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Lansing — A group of former Republican lawmakers, administration officials and business leaders on Thursday said they’ll work to help elect Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer over GOP nominee Bill Schuette.

“Republicans and Independents for Whitmer” will be led by former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, former Engler and Snyder administration health director Jim Haveman, former Engler transition director Richard McLellan and Milliken administration treasurer Vivian Carpenter.

“We all kind of felt the Republican Party has left us and began looking at issues of health care, higher education, working with the Legislature, who can continue to move Michigan forward and who’s showing tolerance toward people who are different,” Haveman told The Detroit News. “It just became clear we should support Gretchen Whitmer.”

State Sen. Mike Shirkey and Rep. Lee Chatfield, who are likely to serve as majority leaders if Republicans retain control of the Legislature this fall, blasted the group in a joint statement and made clear they stand with Schuette and the GOP ticket.

“Anyone claiming to be a ‘Republican for Whitmer’ is someone opposed to lower taxes, limited government and fiscal responsibility,” the lawmakers said. “By abandoning our party, they are working to tear down not only Bill Schuette and the top of the ticket, but to end the Republican majorities in the House and Senate that have got the job done and have been the driving force behind Michigan’s economic comeback.”

The coalition backing Whitmer includes Trish Foster, retired senior managing director and chief operating officer at CBRE-Martin; former Republican Rep. Mel Larsen, who co-wrote the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act; Bill Milliken, Jr., a real estate broker and son of former GOP Gov. Bill Milliken; John Pirich, a partner at Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn; and Gina Yob, vice president of sales and marketing for 3S International LLC.

McLellan, who founded a group that spent heavily on ads supporting Schuette’s re-election as attorney general in 2014, said he’s a lifelong Republican but believes Whitmer is the best person for the job.

Schuette’s has “disingenuously argued” the state can fix roads without any new revenue, but Whitmer has offered "pragmatic solutions to attract businesses to Michigan by rebuilding our infrastructure the right way," McLellan said in a statement. The East Lansing Democrat says she’ll pursue billions of dollars in bonds if the state Legislature is unwilling to raise gas taxes or registration fees for road repairs.

Schwarz, who served in Congress as a Republican but is now an independent, said in a statement he’s “fed up with all the partisan bickering in Lansing and Washington” and said Whitmer has “shown she’s not afraid to work with Republicans to find common ground and build consensus on important issues like expanding Medicaid.”

The Michigan Republican Party and Schuette allies were quick to downplay the group, suggesting sour grapes.

Haveman and McLellan, for instance, have been highly critical of Schuette, the sitting attorney general, for charging state health director Nick Lyon with involuntary manslaughter for Legionnaire’s disease deaths tied to the Flint water crisis. Lyon has been bound over for trial.

“This coalition is not about passion for the candidacy of Gretchen Whitmer. This is anger at Schuette for stepping up, leading and making tough decisions even when they are politically difficult,” Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said in a statement.

Stu Sander, a Schuette spokesman who previously ran a super political action committee supporting his candidacy, said on Twitter that Republicans and independents joining the Whitmer group “don’t like that Bill Schuette is willing to take on Lansing bureaucrats to fight for justice on behalf of victims and families.”

Haveman has long argued that Schuette’s Flint water crisis investigation is too political but said that’s not his only reason for supporting Whitmer. He helped craft the state’s Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion plan but said he does not trust Schuette to maintain it, he said. Whitmer helped secure votes for the program as minority leader in the state Senate.

“Schuette might say I’ll keep Healthy Michigan, but then he wants to block grant Medicaid. That is code for ‘the Healthy Michigan plan will end,’” Haveman said. “Nick Lyon is part of this, I support Nick, but there’s many more issues than Nick Lyon.”

Haveman said he expects more current and former Republicans to join the group and anticipates public events. “It’ll be an exciting group that joins this and says we’re willing to put our names out and are stepping up on this.”

GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who is term-limited and cannot run for re-election, has not endorsed in the gubernatorial race.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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