INSIDER: How Whitmer swore to 'fix the damn roads'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
One of the photographers present asked Democratic candidate for governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to walk the line down the center of the road, during an event in downtown Lansing on Monday, Aug 20, 2018.

Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer turned heads with her provocative pledge to “fix the damn roads,” but rolling out the spicy slogan to a statewide audience caused some heartburn inside her campaign.  

“There certainly was trepidation,” campaign manager Eric Goldman said last week at a post-election summit in East Lansing hosted by Public Sector Consultants. “Even some of our allies were calling us up and saying, ‘What are you doing?’”

Whitmer had used the slogan on the trail, but her campaign didn't conduct polling to see if voters were okay with the cuss word or test it in focus groups before using it widely in the Democratic primary. It became clear they “were on to something” when people started shouting it to Whitmer as she marched in a Fourth of July parade, Goldman said.

“There’s so much stuff going on nationally, so much stuff going on around the state, especially in a primary, you’re kind of fighting for oxygen, you’re trying to get a little attention,” he said. “So talking about something in a way that’s a little blunt, a little bit folksy, a little edgy, it felt right.”

Whitmer’s campaign staff did end up polling the “fix the damn roads” mantra as they considered putting it in general election ads. They asked voters if the language was reasonable because of the condition of Michigan roads or if it was offensive, especially with children watching.

“It was overwhelming that people felt it was a reasonable saying and a reasonable slogan,” Goldman said.

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, who lost to Whitmer by nine points in the gubernatorial election, softened his opponent's language by calling it the "fix the darned roads" plan. He was also consistent with his own messaging, touting a “paycheck agenda” that failed to catch fire despite a pledge to cut personal income tax rates.

Schuette’s campaign tried to “pave the way to the general” election by stressing an economic message early and often, but the effort was disrupted by a contentious primary with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, said manager Lori Wortz.

“The message was, I think, a good message and a smart decision if we had had the ability and kind of a clearer path through the primary, where we didn’t have to spend more resources responding to attacks than we would have liked,” Wortz said at the forum.

Schuette ended up beating Calley by 25 percentage points, more than the roughly 22 points Whitmer won by in the Democratic primary, “but our polling and the public polling wasn’t showing that” ahead of the election, Wortz said.

His campaign later ran out of cash in the general election and was forced to scale back ad spending in the final weeks of the campaign.

Congress race topped $24M

Michigan's tightest congressional race was also one of the most highest-spending nationally in what was the most expensive midterm election the country has seen. 

The contest between U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and victor Democrat Elissa Slotkin of Holly is ranked the sixth-most expensive general election House race for candidate and outside spending during the 2018 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

Spending has topped $24.4 million in Michigan's 8th District, including at least $16.7 million in TV ads and other independent spending by outside groups.

That total does not include spending by the candidates themselves since Oct. 17, which will be reported later this year.  

The top-spending outside groups in the 8th District were the National Republican Congressional Committee at $3.9 million, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee at $2 million, and Independence USA PAC (affiliated with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg) at $2.4 million, according to federal disclosures. 

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Brighton, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly

House Majority PAC, which has ties to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, spent $1.8 million, and America First Action, which is aligned with President Donald Trump's agenda, spent $1.44 million. 

The district includes Livingston and Ingham counties and northern Oakland County.

Another U.S. House race — where Democrat Haley Stevens defeated Republican Lena Epstein — drew over $7.6 million in outside spending to Michigan's 11th District, which covers parts of Oakland and Wayne counties. 

Independence USA PAC also spent big there ($2.6 million), as well as House Majority PAC ($1.46 million) and America First Action (at least $900,000). 

Both House races saw more outside spending than the U.S. Senate race in which incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow bested GOP challenger John James

No national party groups devoted resources to that contest, in which James came within 6 percentage points of Stabenow.

The contest drew just $4.8 million in independent expenditures, including over $1 million from the Michigan Republican Party, according to disclosures.  

Lawrence honors Chisholm 

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, hosted a forum in Washington on Wednesday honoring the life and legacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress. 

Chisholm, who was elected 50 years ago in 1968 to represent New York, in 1972 also became the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for U.S. president.  

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield

In Congress, Chisholm co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus and served on the influential House Rules Committee. Her legislative focus included civil rights, poverty and gender equality. 

Pelosi was expected at Wednesday's event, as well as representatives of the Black Women’s Roundtable, the National Organization for Women and Rep. Yvette Clarke, who currently represents Chisholm’s district, Lawrence said.

Lawrence said she never got the chance to meet Chisholm, who died in 2005, but "as a young woman going into politics, she was always one of those women you look in awe of."

Lawrence highlighted a number of other "firsts" among the new class elected to Congress last week, including the first Native American women and first Muslim women.

"The one thing that I take away from her legacy is having political courage to stand up for what you believe in," Lawrence said of Chisholm. 

Chisholm's autobiography "really shows a woman who — you can not tell her or control her. She was going to fight for her conviction and she definitely did not have trouble speaking her mind."

Kelley chairs Nessel's team

Former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley will chair the transition team for Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel as she prepares to take office on Jan. 1.

The “eternal general,” Kelley logged 37 years as the state’s attorney general between 1961 and 1999.

“I’m honored to have the wisdom, the experience and the candor of Mr. Kelley as I prepare to take office,” Nessel said in a statement.

Until she takes office, Nessel does not plan to comment on any pending case or issue, her spokesman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said.

“There are tens of thousands of cases pending before the attorney general and this team will closely look at the status of those cases and others the attorney general-elect may want to pursue,” Nessel said in a statement. “This will be a careful, methodical review to ensure a smooth transition between administrations.”

Rossman-McKinney, retired CEO for Truscott Rossman, was among those appointed to Nessel’s transition team after her unsuccessful run for state Senate. Also on the transition team are Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, whom Nessel worked with as an assistant prosecutor in Wayne County. Michael Hodge and Kelly Keenan, private practice attorneys who formerly served in Kelley’s administration, will also join the team.

Other members of the transition team include representatives from the United Auto Workers union, the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewas, and Nessel’s campaign, and attorneys Tracy Jane Andrews of Traverse City, Robert Baldori of Okemos, Melvin Butch Hollowell of Detroit, Traci Kornack of Grand Rapids and Zenna Faraj Elhasan, former general counsel for Wayne County.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley met Tuesday with Lt. Gov.-elect Garlin Gilchrist. They talked inside the Romney Building in downtown Lansing before Calley showed his pending successor around the Michigan Capitol, where Gilchrist will preside over the state Senate.

“Serving as lieutenant governor during Michigan’s comeback has been the honor of my lifetime and I’m all in on helping the next administration hit the ground running to keep moving Michigan forward,” Calley said in a statement. “I was honored to welcome Lt. Gov.-Elect Gilchrist to Lansing today and I will remain available to him and Gov.-Elect Whitmer as the transition process continues.”