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Detroit -- The United Auto Workers union endorsed on Monday Gretchen Whitmer for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, putting most unions and establishments groups behind the former state Senate minority leader.

UAW President Dennis Williams said after watching all the candidates, “how they perform” and reviewing their accomplishments, Whitmer was their choice.

“Gretchen is a proven candidate,” Williams said at the UAW's Solidarity House east of downtown. “She knows how to legislate. She knows how to work across the aisle. And she knows how to rebuild the economy for the state of Michigan.”

Then, in a quip about the condition of Michigan’s road, he bellowed, “Gretchen, will you fix those damn potholes?”

The endorsement came a week and a half after Michigan’s Teamsters locals and International President James P. Hoffa endorsed Whitmer.

Whitmer said the UAW endorsement is huge because their members represent not only the auto industry and many other professions – about 385,000 across the state – whom she hopes support her campaign.

“Their endorsement is really meaningful in terms of saying to the world that I'm a candidate that's going to fight for working people,” Whitmer said after the news conference. “I think people feel like too many politicians are looking out for their donors or just adhere to partisan politics instead of remembering who they are supposed to be working for, and that’s what this is about for me.”

During her remarks, Whitmer took aim at Gov. Rick Snyder and potential GOP opponent, Attorney General Bill Schuette, by saying “they have worked to undermine working men and women in Michigan.”

“It’s been a long time since Michiganders have had a governor in their corner,” she said. “But we are unifying, we are bringing people together and we are locking arms. Because it is time for us to start setting the agenda here in Michigan again.”

UAW member Cynthia Thornton, a chief steward for the state Department of Civil Rights in Detroit, said she backs Whitmer after watching her closely during the past year.

“I had heard about her when she was in the Legislature,” Thornton said, adding that Whitmer showed “guts” in 2012 by helping perform “The Vagina Monologues” outside the Michigan Capitol in response to controversial anti-abortion legislation and a silencing of a female lawmaker during that debate.

“So to me, she had a lot of guts and I know that we needed that,” she said. "I needed somebody that was going to stand up when it was toug, and there's nothing like being outnumbered in the Legislature and being willing to stand up and be in front and be out there.”

The UAW and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan had been seeking other potential candidates until Duggan decided two weeks ago to throw his support to the East Lansing Democrat. At least 15 statewide labor groups have backed Whitmer, including the Michigan Education Association and AFSCME Council 25.

About her endorsements, Whitmer said, “I’ve built a coalition unlike anyone has ever done earlier in an election cycle,” but that “we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The UAW is considered the most influential interest group in the Michigan Democratic Party. Its endorsement means the union will dedicate its political machine to getting out its members to vote in the August primary.

Other candidates include former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar and former Detroit police officer and Xerox executive Bill Cobbs.

El-Sayed said he is not bothered by Whitmer’s growing success in the “endorsement game.” Voters are tired “old-school politics,” he said, pointing to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sander’s unexpected win in Michigan’s 2016 presidential primary and Republican President Donald Trump’s general election victory.

“I hope that the Democratic Party has learned its lesson, but I’m confident the vision we have for Michigan is what’s going to inspire workers across this state to come out for this campaign,” said El-Sayed, a Shelby Township resident.

“I don’t worry so much about the same-old Democratic establishment endorsements as much as I care about making sure that when it comes to our ideals, when it comes to our ideas, that we are the most crisp, the most clear, the most focused on the issues that Michigander’s care about.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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