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When it comes to taking a stand, timing matters

Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Senate Democrats
Gretchen Whitmer was Ingham County prosecutor during the investigation into Larry Nassar's alleged abuse of scores of young gymnasts.

For more than a year, the sexual assault scandal at Michigan State University has been simmering in the background, a ticking time bomb that was certain to explode with devastating consequences for the university.

That this would have a political dimension was also certain.

When Dr. Larry Nassar’sbehavior finally became public, Bill Schuette, the likely Republican nominee for governor next year, was Michigan attorney general. Gretchen Whitmer, the likely Democratic nominee, was serving a stint as interim prosecutor in Ingham County -- which handles crimes at MSU. 

Last week, I reported that some top Democrats were uneasy. Schuette may have taken too long to move to stop the physician who may have sexually abused scores of female athletes. But Whitmer filed no charges against him at all.

She later told me that her office had indeed been working hard to get the evidence to convict Nassar. But the decision had been made that the attorney general should file any charges because the crimes occurred in more than one county.

That may make common sense, but that’s not the same as political sense. Sure enough, there’s now a squabble between the MSU police chief and Whitmer, who denies his claim that she didn’t want to move forward on the sexual assault cases.

I’m not going to try to sort this out, except to say this isn’t good for Whitmer. Politically, she ought to have moved to charge Nassar, with considerable fanfare and a loud public commitment to keep our children safe. Now, every politician occasionally mishandles an issue. Schuette alienated moderate voters with a mean-spirited, incompetent attempt a few years ago to prevent two saintly gay nurses from adopting some special needs children.

But some are wondering if this is a symptom of a much bigger problem for Whitmer. She has been largely reluctant to take a stand on a number of issues.

Speaker of the House Tom Leonard, who is running for the GOP nomination for Michigan attorney general, grabbed headlines earlier this week when he called on MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign, something that seems inevitable.

Whitmer, a woman with two degrees from Michigan State, could have owned that issue by calling for Simon’s resignation first. Or, if she thought there was a compelling case for defending MSU’s first female president, she could have done that too.

But she hasn’t taken any position. Back in September, Kriste Etue, the director of the Michigan State Police, indicated on Facebook that she thought that NFL players who “take a knee” during the national anthem are degenerates. There were loud calls for her resignation by many Democrats and virtually the entire African-American political establishment.

Whitmer said nothing. Last month, we learned that more maggots had been found in Michigan prison food, which is now being supplied by a second private contractor. I expected Whitmer to have a press conference that day with union officials, and announce she would end this ghastly privatization experiment as governor.

Instead, she said and did nothing. This doesn’t look like leadership. We have a state with a lot of problems and discredited leaders, and I think voters are looking for someone with the guts to take bold stands.

We saw what happens to Democrats who don’t in the election last year.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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