Kildee rules out gov bid, making way for Whitmer

Melissa Nann Burke, and Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Three-term U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat, has ruled out a run for governor -- a move that experts say gives former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer an early boost but doesn’t ensure her of the nomination.

Kildee announced his decision Tuesday in an email to supporters, saying he would run for a fourth two-year term in Congress. The 58-year-old congressman cited the need to fight “President Trump’s dangerous policies” and the impact he feels they would have on Michigan and the nation.

“I’ve truly appreciated all of the encouragement I've received to run for Governor,” he said in the email. “Right now, staying in Congress is where I know that I can make the biggest impact for you. And I am excited about this work — I feel a sense of duty to fight back, and I know that you are going to continue to be by my side.”

Kildee’s decision to forgo a gubernatorial run makes Whitmer the clear-cut frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s nomination, said Democratic consultant TJ Bucholz, who added that he is happy he doesn't have to watch a “knife fight” between two politicians who like to win.

“Gretchen Whitmer is certainly a mainstream candidate, especially on women’s issues, and she’s good on progressive issues,” Bucholz said. “I definitely think it’s hers to lose.”

But another analyst said there are still other candidates who could decide to jump in the primary battle and present a challenge for the 45-year-old former Ingham County prosecutor.

Whitmer of East Lansing “still has a problem with the liberal base of the party,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, who noted that former Detroit health department director Abdul El-Sayed is aggressively courting Democrats who supported Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.

With Kildee out of the race, the Democratic field may still grow, Demas added.

“The idea it would be set 15 months before the primary seems kind of ridiculous,” she said. “Certainly, I’m sure Gretchen Whitmer is thrilled because Dan Kildee would have been a formidable competitor, but that’s not to say there won’t be other strong contenders who decide to get in now that Kildee’s made his decision.”

Democratic insiders said Ann Arbor trial lawyer Mark Bernstein, chairman of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, is considering getting into the race.

Bernstein, president and managing partner of The Sam Bernstein Law Firm, formerly chaired the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and was director of press pool operations and trip coordinator for the White House during the Clinton administration. Bernstein could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

But Bernstein’s younger brother Richard raised and spent $2.26 million when he ran for the Michigan Supreme Court in 2014 and won a seat, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, more than twice as much as each of the two Republican-nominated justices who also were elected. Richard Bernstein contributed $1.8 million himself, while his father, sister, Mark Bernstein and family political action committee donated at least $88,400 combined, according to state filings.

Other names circulating in Democratic circles Tuesday included Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who ran and lost in 1998 against incumbent Republican Gov. John Engler; and state Sens. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights and Curtis Hertel Jr. of Meridian Township, Bucholz said.

In addition to Whitmer and El-Sayed, the declared candidates on the Democratic side are former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs, Justin Giroux of Wayland and Kentiel White of Southgate. Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thandedar has filed paperwork for a run but has not formally announced any plans.

Among Republicans, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is running online ads teasing a pending announcement on May 30, when he is widely expected to announce his campaign for governor.

Attorney General Bill Schuette also is expected to seek the GOP nomination, and Saginaw-area obstetrician Jim Hines is already campaigning for the 2018 primary.

Kildee became a fixture on national cable networks over the last 18 months for his aggressive response to the water contamination crisis in his hometown of Flint, raising his national profile and positioning himself as a formidable candidate for governor next year. Kildee, former Genesee County treasurer, has served in the U.S. House since 2013.

A source close to Kildee said that last week was a turning point for him, following the House vote on the Republican health care bill and a contentious committee hearing on legislation to overhaul the Dodd-Frank financial reforms. Kildee played a role in the hearing as the vice ranking Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.

After the health care vote, Kildee pulled his aides into his office and explained he’s not ready to turn away from these and other fights in Congress, the source said.

Kildee’s name has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Democratic leadership team in the House, should current leaders retire or step aside. He is already rising among the ranks with his appointment last year to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee – the leadership panel that helps select which members serve on House committees.

“The problem that Dan Kildee faces is that he is a minority in the Democratic Party,” Demas said. “He’s a white man, and there are lots of very talented women and people of color that reflect the base of the party.”

Kildee garnered national attention in recent years as an outspoken critic of state government’s role in the Flint water crisis and as an advocate for the release last year of Flint resident Amir Hekmati from an Iranian prison.

He is now emerging as a leading “foil” for Republican President Donald Trump, Bucholz said.

“He’s energetic, dynamic and certainly has his finger on the pulse of issues for Democrats,” Bucholz said. “I definitely think he is speaker of the House material if he stays in Congress and continues the crusade he’s taken on the last few years.”