Whitmer replaces manager in campaign shake-up

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Gretchen Whitmer has replaced her campaign manager, the latest shake-up for the former state Senate minority leader working to solidify support ahead of the 2018 primary.

Michigan native Keenan Pontoni is coming home to work for Whitmer, her campaign said Tuesday. He’ll replace Jerid Kurtz, who had worked on various campaigns in other states before joining Whitmer in April.

Pontoni made national news earlier this year when he ran the campaign of Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff, who narrowly lost a special election in a congressional district Republicans have controlled since 1979.

Circumstances of Kurtz’s departure aren’t immediately clear. He did not reply to a direct request for comment but, in a statement provided through the campaign, said it had been an “honor to come in, work with Gretchen and set up her campaign for success.”

Whitmer had similarly kind words for her former campaign manager.

“Thanks to Jerid’s hard work, we’ve built a movement with unprecedented statewide grassroots support, and we are excited to continue building our momentum as we gear up for the next stage of the campaign,” she said in a statement.

Republicans were quick to criticize the move. GOP strategist Stu Sandler noted Pontoni lost the Ossoff campaign despite spending an “ungodly amount of money” and suggested the change is a sign of trouble for Whitmer.

Ossoff raised $30 million to Republican Karen Handel’s $6.6 million, according to Federal Elections Commission records.

“She can change up her staff, but I think a lot of it has to do with her,” Sandler said. “She’s supported a lot of policies in the past that didn’t work in Michigan, and I think she’s failing to catch fire.”

The staff announcement comes the same day as the Whitmer campaign celebrated an endorsement from the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council, her fifth labor union endorsement.

Whitmer solidified her front-runner status in the Democratic primary last month when University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein announced he would not run and instead publicly endorsed her.

But the East Lansing Democrat continues to face an aggressive challenge from former Detroit health department director Abdul El-Sayed, who is courting the “progressive” wing of the party. Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar has also turned heads by pumping more than $3 million of his own money into the campaign.

Replacing Kurtz with Pontoni is the second notable staff change for Whitmer since she launched her campaign in January. She parted ways with original spokeswoman Jen Eyer in May, a move both sides described as amicable.

Current spokeswoman Annie Ellison maintained a positive tone Tuesday.

“With record-breaking grassroots support and more than 10,000 people signed up, we're continuing to ramp up to the next phase of our campaign, and broadening our team to be in the strongest position to win,” she said.

Pontoni ran former state Rep. Gretchen Driskell’s congressional campaign in 2016. She lost her general election match-up with Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, 55 percent to 40 percent, but is attempting to challenge him again in 2018.

He previously ran successful campaigns for Driskell’s first state House race, Andy LaBarre's County Commissioner race in Washtenaw County and a Maureen Brosnan City Council race in Livonia.

While Ossoff ultimately lost the congressional special election in Georgia, the race generated national interest and Pontoni turned heads with his data-driven approach. In a late June article, Roll Call newspaper called him a “rising star in a party desperate for fresh blood.”