Colbeck prepares for lift-off in Michigan governor race

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — State Sen. Patrick Colbeck is making it official: The Canton Republican is running to replace term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, with whom he has butted heads on spending and social issues the past seven years.

Colbeck, a trained aerospace engineer, is set to “launch” his 2018 gubernatorial campaign Saturday at the Yankee Air Museum on the grounds of the Willow Run airport near Ypsilanti. He has held a series of fundraisers in recent weeks to stockpile “rocket fuel” for the run.

Arguably the most conservative member of the state Senate, Colbeck has sponsored nine bills that have become law and helped develop right-to-work legislation Snyder signed in 2012 to prohibit worker contracts requiring union dues or fees as a condition of employment. He counts among his top accomplishments a law that paved the way for direct primary health care services in Michigan by specifying that medical retainer agreements are not insurance.

But Colbeck is perhaps better known for opposing other high-profile laws backed by Snyder and legislative leaders.

He voted against expanding Medicaid health insurance eligibility under the Affordable Care Act in 2013, against the $195 million Detroit “grand bargain” that helped the city emerge from bankruptcy in 2014, against higher taxes and registration fees to fund road repairs in 2015, and against a $617 million bailout of the Detroit Public Schools last year.

An outsider candidate when he rode a wave of tea party support to his first Senate election victory in 2010, Colbeck said he has been far more than a “no” vote in the Legislature.

“Every single time I did that, I proposed an alternative” Colbeck told The Detroit News in an interview ahead of his campaign kick-off, where he intends to stress a theme of “principled solutions” for Michigan.

“It’s time that we start governing in a way that respects key principles, such as the fact that the government works for the people, not the other way around,” he said. “Whenever we push solutions and appropriations, they should be in the best interest of all of our citizens, not just those with the ear of the power brokers in Lansing. Tax increases should always be the last options considered.”

Colbeck is the highest-profile Republican so far to declare his candidacy for governor, but he’ll likely become an underdog if Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley jump into the race as expected.

He is a legitimate candidate who can run to the right of the competition, but his campaign is still “a moonshot,” said Susan Demas, owner and editor of Inside Michigan Politics, echoing his NASA and space theme.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that (Schuette and Calley) are much stronger candidates,” she said. “Both have proven to be very good fundraisers, their name ID is better and I think they command much more attention with the party and activists who will vote in the primary.”

Colbeck, 51, is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering. He worked for Boeing and was a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, he said, before starting his own project management consulting firm.

Launching his gubernatorial campaign at Willow Run is significant, Colbeck said, because a lot of Americans “shifted out of their comfort zones” to help build B-24 bomber planes there during World War II.

Colbeck and his wife were “minding our own business” as private citizens until they got politically engaged and he ran for Senate in 2010.

“It’s something that we felt called to do then, and this run for governor now is something that’s a bit outside our comfort zone, but we feel called to do it as well,” he said.

Senate Journals confirm Colbeck has consistently proposed alternatives to major policies he opposed in Lansing. But many of his ideas were dismissed and never fully vetted, often because he floated them on the chamber floor or his website rather than in stand-alone legislation.

As one of just two senators who opposed the Grand Bargain funding for Detroit, Colbeck suggested cutting other state spending and funneling the savings into revenue sharing increases for all cities. A local government like Detroit could have used the funding to address financial woes, he said, while others could have put the money into roads or sewers.

Last year, Colbeck was one of three senators who voted against $128 million in supplemental funding to help Flint address its water contamination crisis. He voted for an initial $30 million in emergency funding, but again said he would prefer a solution that benefited all voters not just one community.

“Lead pipes are all over our state, and when we get into a mode of prioritizing and triaging where the most severe contamination is, we need to be more rational about it, instead of an emotional reaction to a bad set of circumstances,” Colbeck said this week.

Snyder recently vetoed a bill sponsored by Colbeck that would have created a “Choose Life” license plate to raise funds for causes backed by prominent anti-abortion group Right to Life of Michigan. The governor argued the plate would amount to the state endorsing a “political message” that could divide residents.

The day of the veto, Colbeck called it “disgraceful.” Schuette and Calley also said they disagreed with Snyder’s decision.

Colbeck has frustrated some peers in the state Legislature and been mocked as an odd-ball obstructionist by liberal groups, but he’s achieved near-hero status for some in the conservative right.

“I think he’s a true grassroots candidate, and that’s hard to find anymore,” said Meshawn Maddock of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which hasn’t endorsed at this early stage of the race but has helped promote some Colbeck events.

“First of all, he’s brilliant. If you spend any time with him, he’ll blow you away, and I also see him as somebody who stood up to the establishment in Lansing.”

Colbeck chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on State Police and Military Affairs in his first term, but Republican leadership did not pick him to chair any committees in his second and final term.

“It’s almost a badge of honor because he bucked the system,” Maddock said.

Colbeck could be competitive in a Republican primary if a large number of candidates get into the race, GOP strategist Greg McNeilly said, but he may also end up an “also-ran” against Schuette and Calley.

“He’s had a pretty low profile in Lansing and throughout the state,” McNeilly said. “That’s what campaigns aim to do, fix issues with low profiles, but so far the rest of the field starts with an advantage of being much better known.”