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Calley soft launches run for Michigan governor

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Harrison Township – Lt. Gov. Brian Calley got a series of high-profile assists Monday as he soft-launched his likely run for governor with a campaign-like speech at a Macomb County Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

Republican County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller walked Calley around the MacRay Harbor Banquet Center ahead of his speech and personally introduced him to attendees, while Democratic County Executive Mark Hackel used his opening remarks to tout his “non-partisan” relationship with Calley and GOP Gov. Rick Snyder

“We’ve made huge strides in getting our economy back on track, but that doesn’t mean we’re done,” Calley told a crowd of business executives and officials, including Congressman Paul Mitchell, R-Dryden Township, and Michigan Supreme Court Justice David Viviano, a former Macomb County judge.

“Let’s build an education system that prepares kids for the real world, not just test taking. Let’s build a government that isn’t just a shouting contest, but instead a competition for ideas.”

The chamber speech came about 13 hours after The Detroit News first reported Calley was launching a new online ad campaign and teasing a major announcement on May 30. The Portland Republican is expected to make his apparent gubernatorial run official at that time.

Attendees congratulated Calley as Miller, a former member of Congress, shuttled him from table to table. Hackel has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Democratic nomination. Neither endorsed Calley Monday, but both went out of their way to make him feel welcome in Macomb.

Hackel told reporters it’s “still to be determined” if he’ll run for governor himself but said his new working relationship with Miller gives him “hesitation” because they have big plans for Macomb County.

“I support good candidates wanting to run for that job,” said Hackel, who endorsed Democrat Mark Schauer in the waning days of his 2014 campaign against Snyder, who cannot run in 2018 due to term limits. “I don’t care if they’re Democrat, Republican or independent. It matters not. Brian’s a good guy, and some of the other names I’ve heard are good people.”

Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat, is the highest profile candidate to announce so far for that primary race. Former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed is also seeking the nomination, along with former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs.

Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland, who is weighing a run himself, was pouring coffee Monday morning at a Rotary Club of Kalamazoo meeting. He is expected to meet with college Republicans Tuesday evening in East Lansing, according to a Facebook events page promoting “Brews with Bill” at Harper’s brewpub.

Schuette’s spokeswoman declined to discuss Calley’s announcement directly but repeatedly noted the attorney general is focused on “priority No. 1, which is his job.”

He’s busy “finding justice for the families of Flint, standing up for victims of crime, protecting our Great Lakes and generally making Michigan a better place for our future generations,” said spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.

Calley’s plans are unlikely to pressure Schuette, said Susan Demas, editor and owner of Inside Michigan Politics, who added Schuette is “methodical about these sorts of decisions” and probably has his own date in mind.

“I think it makes a lot of sense for (Calley) to be in first,” Demas said, suggesting he’ll need time to step out of Snyder’s shadow. “He has to contend with the fact that his boss is not particularly popular – Snyder’s numbers even with Republicans aren’t great – and he’s also not as well-known as the attorney general.”

Calley’s soft launch is consistent with a “less is more” and “sneak-peak” strategy politicians are embracing in the social media age, Demas said, noting Whitmer announced her campaign through an email to supporters.

In his luncheon speech, Calley touted Snyder administration accomplishments, including the right-to-work law that prohibits union dues or fees as a condition of employment. He also highlighted 2011 tax code changes he said “empowered businesses large and small to grow” in Michigan.

Union and liberal groups quickly criticized Calley’s Monday activities, arguing he’s part of an administration that has favored big businesses over working-class residents.

Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber noted Calley cast a tie-breaking vote on 2011 tax code changes he said “raised taxes on working families, and created a new Retirement Tax that devastated Michigan seniors.”

“The last thing Michigan needs is a third term for Rick Snyder, and that’s exactly what Calley and Schuette represent,” Bieber said in a statement.

Snyder’s approval ratings have slumped amid the Flint water crisis, which could hurt Calley, and he’s fallen out of favor with some conservatives because of disagreements on tax policy. The governor opposed a personal income tax relief package pushed this year by House Republicans and endorsed by Schuette.

Calley said Monday he’d like to “reduce the tax burden through smart budgeting and efficiency,” but he declined to say whether he supports legislative efforts to renew the tax cut debate by cutting nearly $300 million from the budget Snyder proposed for fiscal year 2018.

“As we move forward in the budget process, there’s always a negotiation on these points, so I don’t want to get to the conclusion before the process,” he told reporters.

Snyder praised Calley at the Macomb County event, calling him the best lieutenant governor in the country and anything but a “figurehead.”

“This is a guy that’s been working hard, day in and day out, to make a better state,” Snyder said. “You can see the difference.”

Calley developed a conservative reputation in the state House, where he served four years before the more moderate Snyder tapped him as a running mate in 2010.

A political action committee supporting Calley launched new online ads Monday and plans to spend nearly half a million dollars over the next six weeks. The first ad, along with a countdown clock on a new website, suggest Calley will announce for governor on May 30, which he noted is the same week as the annual Mackinac Policy Conference confab.

“So it just makes sense I think to really right now set the stage in terms of letting people know who I am, where my heart is, and what drives me as a leader,” he said. “And also to remind people about how far we’ve come in the last six years (and) what’s possible in the next ten years.”

joosting@detroitnews.com