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Engler is back and playing offense in Lansing

People who remember, remember Republican John Engler as a blunt, pugnacious governor. And, before that, the same as state Senate majority leader.

Engler, who was named interim president of Michigan State University earlier this year, brought that style back with him last week in an appearance before a legislative budget subcommittee.

He was there to ask for money for Michigan State University. But he came ready to fight over a package of bills that would make it easier for sexual assault victims to file lawsuits against universities.

Engler told lawmakers that they are getting in the way of settling the multitude of lawsuits filed against MSU by Nassar victims. And, along the way, he tangled with lawmakers, the ESPN sports network, and attorneys representing Nassar victims.

ESPN has reported on allegations of sexual misconduct in MSU’s sports programs. Engler reminded people that ESPN’s being sued for sexual misconduct.

He also told lawmakers they could end up forcing up tuition at MSU and other universities by changing the rules for filing sexual abuse lawsuits. And he took aim at bills to change the statute of limitations to file legal actions. The measures would allow for retroactive lawsuits and narrow the grounds that universities can use to claim governmental immunity.

Engler basically took on any and all adversaries – including when he suggested that the Legislature was being used by trial lawyers.

His comments did not sit well with state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton. “I thought that was insulting to the victims out there," Schuitmaker said. "If you’ve talked to any of these victims, I think they are not bringing this as a result of California trial lawyers. Certainly I think every individual and victim out there deserves to be represented.” 

His appearance was a stark contrast to the typical deference of lobbyists and officials who show up to plead their case before lawmakers.

Engler was a political legend for unseating a Democratic incumbent in the 1990 race for governor and for re-inventing Michigan’s school funding system by basically winning a game of political chicken.

Engler was controversially brought in by the MSU Board of Trustees to navigate the school’s rehabilitation from the Larry Nassar scandal. Political watchers in Lansing are now transfixed by the return of Engler and whether he’s up to the challenge.

Engler’s been gone from Lansing for 15 years. That’s two governors ago. The Republicans who remember Engler for guiding the Michigan GOP out of the political wilderness are no longer serving in the Legislature.

Current members who did not come up under Engler’s tutelage - who didn’t grow up with the legend - are less than impressed.

But remember, this is where he started out. Engler went to the Legislature straight out of college. And then to the governor’s office.

He’s figuring he still knows the Capitol and how it operates as well or better than its current occupants.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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