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Whitmer skips State of State to tour Flint

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein

Lansing — While Republican Gov. Rick Snyder was preparing Tuesday to deliver his seventh annual State of the State address, announced and potential candidates to replace him were jockeying for attention.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat who is considering a run for governor in 2018, spoke with reporters ahead of the governor’s speech. Kildee urged Snyder to make good on his year-old promise to “fix” the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis.

Kildee was expected in Detroit earlier Tuesday at a fundraiser for his official congressional campaign committee, according to an invitation obtained by The Detroit News. A Kildee spokesman said there was no fundraiser on his schedule Tuesday, and that he held a roundtable with teachers in Macomb County before traveling to Lansing.

He planned to watch the governor’s address with his wife at his home near Flint.

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, the East Lansing Democrat who launched her campaign for governor three weeks ago, kicked off a statewide tour of local communities in Flint, Kildee’s back yard and home to a crisis that has engulfed the Snyder administration.

“I thought instead of being around with all of the mucky-mucks and the pomp and circumstance, I’d prefer to be with the people of this state, the people who need leadership,” Whitmer said in a phone interview.

“Instead of fundraisers and doing parties, I wanted to be on the ground connecting with people.”

Kildee, who helped lead a congressional fight to secure a $170 million package to help Flint and other communities affected by lead or other contaminants, used his Lansing visit to urge continued action from Snyder and state legislators.

The governor and legislators have so far approved more than $234 million in state aid for Flint, but Kildee said the governor should focus more on results than numbers.

He told reporters he has not made up his mind about a gubernatorial run. He said he was visiting Lansing to stick up for his hometown.

“I’m a kid who was born and raised in Flint, Michigan,” Kildee said. “The state government poisoned my city. A year ago at the State of the State the governor said he was going to fix it; it’s not fixed. He needs to finish the job.”

But the Michigan Republican Party accused Kildee of conducting a shadow campaign for governor.

“Instead of lecturing others, Kildee should disclose to taxpayers that he is running for Governor with THEIR funds,” GOP Co-Chair Jeff Sakwa said.

Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lieutenant Gov. Brian Calley, two of the top potential Republican candidates for governor in 2018, were both attended Snyder’s State of the State address.

But Schuette continued Tuesday to distance himself from the Flint water crisis. His office filed a brief in support of Flint residents suing the state and city and a contested court order requiring home delivery of bottled water to any home without a verified filter.

Whitmer’s campaign said she began her day in Flint by meeting with a group of local pastors, community leaders and residents.

“It made the most sense to start in Flint, because people in this area really need help from their next governor,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer is “doing what she had to do” to spread her name beyond the Lansing bubble, said longtime Michigan political pundit Bill Ballenger.

While Kildee and Schuette haven’t announced any firm plans, many observers are skeptical they’ll “do anything other than run” for governor, Ballenger said.

Whitmer announced her campaign on Jan. 3, becoming the first high-profile major-party candidate to enter the 2018 race.

Kildee said he has “strong feelings” about the way the state should be run but suggested he could still take “the next many months” to decide whether he will run for governor or stay in Congress.