the Gongwer subscription news service.

A spokeswoman confirmed the Schuette campaign complied with Engler’s request, pulling his name from an online endorsement list Wednesday morning.

“Given the ongoing investigations by the Michigan Legislature, the Congress, the NCAA, the U.S. Department of Education and the Independent Prosecutor into Michigan State's failure to deal with Larry Nassar's sexual assaults over a 20-year period, the campaign has removed the name of the MSU President from all materials,” Bridget Bush said in a statement.

Engler and Schuette are political veterans who battled together in the 1990 statewide election. Engler appointed Schuette as his agricultural department director after the former congressman gave up his seat in a losing bid for U.S. Senate.

Observers say their relationship now is now showing signs of strain. In a Monday letter, Engler told special prosecutor Bill Forsyth he was disappointed agents arrived on campus Friday with search warrants and “camera crews,” noting Schuette has said the investigation “is not to be ‘political.’”

The surprise visit was “very much at odds with the cooperation I have pledged,” Engler wrote, saying he hopes the camera crews were not part of any “investigation ‘media strategy.’”

Truscott said he first asked Schuette’s campaign to remove Engler’s name from the endorsement list over the weekend, requesting the former three-term governor should not be mentioned in any campaign materials moving forward.

Engler will “sit everything out” this election cycle, he said.

Liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan said Wednesday that Schuette should also return political contributions from Engler. Campaign finance records show Engler and his wife last year each donated $2,500 to Schuette.

Engler’s request to have his name removed from the endorsement list is “a shot across Schuette’s bow,” said Bill Ballenger, a longtime political pundit and who served in the state Legislature in the early 1970s as a Republican.

“I don’t think Schuette wants to be going forward in his campaign with John Engler, whether or not he’s interim MSU president, at odds with him and making statements like he’s made over the past few days.”

He said he is surprised that Schuette or Forsyth did not reach out to Engler prior to Friday’s raid to ask for the cooperation that the former governor has promised.

“He was really put out about that, or at least he’s saying he was put out,” Ballenger said.

TJ Bucholz, a Democratic strategist who worked as a communications director for the Michigan Department of Education under Engler, said it makes sense for the former governor to distance himself from Schuette’s campaign to reduce any questions over political motives.

“John Engler is not a wall flower, and neither is Bill Schuette,” Bucholz said. “I think the public line on that is probably accurate, but I also think there’s probably a degree of animosity (over the campus raid) as well.”

The MSU Board of Trustees unanimously appointed Engler to the interim position last week after the resignation of former President Lou Anna Simon. Students and faculty have protested the pick, many citing Engler’s political background.

Former Gov. Jim Blanchard, a Democrat who lost to Engler in the 1990 general election, is expected to serve as a senior adviser to Engler at MSU. They are still working out Blanchard’s role and “may have something to announce next week,” Truscott said.

Schuette is competing for the GOP gubernatorial nomination against Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines. He also has been endorsed by President Donald Trump and been supported by Vice President Mike Pence, whose political action committee donated to Schuette’s campaign.