High Jinx

The secret's out. I'm letting the cat out of the bag.

Jim Blanchard has me to blame for his 1990 gubernatorial election loss. I'm guilty as charged.

I put the jinx on first, and not only Blanchard, but a ton of other Michiganders would probably like to have five minutes with me as a result.

I couldn't help it, judge. The awkward silence was just too much for me to bear.

I sat with John Engler, circa May 1990, and since we didn't know each other and we were alone briefly, it was tantamount to being stuck in an elevator together.

So I spoke up.

"So, it would appear as if you have a bit of a popularity issue," I said, almost wishing I hadn't.

For I had no idea how Engler would take such a churlish remark.

Engler and I spent some quiet moments in the green room--read: waiting room--of the cable TV station I worked at in Taylor.

Engler was the Republican rube, or so I thought, from Mount Pleasant who was being thrown to the wolves in running against incumbent Democrat Jim Blanchard for the governorship of Michigan.

Blanchard--this is before term limits--was about to complete his second four-year term as governor. By all accounts, he was a fairly popular governor. Not as popular, maybe, as his predecessor, Bill Milliken, but certainly not a bum that everyone wanted thrown out of office, either.

Fortunately for me, Engler took my glib comment graciously.

"Well," he smiled, " I hope to change that before long."

Engler was about to appear on our public affairs show, "Open Lines", and earlier that day we had gone out with a camera crew and just asked random people one simple question.

"Do you know who John Engler is?"

The results weren't very impressive. For Engler, that is.

I don't recall the actual numbers, but it was probably somewhere near 25 percent who knew Engler by name, let alone that he was running for governor.

Engler, at the time, was the Senate Majority Leader in Lansing. Had been since 1984. Yet that job didn't seem to sink in with the Downriver folks we nabbed with our camera and microphone that spring day in 1990.

As if my gentle ribbing off the air wasn't enough, our host, Joey Hudson, served up some more.

We devoted an entire segment to our "man on the street" endeavor.

Joey, looking like the cat who swallowed the canary, told John Engler to sit tight while we rolled some videotape.

For three minutes, I watched Engler, from my director's chair, squirm a bit as we played the tape, with one person after another confessing to not knowing who the hell he was.

Then Joey added an eerily similar comment to mine, once we were back in the studio. Again with the cat-swallow-canary look.

"You have a serious identification problem, John."

Engler took it in stride. There were still about six months before the election, after all.

Blanchard led in the polls all summer, sometimes quite handily.

The lead dwindled a bit after Labor Day, but few thought that the 42-year-old Engler could overcome it.

I remember waking up the day after the election and being stunned: John Engler was the new governor-elect of Michigan.

He had overcome the "popularity problem" that I chided him about, after all.

I was no fan of Engler's, not at all, but I do admire the way he came back against Jim Blanchard, when no one really thought it was possible.

That'll teach me to break an awkward silence.


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