Michigan's Gov. John Engler grew up in a Catholic family of nine on a farm near the small town of Beal City, Mich. He was elected the state's chief executive on a strong pro-life plank in November 1990. He is currently running for a third term against Geoffrey Fieger, a long-time attorney for Jack Kevorkian. Under Engler, Michigan has passed a law to allow more educational choice and has opened more than 100 new charter schools. His tenure has also produced a parental-consent requirement, and a late-term abortion ban. Most recently, Engler signed a ban on assisted suicide. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Kate Ernsting.
Personal: Age 49; married to Michelle Engler; father of three-and-a-half-year-old triplet daughters: Hannah, Madeleine, and Margaret; parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing, Mich.
Background: Two-term Republican governor; at 22 (1970), became the youngest state representative ever elected — the first in a series of nine straight election victories; elected to the State Senate in 1978, and later made Senate majority leader.
Achievements: Abortions in Michigan have decreased by 40% during the past decade, and teen pregnancies have dropped by 25%; student performance on nationalized tests is up more than 10%; Michigan ranks first in the nation in new factories, independence in welfare, adoption of abused and neglected children, and in tax reductions.
Ernsting: Michigan has been a battleground for the assisted suicide issue during the last few years. Jack Kevorkian is nationally known because he has helped more than 100 people commit suicide. Previous attempts to prosecute him have failed. In July, you signed into law a new assisted-suicide ban. Please tell us about it.
Engler: We think it will be very effective. Those who are assisting someone to commit suicide — who are preying on the innocent — this law will put out of business. And specifically, that would be Dr. Kevorkian.
So you expect this law to stem the threat posed by Kevorkian and those like him?
The penal code has been amended and a felony established for assisting in a suicide…. The law is written to address the legal objections that had been raised about previous legislation that had been struck down. Michigan has a common law prohibition against assisted suicide, but the difficulty has been to communicate to juries what that means in practice. So, now a prosecutor will be able to point to the [written] law.
This ban passed both houses of the legislature with substantial bipartisan support…. I think we are appalled that Michigan has become, with Dr. Kevorkian, a national site for people wishing to end their lives.
You helped negotiate enactment of this law.
Yes. I support this law and have also been involved in other legislative efforts to end assisted suicide. With this one, we had the votes to pass the measure, but we were short of having two-thirds of the vote to make it effective immediately. So at the end of the legislative session we were able to get an agreement that it would become effective Sept. 1. Otherwise, it wouldn't become effective until next April.
Every month that goes by we are more at risk and — more importantly — vulnerable people are at risk.
A local assisted-suicide advocacy group, Merian's Friends, has successfully placed an initiative to legalize assisted suicide on the November ballot. If approved, this proposal would nullify the ban.
Very simply, what the ballot proposal does is legalize Jack Kevorkian's suicide plan. It even allows people from out of state to continue to come to Michigan if they can show any connection to anybody inside Michigan.
I understand that the Merian's Friends' initiative would effectively preempt the medical examiner from investigating an assisted suicide.
It uses a politically appointed taxpayer-funded group of citizens to give a review — and I think that is a very dubious provision.
Recently it was reported that abortions in Michigan have decreased by 40% and teen pregnancies by 25%. To what do you attribute these trends?
I'm pleased by this very substantial decline. To talk about it, let me separate the two. The decline in teen pregnancies is also accompanied by a substantial decline in teen birth rates. The birth rate has come down among 15- to 19-year-olds some 21%, and only three states — Alaska, Maine, and Vermont — have shown a greater decline. It is very clear that the educational message of abstinence is working. The message we are giving is of abstinence — period.
Is it a message you are promoting in Michigan's schools?
We want the message in the schools, but there's also a public campaign we have sponsored with ads praising abstinence. Everywhere that we can in terms of public utterances from state officials and leaders, we are saying that one of the biggest mistakes a teen can make is to become pregnant. There's nothing they can do that will more surely reduce their ability later in life to enjoy the kind of lifestyle they would like than to have a child as a teen.
In terms of protecting the lives of the unborn, I think we have established certain priorities. Under the leadership of my lieutenant governor, Connie Binsfield, we have reformed our adoption laws to make that much easier in the state. We've made “adoption the better option.” We have really tried to stress that if someone does find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy there is that option — that there are so many childless couples in our state who are just praying to have an opportunity to raise that child.
How does your Catholic faith help you personally? What do you derive from it that assists you in your role as governor?
It's a source of great strength for me, for Michelle, my wife, and for our family. We both learned this growing up. We have always found that our belief in God — our faith — is something that we can rely on. It puts a perspective on whatever you are doing.
Even if you are the governor of a state, it pales in comparison to the eternal truths.
Do you have any new perspective on your faith and God's nature since the birth of your triplet daughters?
I'll tell you one of the things that has struck me. I think it is possible to maybe glimpse the meaning of what it is for everyone to have their own unique soul when you see three daughters, born on the same day, within the same womb — and now see them as they are three-and-a-half years old, growing up in the same environment all of their lives, yet each of them unique and different, with likes and dislikes, and thought processes that are just their own.
There's nothing that was done to develop one in one way and one in another. They're just a gift from God — unique little people.
In exit polls conducted after the Aug. 4 primary, Michigan voters cited education of their children as their most important issue. You've supported educational choice since you became governor. Please comment on your efforts to improve educational opportunities in the state.
Michigan has a very firm constitutional ban against public dollars assisting non-public or private schools. Rather than engaging in a campaign to change that, I put my focus on creating as much opportunity through choice and competition as possible in the traditional public school system.
We now have more than 100 charter schools — the third greatest number in the country. We have students attending school districts next door or across town, that are different and fit their individual needs for an education program better. It's what the parents and the students want. This is sending a message to every school that, just as happens in our community college and university system, when the student and parent have a choice, schools are working to satisfy the customer. I'm seeing school reform efforts undertaken in schools that have been resistant for years.
I've always felt that we had a lot of talented teachers, and if they were unleashed to teach, if some of the distractions were cleared away — such as a violent student, a bureaucratic lack of priority, or something outside the school — that we could do very well. Gradually, we are winning a lot of converts among public school teachers who say, “We understand what's going on now.”
The Republican Party has a pro-life platform, but there is pressure from some quarters to not only include people who are pro-abortion, but to change the pro-life stance of the platform. Do you think that will happen? Do you think the idea of appealing to more voters justifies changing the platform?
I think there's a difference. There are Republicans who have very different opinions on issues like abortion. That doesn't mean they're not Republicans. Just as some Democrats have gone against their party's platform and been very anti-abortion. [Outgoing State Sen.] Mike Griffin from Jackson is one, he has been a great Democratic legislator over the years. [Former] Gov. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania is another. Now, it may mean that Bob Casey doesn't get invited to speak at the Democratic convention, but it doesn't mean that he's not a Democrat.
In the Republican Party, since we only have two main parties in the country, you are going to have some differences. There are some Republicans who are more economic-oriented, some who are almost libertarian. We have had a debate within the party about drugs, and have had very prominent Republicans who have basically tossed in the towel on the drug fight, saying, “Look, let's just legalize them.” I don't mean to equate these things with the [pro-life part of the platform], but obviously, drugs take lives, too.
I don't think we are applying a litmus test and saying, “You can't be Republican.” I know there was a debate at the National Republican Committee a few months back, where folks proposed that we deny funding to [candidates] who have a position on abortion different than the platform. [Michigan State Republican Chairwoman] Betsy DeVos did not support that, and she is strongly pro-life.
We had three “no” votes to that proposal from Michigan. That is based on the fact that, as this debate goes on, you want to be able to do some persuading and arguing, and you want to be able to talk to people and say, “Will you take a look at this issue?” For instance, I think that the partial-birth abortion issue has caused a lot of people to rethink what had been absolute positions on the abortion issue.
Do you think people are turning around and going against abortion-on-demand when they hear the facts about partial-birth abortion?
They begin to realize what's going on. I mean, our girls were born at 35 weeks. You know, multiple births often come earlier. Like those remarkable septuplets out in Iowa. At the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, what they can do in terms of saving a two-pound baby is extraordinary. It's hard to imagine — as a father of what were very tiny infants — how in one room we're going through heroic efforts to save, and in the next room we're killing, babies of the same age.
Do you foresee the Republican Party changing its platform?
Every four years it's a completely different set of people who participate. But if the presidential candidate, for example, comes in and says, “I want a change,” that candidate would be talking to delegates who would have been elected before [the nomination].
It's going to be the grassroots, and I don't see the party platform changing very much.
Geoffrey Fieger, Jack Kevorkian's former lawyer, was nominated by Democrats to oppose you this November. Will your election strategy change because of the reputation of your opponent?
We're not going to change our campaign. Of course we are going to work very hard to reach out to Democrats who are simply going to be unable to support somebody who, I think, lacks the ethics necessary to be governor. I think this is the first time we have someone running who has been cited by the state courts for unethical behavior in the practice of law.
For somebody like me, who is Catholic, or even for any person of faith, whether Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, it is hard to imagine somebody who refers to Cardinal Maida [of Detroit] as a nut and then describes the Council of Orthodox rabbis as “closer to Nazis than they realize” as deserving support.
He tends to paint people of faith as religious zealots with a very broad brush, and that is unacceptable. The intolerance is a sharp break from the civility we've always had in Michigan politics. You go all the way back to [former Democratic Gov. G. Mennen] “Soapy” Williams and there has always been, at least in this state, a clean campaign and a level of discourse that didn't tolerate singling out groups or people.
Can you name anyone, historical or contemporary, who is a personal hero for you?
One of my great heroes is Margaret Thatcher, who I think has been enormously important in the way in which she helped change the world. She was elected prior to Reagan and was a wonderful leader. Teddy Roosevelt was one of the presidents I admire. Of course I've read a lot about Lincoln, I admire him, and Jefferson was another who was so remarkably gifted as a leader.
The Pope holds great hope for the new millennium, based on God's plans and dependent on our response to them. What are your hopes for your daughters and their generation in Michigan, in the United States, and world?
First and foremost we want to see them and their generation be able to grow up in a world that is at peace — in a world that is able to deal with some of the human tragedies that still are out there. When you see the magazine pictures of the Sudanese people right now, it's inconceivable that this could go on, that governments could look the other way as people starve to death … when we deal with surpluses of food in many countries.
In this country, we need to see people get out of the grinding poverty that still exists. With the welfare reforms that we are having, I'm hopeful that my daughters will be the first to grow up in a country where people are in charge of their own lives. I'm hoping it is as close to a drug-free generation as possible. If we could end the curse of drugs and other substance abuse in society, we would see overnight a dramatic reduction in incidences of child abuse and neglect.
—Kate Ernsting------- EXCERPT: Michigan's chief executive assesses the future of his state and the country