The Larry Nassar Case Complicates Michigan Politics

Both front-runners for the open governor race helped prosecute the case against the convicted sex offender.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette
AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
Feb. 7, 2018, 8 p.m.

Former Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing to no less than 100 years in prison on sexual-assault and child-pornography charges continues to dominate conversation in Michigan, as public attention has turned to the school where Nassar abused athletes, Michigan State University.

But as both parties gear up for a competitive governor race that has implications for redistricting, candidates and their allies are accusing their opponents of politicizing the scandal. The political implications are doubly consequential as the candidates seeking higher office helped prosecute the case against Nassar.

On Wednesday, the investigation cost Bill Schuette, the front-runner for the GOP nomination to replace term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder, the endorsement of former Republican Gov. John Engler. As interim MSU president, Engler asked Schuette over the weekend to remove his name from his campaign website in an attempt to remain nonpartisan, according to The Detroit News.

“I don’t know how this is going to play out,” Michigan Republican strategist Stu Sandler, who helped form a PAC to support Schuette, said of the Nassar scandal. “But I can tell you voters—people in Michigan—are watching this right now.”

Schuette, a former congressman, announced last month that in his capacity as attorney general his office had since last year been investigating “systemic issues with sexual misconduct” at MSU.

Democrats and Republicans alike have accused Schuette of using the investigation for political gain. Engler’s spokesman told local media that a high-profile raid last week for evidence on MSU’s campus was “a political stunt rather than an actual law enforcement action.”

“We’ve tried to make this as black-and-white as possible and tried not to inject politics into it,” Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said. “Unfortunately, others have.”

Mike Schrimpf, a spokesman for Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s campaign, said Wednesday that Schuette was “undermining the public’s trust by dodging questions about conflicts related to the Larry Nassar investigation,” citing lead prosecutor William Forsyth and Schuette’s previous support from MSU donor Peter Secchia. MSU football coach Mark Dantonio also wrote the foreword in Schuette’s 2015 book, Big Lessons from a Small Town.

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic front-runner, said in an interview Tuesday that she agreed the media presence at the raid was “certainly unusual.” One of Whitmer’s primary opponents, Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar, said in an interview Tuesday he does not expect “a fair investigation” from the “Republican candidate.”

Whitmer said the severity of the sentence against Nassar “speaks for” the integrity of Schuette’s prosecution. But she echoed Republicans’ concerns and repeated her call for an independent investigation by state Michigan police.

“He is working for a man who is running for governor,” Whitmer said of Forsyth, “and that could call into question the findings.”

Whitmer, who in 2016 filed search warrants of Nassar’s home when she was an interim prosecutor in Lansing-anchored Ingham County, recalled authorities finding hard drives with child pornography “in the garbage at the end of his driveway … on pickup day.”

But her involvement in the case could also be a liability: Republicans point to MSU Police Chief Jim Dunlap’s accusation in The Detroit News that Whitmer hesitated in prosecuting Nassar on assault charges. Whitmer says the decision was jurisdictional given crimes committed in neighboring Eaton County, and that Schuette and U.S. Attorney Patrick Miles were better equipped to prosecute the case. She told Bridge Magazine last month that it was Dunlap who decided to take the police report to Schuette and that she would not have been able to press charges without it.

Nevertheless, Thanedar, a largely self-funded candidate, called for Whitmer to drop out of the race over her decision not to prosecute. Another candidate, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, told The Washington Post that Whitmer’s performance as prosecutor raises “big questions about whether she was willing to take a politically difficult stand that would have put a predator behind bars.”

“She hasn’t acted,” Thanedar said. “We need a leader that can act for people, and all I have seen from her is grandstanding.”

Michigan Democratic consultant Joe DiSano, however, said those who attempt to blame Whitmer for Nassar “should be ashamed” given Whitmer’s own status as a rape survivor when she was an MSU freshman.

“To suggest she would provide cover for a monster like Larry Nassar is absolutely ridiculous,” DiSano said.

The political impact could cause ripples down-ballot. Michigan State Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Breslin and fellow trustee Mitch Lyons said they won’t seek reelection this year. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who sentenced Nassar on sexual-assault charges, told the Lansing State Journal that admirers approached her about running for state Supreme Court.

And Miles, the Obama-appointed U.S. attorney who charged Nassar with possession of child pornography, is running for the Democratic nomination to replace Schuette, who is term-limited.

“I think it’s important for voters to know about my experience as U.S. attorney,” Miles said in an interview Wednesday, “and certainly part of that was the conviction of Larry Nassar.”

While Nassar’s case is in the headlines, Democrats in the state were hesitant to predict how large a role it would play in the race.

“Everybody’s looking at this situation wondering if it’s [Jerry] Sandusky all over again,” said one Michigan Democratic strategist, in reference to the 2012 conviction of the former Penn State football coach on sexual-abuse charges.

Shortly after his 2014 election loss, then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett said debunked allegations that he slow-walked Sandusky’s child sex-abuse case for political purposes were “additional coal” on the fire of opposition that helped elect Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Corbett recalled in a recent interview with PA Matters that at least one Penn State fan accosted the Republican at the supermarket to brag after his loss that “we got you.”

“Certainly there was that impact,” Corbett said.

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