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Gretchen Whitmer speaks after she is endorsed for governor by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

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The Big Three leaders in Wayne County put their support Tuesday behind Democrat Gretchen Whitmer’s gubernatorial campaign to try to boost her name recognition in a region where she needs to turn out votes in 2018.

County Executive Warren Evans, Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Sheriff Benny Napoleon said Whitmer is the right candidate for Michigan because she’s a fighter who cares about its people, including the diverse population of their county.

The Democratic, African-American elected officials all acknowledged that the former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing may not be well-known. But the endorsement event held at the Mathis Community Center on Detroit’s northwest side is a step in raising Whitmer’s profile with voters.

“Our job starts here. So if we don’t raise that name recognition, I will smugly say, ‘Nobody can,’” Evans said to cheers.

Other candidates in the Democratic race include former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, wealthy Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar, former Xerox Global Vice President Bill Cobbs of Farmington Hills, Wayland restaurant worker Justin Giroux and Kentiel White, a health care worker from Southgate. The primary is scheduled for August 2018.

“It shouldn't surprise voters that career politicians have chosen to endorse a career politician. Frankly, we expect more of the same,” Thanedar said in a statement. “Voters I've spoken with across the state are tired of the same solutions from our leaders. They are craving decisive difference and that's what my campaign is striving to bring to the people of Michigan.”

El-Sayed’s campaign had a similar criticism.

“When establishment insiders endorse establishment insiders, it shouldn’t be that surprising. This is about real solutions to real problems that real people talk about, not backroom schemes - and our campaign is about electing a governor who gets things done for real people,” spokesman Adam Joseph said.

“As Detroit health director, Abdul delivered on just that -- universal lead screening in Detroit schools, guaranteed glasses for Detroit kids, and forcing corporate polluters to reduce their emissions.”

But Whitmer focused on the November 2018 general election. Even though it is 13 months away, she said the time is now to stand with leaders “who have a great following,” who are the “highest vote-getters in Wayne County” and with whom she is partnering to make the region and state better.

“All Michiganders, all people in Detroit, all people throughout Wayne County and the other 82 counties of this state deserve better than elected officials who want to give us false choices or want to manage our expectations,” Whitmer said. “We need leaders who are going to fight for our aspirations.”

Gov. Rick Snyder is term-limited and can’t run again. Attorney General Bill Schuette has received the most endorsements in the Republican race for governor, including the support of President Donald Trump.

Other GOP candidates are Saginaw doctor Jim Hines and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is considering running, holding a series of town halls in the past week.

Napoleon said he took Whitmer on two tours of the city so she could see how it’s changed for the worst in many areas and how it needs leadership from the state in Lansing.

“The Republicans have destroyed this state,” he said to applause about cuts to education and attacks on labor unions. “If you’re going to be the governor of this great state, you need to understand what has happened to the city of Detroit, and Wayne County and all the urban centers across this state. Places like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, Muskegon, Benton Harbor ... all throughout Michigan the urban areas are suffering because of the politics in Lansing.”

Political experts have said former Congressman Mark Schauer of Battle Creek lost to Snyder in 2014 in part because his campaign didn’t resonate with voters in Democratic strongholds such as Wayne County.

The sheriff said, though, that he’s not worried about bumping up Whitmer’s name ID in the county.

“At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of people like myself, the prosecutor, the county exec and hopefully at some point the mayor and other electeds to get out and motivate Detroit and Wayne County voters,” Napoleon said. “We’ll be out on the campaign trail with her and introduce her to churches and labor groups and community groups and business organizations.”

The three officials emphasized her six-month stint last year as Ingham County prosecutor and her aid in getting the state’s Medicaid low-income health program expanded and the state’s minimum wage increased with a cost-of-living adjustment.

Worthy said she herself reached out to Whitmer when rumors were brewing about her gubernatorial candidacy.

“She gets it,” Worthy said. “I knew what she had done, whether she was successful or not. I knew that she could bridge that gap. I knew that she had worked in Lansing for many, many years. She answered very clearly all the questions that I had and some of them were some very hard, deep questions. And she was very thoughtful.”

Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger has expressed interest in the race for months but has not entered.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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