Watch live: Michigan GOP hopefuls for governor set to spar Wednesday night

Rubio gets support of some key Detroit area execs

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign in Michigan is starting to take shape with endorsements from a set of influential Metro Detroit businessmen, and a fundraiser planned for Dec. 9 in Bloomfield Hills.

John Rakolta Jr., CEO of the Walbridge construction company in Detroit, began circulating a Rubio endorsement letter to Michigan Republicans on Monday, two months after initially contributing $2,700 to Rubio’s chief rival for the GOP nomination, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“I’ve been telling everybody that my calculation is I want to look forward, not back,” Rakolta said in an interview with The Detroit News. “I thought during the debates he proved to be a statesman. He mixed it up a bit, but he never got personal.”

Rakolta is co-chairing next week’s fundraiser for Rubio with venture capitalist and philanthropist Phillip Fisher, Deloitte LLP executive Mark Davidoff and Bloomfield Hills real estate investor Joey Agree.

“I believe he’s got a transformational message that can appeal to younger voters who haven’t been involved in the process,” Agree, 37, said Monday.

With his polling numbers on the rise, Rubio’s new supporters in the Metro Detroit corporate community underscore a deepening split among Michigan’s Republican business executives over which candidate to support in the crowded GOP field for president.

NCAA president 'very pleased' with revisions to Indiana religious freedom law

“The business community — the Republican donor community — is just like everyone else: They’re split all over the place,” said GOP consultant Paul Welday, who has donated money to Bush but remains undecided.

Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia recently hosted Bush for a “friendraiser” event in Grand Rapids that was attended by billionaire grocery store magnate Hank Meijer. Real estate developer Michael Kojaian and Suburban Collection CEO David T. Fischer are heading up Bush’s Michigan fundraising efforts.

Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah, Quicken Loans CEO Bill Emerson and shopping mall executive Robert Taubman have all donated to Bush’s campaign.

Quicken Loans founder and billionaire Dan Gilbert has poured $750,000 of his money into a super political action committee supporting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s White House aspirations.

PVS Chemicals executive David Nicholson and members of his family held a fundraiser in Detroit for Ohio Gov. John Kasich last Monday. Brothers Jon, Michael and Sean Cotton, executives at their family-owned Meridian Health Plan, also co-chaired the Kasich fundraiser.

Earlier this year, Compuware co-founder Peter Karmanos donated $500,000 to the super PAC supporting Kasich.

“I believe (Kasich is) the one candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton, and he’s got a wonderful resume,” Karmanos said in a September interview with The News. “He’s not a pushover. He’s got all of the attributes to be a great president.”

The powerful DeVos family in west Michigan donated earlier this year to super PACs supporting Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has since dropped out of the race, but they have remained neutral in the race.

No major business executive in Michigan has publicly endorsed or donated money to billionaire real estate tycoon Donald Trump, who is the frontrunner in the race.

“There is no consensus at this point in time, except that we don’t want Donald Trump,” Welday said.

Rakolta twice backed Romney

Rakolta’s endorsement of Rubio could be a boon for the Florida senator’s ascending campaign. Rakolta was a top fundraiser for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, serving as Romney’s national finance chairman.

“I’m hopeful to play some kind of a role as time goes on,” Rakolta said Monday. “I haven’t been offered any position yet.”

Rubio will attend the Dec. 9 fundraiser in Bloomfield Hills. The event includes a $1,000-per-person general reception and a smaller reception and photo with Rubio for $2,700 per donor, according to a copy of the fundraiser invitation obtained by The News.

Fundraiser co-chairs are expected to donate and raise $10,800 each, according to the invitation.

Fisher, son of the late Detroit businessman Max Fisher, could not be reached Monday for comment.

Rubio earns Rakolta’s respect

Rakolta said he met Rubio this year at a business conference in Utah, talking one-on-one with the senator for 90 minutes.

“I was immediately struck by his grasp of the issues, his willingness to listen and push back when he didn’t agree with my point of view,” Rakolta wrote in his Rubio endorsement letter. “Articulate and confident, he represents a new breed of Republican leader who can unite our party and win both the primary and general elections.”

Rakolta said Monday he got into a discussion with Rubio about President Barack Obama’s efforts to thaw relations with Cuba.

After visiting Cuba in January, Rakolta said he became convinced restoring diplomatic relations with the communist island and loosening trade and travel restrictions would benefit both countries.

Rubio, whose parents left Cuba in the mid-1950s before the rise of communism, has said he would reverse Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba after a half-century diplomatic freeze.

“We didn’t agree on Cuba,” Rakolta said. “He said, ‘Well, tell me what you think,’ and he actually listened to me for five minutes. He really listened to me.”

“I said here’s a guy who’s willing to listen to an opposite point of view.”

(517) 371-3660