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John Engler's challenge

Former Governor John Engler

Twenty-seven years ago, Jim Blanchard and State Senate Majority Leader John Englerran against each other in one of the most dramatic gubernatorial elections in Michigan history. Blanchard, the incumbent, was heavily favored. But in the biggest upset in state political history, John Engler won a narrow victory and went on to serve three terms.

Last week, more than a quarter-century later, both men once again were competitors for the same job – this time, for who would get to be the interim president of Michigan State University. Both are alums and both went on to considerable success after life in Lansing.

Once again, Engler “won,” if you can call it that; he will be the interim president. This time, however, there’s no bitterness on Blanchard’s part; he told his old rival yesterday that he would be willing to help in any way he could, though reports he had been given an official role as “senior advisor” were wrong.

Blanchard, however, is a partner in a major law firm in the nation’s capital, is better connected there than Engler, and may well be able to help with whatever dimensions of the sex abuse scandal become a national issue, especially where Congress is involved.

However, the spotlight and the pressure will now be on John Engler. Frankly, I didn’t expect this appointment, and originally thought it a bad idea.

Engler was a polarizing figure as governor, widely seen as the most right-wing chief executive Michigan has had in modern times. Rachel Denhollander and several other victims of Larry Nassar’s sexual abusereacted with dismay to the news of Engler’s appointment.

But it also should be noted that Engler was one of the most effective governors Michigan has ever had, especially in getting his agenda enacted. He was far more successful, in fact, than either of his successors, Jennifer Granholm or Rick Snyder.

This was certainly due in part to the fact that Engler, back in those pre-term limits days, had served in the Legislature for 20 years before becoming governor. He knew the system, he knew the players, and he knew how to get things done. If he can make those qualities work for him at Michigan State, he may indeed be the right choice.

A few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was talking to a Russian journalist I knew about Boris Yeltsin, the temperamental, brash, and alcoholic leader who took over after the fall of Communism. “He was necessary,” my colleague said. “He was our demolition man.”

Michigan State now needs a demolition man to blow apart the insular culture of cover up that led to this scandal. I do worry that Engler may have gotten this job though an alliance with Joel Ferguson and the athletics-at-all cost faction on the now-discredited MSU Board of Trustees.

While he indeed was a master at wielding the levers of power in the Capitol Dome, university politics and governance are something else entirely, and Engler has been out of Lansing for more than a decade. But we all need him to be successful.

Forget politics: This state and, frankly, the U of M, needs a vibrant, healthy and transparent MSU, and I mean as a university, not a collection of sports teams.

Let’s hope John Engler can start the heavy lifting needed to get there.

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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