Democrat Gretchen Whitmer running for Michigan governor

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer is running for the Democratic nomination for Michigan governor.

The East Lansing Democrat threw her hat in the ring Tuesday, confirming her campaign in an email to supporters. She was also expected to file paperwork with the Secretary of State’s Office.

“Together we can build the Michigan we believe in, because we still have what we need most — the strength, the talent, the vision and the grit of the incredible people of this state,” Whitmer wrote.

“For too long, our leaders have been content to manage our decline. We went from leading the nation to lagging. If we want change, we can’t wait for Washington to solve our problems. And we can’t elect the same old politicians, on the same old platforms and expect a different result. We can do better. We deserve better.”

The announcement makes Whitmer the first high-profile, official major party candidate in the 2018 gubernatorial race. State law prohibits two-term Republican Gov. Rick Snyder from seeking re-election.

Snyder has been trumpeting the economic comeback of Michigan. The unemployment rate has steadily declined during his six years in office, inching up a little to 4.9 percent in November after reaching a high of 14.9 percent in June 2009 during the recession under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Other potential Democratic candidates include U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who has been laying the groundwork for a possible run but has not announced any formal plans. On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland are among those considering bids.

Whitmer, a lawyer, served in the state House from 2001-06, when she won election to the Senate. She was Democratic leader of the upper chamber from 2011 through the end of 2014, when term limits forced her out of office.

Whitmer was not immediately available for an interview but was expected to discuss her campaign with reporters on Wednesday. She has hired spokeswoman Jen Eyer and Democratic fundraiser Cheryl Bergman as her finance director.

Reputation as fiery orator

As minority leader, Whitmer was known as a fiery orator and fierce critic of Republican policies, including right-to-work legislation Snyder signed in late 2012. In 2011, she fought an anti-bullying proposal that included a religious exemption, arguing it would have allowed discrimination against gay students. The exemption language was removed before passage.

Whitmer made national news in late 2013 when she disclosed in a floor speech that she was a victim of rape, using her personal story to fight now-enacted legislation banning private insurance plans from covering abortion. She argued the law would require women to decide whether to purchase “rape insurance.”

Whitmer most recently worked as interim Ingham County prosecutor, replacing Stuart Dunnings III, who resigned and was later convicted of prostitution-related crimes. The 30th Judicial Circuit Court picked her for the temporary assignment, which she completed last week.

“It has been a great challenge, to go from writing our state’s laws to enforcing them,” she wrote in a year-end report recapping her six-month tenure as county prosecutor. “I am moving on, hopeful that I have helped to restore the public’s trust in this important office.”

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel called Whitmer’s quick gubernatorial announcement proof that her stint as Ingham County prosecutor was nothing more than “an attempt to grab a headline.”

“Gretchen Whitmer would be a disastrous return to the unsuccessful policies of the Granholm era where jobs and families were fleeing our state and unemployment skyrocketed,” Romney McDaniel said in a statement.

In her Tuesday email announcing her campaign, Whitmer told supporters she is “no stranger to fights” and encouraged them to join her in the “fight for Michigan.”

“As Ingham County Prosecutor and as Democratic leader in the Senate, I’ve led a lot of tough ones,” she wrote. “Fights to protect workers’ rights, fights to level the playing field for everyone, fights to protect kids and to hold government accountable. No matter the outcome, the fight was always worth it for what it said to the people we were fighting for.”

She filed to run for attorney general in 2010 but suspended her campaign early that year, citing family issues. She also considered a run for governor in 2014 but ultimately declined, saying she wanted to spend more time with her daughters, who were 9 and 10 years old at the time.

Despite a poor performance in the 2016 election cycle, Michigan Democrats remain hopeful they can reclaim the governor’s office in 2018. President-elect Donald Trump was the first Republican White House candidate to win the state since 1988, but mid-term elections often tend to benefit the party without a president in office.

“But nothing is guaranteed,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “Certainly Democrats have had a really tough run here, and it’s really a huge test to see if they can compete statewide, because that’s really in question at this point.”

Whitmer and Kildee are each considered top-tier Democrats who could vie to replace Snyder, whose second term has been marked by controversy over the man-made Flint water crisis and an initially sluggish response by his administration.

By entering the race early in 2017, Whitmer may be trying to “force Kildee’s hand” to decide if he will run for governor or choose to keep his safe seat in Congress, said Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan pundit with the Ballenger Report.

“She may be, in a sense, trying to smoke him out, saying ‘I’m all in, and I’m raising money, and I’m going for it. Anybody who challenges me is going to be imperiled if they dither and don’t make a decision.’ ”

A Kildee spokesman said Tuesday the congressman “appreciates the encouragement he is getting from across the state to run for governor” but has not made any final decision.

“Right now, he is focused on representing his constituents in Congress, and in the coming months he will make a decision about where he can do the most good for Michigan families,” Mitch Rivard said in an email.

Republicans could also see a spirited primary if both Calley and Schuette get into the race. Schuette recently said he “wants to be part of the discussion” and “part of Michigan’s future” but hasn’t formally announced plans to run.

Schuette and Calley have continued to raise money through their respective candidate committees even though term limits prohibit them from seeking re-election to their current posts. Schuette raised $984,316 and Calley $620,440 between the start of 2014 and Oct. 20, according to a recent campaign finance statement filed with the state.

Whitmer did not have an active candidate committee but maintained a leadership fund she formed while serving in the Legislature.

Her political action committee reported raising more than $62,000 this year, some of which she used to host a breakfast for Michigan delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Gretchen Whitmer

Hometown: East Lansing

Age: 45

Family: Married to Marc Mallory. She has two daughters, and he has three sons.

Political experience: State representative, 2001-06; state senator, 2007-14; Senate minority leader, 2011-14; interim Ingham County prosecutor, July-December 2016.