Will ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ Land This Michigander in the Governor’s Mansion?
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Bill Schuette’s attorney general activism was just a warm-up for his bid for governor.
As a young congressional candidate in the 1980s, Bill Schuette poured countless cups of coffee at campaign events, which “got people to say hello when they might otherwise have ignored me,” he later wrote in his autobiography. He’ll need something stronger to perk up his chances to become Michigan’s governor this year, with a toxically unpopular outgoing Republican governor and strong national midterm headwinds. But don’t discount the ability of this wily, three-decade institution in state politics to find the mood of the moment — including a sharp pivot on health care in recent days.
Schuette’s record as attorney general, leading up to this pivotal governor’s race against Democrat and former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, is instructive. His office made national headlines for its pursuit of Larry Nassar, the disgraced Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics team physician, and subsequent investigation of MSU’s handling of sexual abuse allegations against Nassar. And Schuette, 64, aggressively prosecuted public officials in the wake of the Flint water crisis, charging two members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s cabinet and around a dozen lower-ranking officials. Even as Snyder allies crow about politically motivated “show trials,” Schuette touts his prosecutorial accomplishments as evidence he’ll speak truth to power as governor of the Great Lake State.
“The political[ly expedient] thing would have been to do nothing and slink away,” says Schuette of his Flint prosecutions, “but that’s not how I play.”
The most consequential and controversial actions of Schuette’s seven-year tenure reached well beyond Michigan’s borders. Twice, Schuette defied Snyder — who planned to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency — to join multiple state attorneys general in lawsuits against Obama administration power plant regulations. Just this month, he signed onto a brief that challenges a federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil and calls into question the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity contributes to global climate change. Schuette says he’s striking a balance between business and environmental protection; opponents say he’s deep in big polluters’ pockets.
In Lansing, his ability to stay on message and read the political tea leaves is legendary.
“Bill Schuette has been not just a player but a leader among state attorneys general in fighting environmental regulation,” says Mary Brady-Enerson, executive director of Michigan Clean Water Action. Only Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who became President Donald Trump’s EPA administrator, was a greater foe of Obama-era environmental regulation, says Brady-Enerson.
Schuette’s pro-business proclivity can be traced to his upbringing in Midland, Michigan, home of the Dow Chemical Company (now DowDuPont). Schuette’s early life reads like a gilt-edged Norman Rockwell scene set in a company town made prosperous by a global manufacturer of plastics, pesticides and fuels. His biological father sat on Dow’s board for two years before his untimely death; his stepfather served as its chairman for more than a decade.
As a politically inclined child of privilege in a Republican stronghold, Schuette had plenty of help. His first mentor — and employer — was Margaret Ann “Ranny” Riecker, a neighbor who sat on the Republican National Committee and advised two Michigan governors. He grew up down the street from longtime U.S. Rep. Dave Camp, who spent four years in Schuette’s congressional office prior to taking over Schuette’s Midland-area seat in 1991. He chauffeured for then-candidate George H.W. Bush during the 1980 Republican primary and was a three-time Republican National Convention delegate before his 30th birthday.
Schuette’s success is his own though. In Lansing, his ability to stay on message and read the political tea leaves is legendary; even his most bitter opponents praise his raw political talent. “I hold his political skills in the highest regard,” says longtime Michigan political consultant Joe DiSano, a Democrat. DiSano describes a “30-year evolution from country club Republican to social warrior” that mirrors shifts in the GOP base.
Schuette’s biggest political miscalculation, a 1990 landslide loss to incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, came during his “country club” phase. For months, the outcome seemed foreordained to everyone but Schuette, who left his U.S. House seat to enter the race despite his stepfather’s protestations, and later took out bank loans to shore up his flailing campaign. The ordeal seriously damaged Schuette’s relationship with his stepfather and left him in a deep financial hole. When it was over, “I wondered if there was a road back,” he wrote in his 2015 autobiography.
Apparently, there was. It started when he was named director of the state agriculture department, continued to the state senate, the state court of appeals as a judge and, after a brief stint in the private sector, the attorney general’s office in 2010. Since the Levin debacle, he’s been undefeated at the ballot box.
The governor’s race will test that record, especially considering Michigan’s top law enforcement official may have legal troubles of his own. Filings made public this May show that Schuette used multiple state employees to facilitate the sale of four inherited U.S. Virgin Islands properties. At the prompting of Lansing-area attorney Mike Nichols, Ingham County prosecutor Carol Siemon referred the matter to the FBI. Governor Snyder called the referral “serious” and urged a “thorough investigation without any undue influence.”
Michigan Republican Party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson says “the idea that [Schuette] somehow abused state resources for personal gain is simply ludicrous.” Schuette strategist John Sellek points out that Nichols and Siemon co-hosted a Whitmer fundraiser, questioning their motives. The Ingham County Circuit Court later declined a separate request for a grand jury investigation, but the specter of an FBI investigation — which the bureau hasn’t confirmed or denied — hangs over the campaign.
Meanwhile, Schuette is focusing on what he does best: After running close to Trump in the GOP primary, he’s calibrating his message for a possible swing from his southeast Michigan electorate ahead of November. “The Republican Party has to earn it out there in these suburban districts,” he says. “We need to talk like people,” rather than “saying, ‘Well, GDP went up again.’” On the campaign trail, Schuette emphasizes local issues — such as reforming Michigan’s expensive no-fault auto insurance regime and improving its flagging schools — on which there’s bipartisan consensus that something must be done. “[Republicans] ought to be the party of education; America is a shining city on the hill, but if you can’t read the directions to get there, it’s pretty dark,” he says. On Wednesday, Schuette countered a potent Democratic attack line by unexpectedly dropping his opposition to Snyder’s state Medicaid expansion and promising to “make it better.”
Recent polling shows Whitmer with a comfortable lead, and the Republican Governors Association recently dialed back ad buys in Detroit and Grand Rapids amid concern over Schuette’s viability. But Trump shocked everyone by winning here in 2016, and he has endorsed Schuette. The race remains a critical test of whether Republicans can solidify their hold on the upper Midwest, behind a man who knows how to shift with the times.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the court where Schuette served as a judge. He served on on Michigan’s Court of Appeals, not the Michigan Supreme Court.
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