John Engler in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Updated, 2:33 p.m., 10/13/22
The last time GOP former Gov. John Engler had a significant role in Michigan was during a tumultuous year leading Michigan State University in the aftermath of the Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal, when he became a top adversary of survivors and their families.
Engler resigned as MSU’s interim president in January 2019, just before the Board of Trustees was expected to fire him, after repeatedly tangling with Nassar survivors, including saying that he believed they were “enjoying the spotlight.”
But Engler, who served three terms as governor and went on to several prominent business roles in Washington, D.C., has still kept a hand in Michigan Republican politics. In August 2021, he started a political action committee (PAC) to support former Detroit Police Chief James Craig’s GOP bid for governor. After Craig’s candidacy faltered, Engler went on to endorse Tudor Dixon, who won the GOP nomination and will face Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 8.
Now Engler is playing a new role. The Advance has confirmed with Dixon’s campaign that he is helping her prepare to debate Whitmer. The candidates will square off for the first time at 7 p.m. Thursday and again on Oct. 25.
Engler’s involvement has angered some survivor advocates.
“I don’t follow politics. … But that doesn’t help [Dixon] in any way, I can tell you that, and it probably speaks to the caliber of what the debate will be. Because he is — he’s disgusting,” said Lisa Santilli Lorincz, mother of survivor Kaylee Lorincz.
“If you want to be summed up by your position, your stance, you don’t have to look further than who you surround yourself with, who you take advice from. Is that the type of leader that [Dixon] wants to be?”
Nassar pleaded guilty in 2017 to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct and admitted to using his trusted medical position to assault young women athletes under the guise of medical treatment. He was subsequently sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison.
Engler’s actions as interim MSU president drew widespread criticism — not just from survivors, 120 of whom wrote a June 2018 letter saying he “failed miserably” and must be fired — but also from then-gubernatorial candidate Whitmer, many lawmakers and members of the MSU Board of Trustees.
At one point, Engler told the Detroit News editorial board that Nassar survivors were “enjoying the spotlight” while the university is “trying to go back to work.” He also dismissed a report from an attorney general special independent counsel accusing MSU of stonewalling an investigation into Nassar’s abuse of more than 500* young girls, shut down the possibility of more Nassar investigations at MSU and shuttered MSU’s fund for helping victims.
“That sums up who [Dixon] wants to be, who she wants to emulate and who she admires. And is that what we want?” said Santilli Lorincz.
The university has gone through several leaders and controversies in the years since. The latest involves MSU President Samuel Stanley Jr., who tendered his resignation Thursday after being publicly at odds with the Board of Trustees over the ousting of a college dean related to Title IX cases.
The Democratic-majority board has been heavily criticized by survivors and various groups for failing to make reforms and increase transparency. In 2021, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel had to close her office’s probe into MSU and the Nassar scandal after university officials repeatedly refused to turn over documents.
Engler was governor of Michigan from 1991 to 2003. He was tapped as MSU’s interim president in January 2018 and now primarily lives in Texas.
“Since he left MSU, you have not seen [much] of him, and for good reason. That tells you that the majority of people, regardless of party, did not appreciate the way that he handled things,” said Santilli Lorincz. “ … There isn’t much that really turns my stomach as much as he does.”
Santilli Lorincz and her daughter had more interactions with Engler than many survivors during his 2018 tenure. At one point, Kaylee Lorincz said Engler tried to coerce her into settling for $250,000 during a meeting.
Engler denied the accusation, insisting that he was instead engaging in a “philosophical discussion” about an acceptable settlement amount.
“The lying about my daughter … like, how low is too low? That’s the demeanor that he will convey to [Dixon],” Santilli Lorincz said. “And I had no opinion about [Dixon], really … but this just, this just does it. And it will for a lot of people.”
Dixon has made gender issues the cornerstone of her campaign, vowing to sign a bill to ban trans athletes in school sports in an effort to “protect girls sports,” amid other anti-LGBTQ+ proposals. In contrast, Whitmer, a sexual assault survivor, supports LGBTQ+ rights. Her campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Dixon spokesperson Sara Broadwater also did not return a request for comment, including an inquiry about whether Dixon had any concerns about working with Engler given her platform on girls in sports.
Valerie von Frank, the mother of Nassar survivor Grace French and founder of the POSSE group for parents of sister survivors, told the Advance that Engler’s involvement with Dixon’s campaign is “unfortunate.”
She is speaking on behalf of herself and not POSSE, which she stresses includes people of “all political stripes.”
But personally, von Frank said, “I think it’s unfortunate that anyone who might hold power in the state would be involved with a man who treated women who were obviously victims in such a deplorable way through the MSU case. The way he treated the survivors was absolutely horrible and re-traumatizing for many.
“ … He never was in any way helpful to women. And I think it’s not a good look for a woman to be involved with such a person,” she said.
Von Frank recalled that, in addition to offering $250,000 to Kaylee Lorincz, Engler had also accused Rachael Denhollander — the first Nassar survivor to go public — of getting kickbacks from attorneys involved in lawsuits against MSU.
She then brought up Engler’s willingness to help Dixon in contrast with his unwillingness to cooperate with Nessel when she requested to speak with him after his resignation as part of her investigation.
“I think it’s really interesting that he can spend this time in Michigan doing this work when he had absolutely no time when the attorney general asked to meet with him to talk about circumstances regarding the MSU case,” Von Frank said. “And he actively avoided even being in the state.
“ … I just think it’s interesting. He can appear here and do that work, [but] couldn’t be bothered to appear with the MSU case to answer a few of the attorney general’s questions that might have helped to shed light on what was going on at MSU when he held the primary office there for a year.”
ReclaimMSU, one of the foremost survivor advocate organizations at the university, declined to comment about Engler’s involvement with the Dixon campaign.
“We made our position on Engler abundantly clear in a petition and also commented on his reported unwillingness to consider an apology or other non-monetary provisions in the MSU settlement,” the group said in a Twitter direct message.
Santilli Lorincz said Dixon’s choice to have him involved in Dixon’s campaign “speaks to somebody’s character.”
“If that’s what she wants to set as her model to aspire for, then we don’t need to know much more,” she said. “That sums up who [Dixon] wants to be, who she wants to emulate and who she admires. And is that what we want?”
After Engler tendered his Democratic-blaming resignation and the MSU Board of Trustees accepted it, Lorincz cried tears of joy at the 2019 board meeting while explaining how Engler had “put us [survivors] through so much” even after Nassar’s sentencing.
“That healing process never started for me because the constant harmful words and actions from [Engler] — it just constantly set me back,” she said. “And I feel like now I can finally take that step forward and start to heal, and I am so ready for that.”
Santilli Lorincz told the Advance that anything having to do with Engler is “the most triggering” for her, while “it’s very up there with Kaylee, just under Larry [Nassar].”
She said that voters should connect the dots between Engler and Dixon to make an informed vote.
“With the general population with respect to Nassar … there is a populace that is tired of it, but it’s just reality. It’s real. It happened,” Santilli Lorincz said. “And you need to make those connections if you’re going to make an informed vote. And yes, I don’t see it helping [Dixon], but it needs to be made known that that’s the choice that she made.”
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