(WJBK) - It will go down in history as one of the most revealing TV political debates that transformed the 1994 race for Secretary of State.
Although the event is well-known in political circles, one element of the debate is revealed here for the first time. Turns out former Gov. John Engler played a pivotal role even though he was no where to be found when incumbent Democrat Richard Austin walked into Studio C at WKAR-TV for his first and last debate with first-time GOP challenger Candice Miller.
With 24 years in office and enough candles on his birthday cake to start a pretty good forest fire, Ms. Miller now reveals,"I wanted to get him on camera." She knew that she could not directly attack Mr.Austin for being too old, even though she thought he was.There could have been a potential senior citizen backlash that might cost her the job. But there was serious reluctance in the Austin camp about being in the same room with her, let alone with TV cameras recording whatever happened.
It almost did not happen had it not been for the aforementioned Gov. John Engler. Ms.Miller now tells the never-before-told story that she went to him with her plea for his behind-the-scenes assistance to land the TV debate with her opponent. She suggested there was a way to nail it.
"The Democrats wanted a debate between Debbie Stabenow and the governor's running mate Connie Binsfeld, but as the story goes, she recalls the sitting governor was reluctant to sign off. Candidate Miller figured if the Ds got the Lt. Governor debate then they would relent and open the door for a Miller vs. Austin match-up. The governor interceded and the debate fell into place.
After an uneventful start, the debate turned to, of all things, abortion. Ms. Miller had received a bunch of money from Michigan Right to Life and the moderator wondered if she would be beholden to that group if she was elected? After she answered, out of fairness, Mr. Austin was asked if he was pro-choice or pro-life.
What happened next would be "transformational." That's what the former Congressperson was thinking as the moment unfolded in front of her and the political media inside the studio, too.
Seemingly confused Mr. Austin asked the moderator, "Pro choice?" He could not remember what the term meant and asked the moderator to explain what it was. For a second the moderator almost tossed him a lifetime but did not.
For her part, Ms. Miller was saying to herself, seeing this poignant moment she had been hoping for, "don't do something dumb." She says your political instincts are to jump in and hammer home the point that it was time for him to go. But she said nothing and for all intense and purposes, the race was over and the voters confirmed that at the polls and as the say the rest is history.