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Published: 4/1/2005

Another woman governor for Michigan?

NOVI, Mich. - Nancy Cassis was back in her home town in upstate New York sometime in the 1980s when she bumped into her old high school government teacher, the one who had made a big difference in her life.

Beaming, she told him that she had not only become a teacher herself, she had just been elected to the Novi City Council. Old Ed Cassidy looked at her. "So when are you going to run for governor?" he said.

The answer is now, though Mr. Cassidy, alas, didn't live to see it.

Now a state senator from a fast-growing part of Oakland County, the state's most affluent area, Nancy Cassis, at 61 a staunch, if tiny, Republican with piercing blue eyes, thinks Michigan needs a woman governor. Just not the one we've got.

"Governor [Jennifer] Granholm is trying to play catch up after failing to provide leadership for her first two years in office," she said. "The state needs a governor who will make the tough choices and who will cut spending and cut taxes so we can create new jobs. I will provide that strong leadership."

Most regard her candidacy as a long shot. Michigan Republicans, unlike Democrats, normally prefer picking candidates by quiet consensus to bruising primary struggles, and the consensus seems to be settling on Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune and husband of former state party chairman Betsy DeVos.

Many Republicans like Mr. DeVos in part because, as one put it succinctly, "he has more money than God," and can self-fund a campaign for governor, leaving party fund-raisers free to concentrate on raising the millions they'll need to mount a challenge to U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Nancy Cunningham Cassis isn't willing to accept that. True, she isn't fabulously wealthy; she was a school psychologist before entering politics, and her second husband, Victor Cassis, is a retired restaurant owner. Together, they've raised a mere $35,000 so far. Yet she isn't willing to accept the odds.

Her political hero, former Gov. John Engler, she notes, didn't accept them either. "He was always bold, and that's what I admired about him."

Nobody gave Mr. Engler any better chance of winning the 1990 gubernatorial election than they give Ms. Cassis now. Yet he did, and she intends to.

No two people could look less alike; she is 5 foot 3 inches tall and has a merry, somewhat elfin aspect, together with an accent that, even after a quarter-century in Michigan, says New York.

Mr. Engler, was, well, big and often dour.

Yet politically, she says, they are twins. "Like John, I've got the legislative experience to get things done," she says. And she insists that when people figure out who she is, she will have a real shot both at the nomination, and at beating Ms. Granholm a year from this November.

That will be tough. But there are a couple of interesting things that may be going for her. While Mr. DeVos is unquestionably better known, his wife was a controversial state party chair who many think was eased out after the party failed to meet expectations in last November's elections.

The DeVos couple was also the main force behind a campaign to replace public education funding with state-issued vouchers, which went down to a landslide defeat and earned Mr. DeVos the enmity of public school teachers.

There also has long been a split between West Michigan, where Mr. DeVos is from, and southeast Michigan, where more of the voters, including Ms. Cassis live. There are also those who are a bit leery of Amway, the giant controversial retailer which is the source of the DeVos fortune.

She proudly points to one poll showing that despite low name recognition, she trails the governor only 44 percent to 38 percent, while Mr. DeVos lags behind by 47 percent to 32 percent in a similar match-up.

Yet her campaign may have its own contradictions. Ms. Cassis vows to cut taxes and spending but also says she would do more for education, two promises that don't seem to mesh. Though she is touting an "Early Learning Initiative" for kids at the earliest levels, she isn't talking much about new money.

There is general agreement that Michigan schools at all levels are facing a severe financial crisis, higher education in particular. Many, including some Republicans, fear that if this isn't addressed, the state's long-term ability to compete economically may be irreparably damaged.

The Cassis campaign has yet to address any of this, though it isn't clear that the Granholm administration has either. "We (Michgan) have to make real hard choices, and we've been avoiding them," Ms. Cassis says.

You don't have to be a supporter of hers, or her ideas, to suspect she is absolutely right.



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