Bernstein opts out of gov race, backs Whitmer

Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Urging Democrats to unite behind the gubernatorial campaign of former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, Ann Arbor attorney Mark Bernstein announced Tuesday he will not run for Michigan’s governor.

Bernstein had been courted to join the 2018 race to replace term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, but the chairman of the University of Michigan Board of Regents said he decided against it “after much exploration and discussion with my family.”

The decision and endorsement is a big development for Whitmer, Democratic consultant Howard Edelson said. The East Lansing resident has “clearly” established herself as the front-runner for the party nomination, he said.

“She’s got to work hard and raise money in the next several months to solidify her support, and if she does that, clearly it’s hers to lose,” Edelson said. “But she can’t take it for granted, obviously.”

Former Detroit Health Department Director Abdul El-Sayed is also running an aggressive campaign, crisscrossing the state with a message that has resonated with many progressive voters who backed U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in last year’s Michigan presidential primary.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a moderate Democrat who has flirted with a gubernatorial run, could still shake up the race but said Tuesday “it more than likely is not something I’m going to pursue.”

Hackel said he sees a lot of momentum at the county level, where he has developed a strong working relationship with new Republican Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, “so it’s kind of hard to step away from this right now.”

Southfield attorney Geoffrey Fieger, the 1998 Democratic nominee who lost in the general election, has also said he is considering another run for governor but not taken concrete steps to do so. The Democratic field includes Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs of Farmington Hills.

Whitmer was the first Democrat to declare her candidacy and has been working to consolidate party support after U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said in May he would not run.

She has already won the backing of several midsized unions, and Bernstein’s support may spur additional endorsements, Edelson said. Among the unions is the 11,000-member Michigan Pipe Trades Association.

“A divisive and expensive Democratic primary would only distract us from the task of winning in November 2018,” Bernstein said in a nine-part statement on Twitter posted shortly after The Detroit News reported he would not run.

“Now is the time for us to unite behind Gretchen Whitmer — Her values and vision honor my highest aspirations for our state.”

El-Sayed, who earned his bachelor’s degree at UM, said Tuesday that Bernstein has “served admirably as a regent at my alma mater” and he looks forward to working with him on college affordability issues.

“That said, I would’ve expected that his exploration process would have given him a better sense of what Michigan Democrats are looking for in their candidate,” El-Sayed said in a statement. “Rather than establishment insiders, Michiganders want bold ideas, inspiration, energy and fresh progressive leadership.”

The News reported in May that Bernstein was being encouraged to run by Democrats intrigued by his credentials and strong name identification as a member of the “Call Sam” law firm that bears his family’s name. His brother, Richard, is a Michigan Supreme Court justice.

In an interview at this year’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference, Bernstein confirmed he was “taking every step necessary” to set up a run for governor if he decided to get in the race.

In announcing he will not jump into the nomination race, Bernstein said Tuesday his desire to engage in the election “as a candidate with decency and dignity was a strong motivating factor” in his deliberations.

“This is now the task for others who lead our state,” he wrote, “and a responsibility for us ALL to remember as we engage in the noble work of politics and policy making as citizens.”

Whitmer on Tuesday praised Bernstein for his commitment to education, social justice and the environment while saying his personal generosity “illustrates the good that people can do for one another when they put people ahead of politics.”

“I am honored to have his support, and together we're all going to build a movement for Michigan where our kids can thrive, our workers have opportunity, and our government is accountable to the people,” she said in a statement.

On the Republican side, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley are expected to compete for the 2018 nomination, but neither has announced an official run. Saginaw-area obstetrician Jim Hines is already campaigning, and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township is scheduled to “launch” his campaign on Saturday after filing paperwork on May 31.

While Bernstein and Kildee both opted against a run for governor, Democrats remain optimistic 2018 will be good to the party, in part because of renewed enthusiasm following the election of Republican President Donald Trump.

“It’s shaping up to be a very, very good year for Democrats,” Edelson said. “An individual’s decision not to run isn’t solely based on what the political environment is. They have other factors, like family and what it does to their personal life.”