Whitmer ‘can’t wait,’ makes early run for Mich. gov

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gretchen Whitmer took just three days into 2017 to announce her campaign for governor, becoming the first high-profile, major-party candidate in the 2018 race with 581 days left until the primary and 672 days until the general election.

The East Lansing Democrat told The Detroit News she just couldn’t wait.

“There are too many people who are worried about whether their paychecks are going to cover their bills, or whether or not their kids are getting the education they need to be successful,” Whitmer said Wednesday in a phone interview. “We can’t wait, and I can’t wait, either.”

The former Senate minority leader on Tuesday created a new gubernatorial candidate committee that will allow her to raise money for her campaign. She also announced plans in an email to supporters that was sent 56 days after a 2016 presidential election that saw Republicans score key victories up and down the ticket in Michigan.

But Whitmer cited a different number when asked about her motivation to run for governor.

“We’re on Day 985 from when Flint switched over to Flint River water, and people still can’t turn on their taps with any assurance it’s safe for their kids,” she said.

Whitmer called the ongoing Flint water contamination crisis “a failure at all levels of government” and grouped it with a series of other issues she doesn’t feel state government has adequately addressed, including statewide infrastructure needs and shortcomings in the education system.

“I think for too long our leaders have failed us,” she said. “They’ve not been straight with us, they’ve been content to play politics with our problems as opposed to finding solutions for them, and I think we deserve better.”

Whitmer, 45, is an attorney who most recently worked as interim Ingham County prosecutor, replacing Stuart Dunnings III, who resigned and was later convicted of prostitution-related crimes.

She was encouraged to run for governor in 2014 but decided against it, citing a desire to spend more time with her daughters, who were 9 and 10 years old at the time.

“My family is 100 percent on board and excited about this” Whitmer said of her 2018 campaign. “My daughters are always the center of decisions I make.”

Whitmer declined to discuss any of the other potential candidates who may enter the gubernatorial race, including possible primary rival U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, who played a key role in securing federal aid for his hometown.

Flint can apply for up to $100 million to replace lead pipes under legislation approved by Congress last month. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-led state Legislature have so far approved $234 million in state aid for the city.

Kildee has been meeting with Democrats across the state as he explores a potential gubernatorial run, a decision he’ll make “in the coming months,” a spokesman said Tuesday.

On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland have continued raising money for possible gubernatorial campaigns but have not formally announced any plans.

“I’m not going to critique everyone who may or may not get into the race at this juncture,” Whitmer said. “I am in, I’m the only one in, and I’m in it for the long haul.”

The early stages

Whitmer said the early stages of her campaign will likely entail significant travel as she meets with voters across the state.

“I want to get out and I want to engage with people and learn. We should evolve as this process goes forward. I think I know a lot of the issues we need to tackle, and I’ve got a lot of ideas for how to do that, but this needs to be a collaborative approach that really creates opportunity for every one of us. “

There’s “no doubt” Whitmer is a top-tier candidate for Democrats, said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, who said her early entrance into the race will give party insiders a chance to assess her strengths and weaknesses.

“I think what Democrats will be looking for is to see how she does raising money at the gubernatorial level, what her message is in the era of (Donald) Trump and how she plans to appeal to Michiganders across the state,” Demas said. “She’s obviously better known in Lansing than she is in the rest of the state.”

Whitmer doesn’t have the kind of “deep pockets” that Snyder had when he first ran for governor in 2010 and largely self-funded his campaign, so entering the race early gives her time to build up a war chest, said Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan pundit and former lawmaker who now writes The Ballenger Report.

But Whitmer has plenty of political connections, Ballenger said, noting her father Dick Whitmer served as director of the Commerce Department under Republican former Gov. Bill Milliken.

“She’s aggressive. She’s ambitious, and I think she will be a formidable candidate,” he said. “I wouldn’t make her the prohibitive favorite (in the Democratic primary) at this point, but she has the possibility of becoming the prohibitive favorite.”

Whitmer linked to Granholm

Republicans were quick to link Whitmer to Democratic former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who ran the state during a recession that hit Michigan and its auto industry particularly hard.

“Whitmer, a staunch Granholm ally while in the Legislature, would be a step backward for our state,” GOP Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a statement. “Michigan is looking forward to a brighter future, and Gretchen Whitmer would be a flashback to the failed past.”

Snyder and other Republican leaders have been touting the economic comeback of Michigan since the GOP took control in 2010. 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.

But that is not proof that Republican policies are working, Whitmer said.

“I think that the only measurement that really matters is whether or not people feel they are economically secure, and that is not the case no matter what the press releases say and all the victory laps people do,” she said.

“There are too many people worried about their paychecks meeting their bills, and their kids getting the education they need to be successful. I think that’s the most important measurement, and that’s what we need to work on.”

Whitmer battled with Republicans on several fronts in the state Legislature, gaining national attention as she fought new right-to-work and abortion insurance laws. But asked about her proudest moments, she noted working with GOP leaders to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Granholm, asked on Twitter about Whitmer’s announcement, called her a “kick-ass Dem who doesn’t suffer fools, gets things done, and who would be a phenomenal” Michigan governor.

joosting@detroitnews.com