James Craig will challenge Whitmer for governor

Detroit — James Craig, one of the longest-serving police chiefs in the city's history, will run in a bid to challenge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in next year's gubernatorial race, a source close to the chief said Friday.

Craig, who is expected Monday to announce his retirement from the department, told The Detroit News he will follow that press conference with one discussing his future plans.

He did not deny that he plans to run against Whitmer as a Republican.

"I'm a lifelong public servant," Craig said. "I want to continue to serve."

Prospects of Craig's gubernatorial ambitions were first reported by Charlie LeDuff on his "No BS News Hour" podcast and confirmed independently by The News with the source close to Craig. 

The chief acknowledged he has discussed a potential candidacy with both state and national Republican officials. 

Detroit Police Chief James Craig

Ron Weiser, chairman of the state Republican Party, also acknowledged Friday he has talked with Craig and other potential contenders.

“I think he would make a fine candidate, should he choose to run,” Weiser said.

Republicans have been searching for a challenger with strong name recognition and cross-over appeal. Supporters believe Craig's solid reputation as a fair, no-nonsense police chief who has spoken against anti-police protests and for Second Amendment rights, while maintaining strong community support, is their guy. 

Other names that have been mentioned include Farmington Hills businessmen John James, who has made two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate, and Kevin Rinke, whose family has run automobile dealerships in Metro Detroit.

In Craig, the GOP sees a candidate who is willing to jump into the race early, with the ability to coalesce Republican donors and grassroots activists. Republicans also hope the popular police chief can deliver votes for the party from Detroit, where GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette got 3.7% support in 2018 compared with Whitmer's 94%.

If nominated, the chief would be the second African American to appear on Michigan's general election ballot for governor as a Republican. Former Wayne County Executive William Lucas ran unsuccessfully in 1986.

Craig is not announcing his candidacy and retirement at the same time, the source said, out of respect for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat and Whitmer supporter, who will appear with him at Monday's press conference.

John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said Friday via text message: "The chief has not indicated to the mayor he has made any decisions about his future."

Craig's retirement will be effective June 1, according to the source.

Craig, 64, was appointed chief in July 2013 by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and took over a department that had been under a federal consent decree since 2003. It also had been rocked by scandals, including the firings of the two previous chiefs for having affairs with the same female officer.

The federal decree was lifted in August 2014. 

Craig was nicknamed “Hollywood” because of his frequent media appearances, a moniker he embraced, insisting it was his job to be the face of the department.

Shortly after he took over the police department, Craig launched a series of raids dubbed “Operation Restore Order.” During the first raid, 150 officers flooded the Colony Arms Apartments on Jefferson and led occupants away in handcuffs as other residents leaned out their windows and cheered.

Some people criticized the raids, saying they were for show and didn't result in the convictions of violent criminals.

Other initiatives under Craig include establishing an LGBTQ outreach and a Peer Support Group for officers dealing with stress.

Craig generally received high marks from longtime Detroit civil rights activists. But groups that gained prominence last year to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, including Detroit Will Breathe, have repeatedly called for Craig to be fired.

Detroit activist Malik Shabazz said Craig reached out to him shortly after becoming chief.

"He brought us a mighty long way," Shabazz said. "He brought energy, he brought new life, and he reached out to the community. He told us he wanted to be partners with the community and wanted us to work together. He said, 'We're not always going to agree on things, but we have to work together.'

"We can't kill the fatted calf, pull out the purple ring and robe, but we're better, we're safer overall and moving in the right direction."

Other than William Hart, who was chief for 14 years, Craig has been the longest-serving top cop since the city began naming chiefs instead of police commissioners in 1974. From 1901-74, no police commissioner served more than six years.

Craig has been frequently interviewed on Fox News by the cable channel's conservative news hosts about policing issues. In September, former President Donald Trump called Craig "terrific," which prompted questions about the chief's political affiliation.

Political observers were mixed about Craig's chances of unseating Whitmer.

"A Chief Craig candidacy has the potential to turn the Republican race on its head, if done right," said John Sellek, a Republican and owner of Harbor Strategic public relations.  

"Right now, the nomination is being targeted by a growing number of Republican activists because no A-list candidate has stepped forward to claim it," Sellek said in an email.

Representatives of the Republican Governors Association met earlier this year with James, Rinke and conservative radio host Tudor Dixon.

Other lesser-known GOP candidates who have formed campaign committees to potentially run for governor next year are Austin Chenge of Grand Rapids, Ryan Kelley of Allendale and Bob Scott of Howell. 

"But James Craig has developed the almost celebrity-like persona of someone who is unafraid to speak his mind and take action through his skilled appearances in Michigan's TV largest market and on FOX," Sellek said. "His time in the spotlight rivals Mayor Duggan at times. And, he has the respect of a lot of law enforcement across Michigan.

It is unknown whether Trump would support Craig in a Republican primary, he said.

"But there is time for him to stake his claim on the nomination because right now it is wide open," Sellek said.

A majority of likely Michigan voters, 58%, said they approved of Whitmer's job performance, according to a Feb. 3-6 poll commissioned by The Detroit News.

But the survey found the first-term Democrat from East Lansing is potentially vulnerable.

A plurality of 41% said they planned to vote for someone else for governor in 2022 with 39% saying they would support Whitmer for reelection and a crucial 20% saying their answer depended on the candidates, according to the survey of 600 registered voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. 

When she ran for governor in 2018, Whitmer's support in Detroit initially was considered lacking. But after getting elected, she has gained a loyal following in the city during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially after Detroit rapper Gmac Cash released his ode to Whitmer titled "Big Gretch" in May 2020. 

Southfield-based political consultant Mario Morrow is skeptical about a Craig run for governor.

Craig is “an excellent police chief, but it’s hard to believe that you would challenge a popular Democratic governor and run for the first time in an opposition party," Morrow said Friday.

“I’m sure that he would have some support," he said about Craig. "But I doubt very seriously if he would be able to turn Democrats, primarily Black Democrats, to vote for him as a Republican.”

Running for elected office is a huge task that is more daunting than newcomers realize, Morrow said. 

“If this is true, he’s going to have a rude awakening as a politician,” the Democratic consultant said. “A lot of people who run for office for the first time have a wake-up call that the reality is that you are good at what you do, but that does not necessarily transfer as a politician and a person who is going to generate supporters and voters to come to vote for you.”

Morrow said it's unlikely that Craig would survive the Republican primary running against James, an Iraq War veteran who runs a Detroit business, should James run. James has raised tens of millions of dollars and run highly competitive campaigns but lost last year to U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township by 2 percentage points. 

“He’s already established himself as a good campaigner within the Republican ranks,” Morrow said of James. “I think he would get the nomination.”

But questions remain about whether James would run in a third straight election cycle. Some Republicans want him to run for the U.S. House in Metro Detroit, which they see as an easier path to victory.


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.