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Lansing — Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley declared his candidacy for governor on Tuesday and showed no signs of ceding ground to his top rival for the Republican nomination, Attorney General Bill Schuette.

In a series of interviews with The Detroit News and other outlets, Calley accused Schuette of “politicizing” the Flint water contamination crisis. He also scoffed at Schuette’s pledge to be a “jobs governor” for Michigan.

“I am flattered that others aspiring to be governor are proposing to do what we have been doing all along,” Calley said, referencing economic gains under term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration.

Calley, 40, will attempt to be the first Michigan lieutenant governor to succeed his boss in 50 years, and the first to win a gubernatorial election since voters approved the state’s strict term-limits law in 1992.

In announcing his 2018 campaign, Calley said he wants to keep “upward momentum” going in Michigan and continue what he called “a real turnaround” over the past seven years, citing the creation of more than 500,000 private-sector jobs.

“We have made a tremendous amount of progress since the ‘Lost Decade,’ and people across the state of Michigan know that and they feel that,” Calley told The News.

“It’s hit rural areas and urban areas and suburban areas. We see the comeback of Detroit, and we see job growth that has gotten to the point where now employers are telling us their biggest problem is they can’t find enough people to fill the jobs.”

Calley’s candidacy sets up a high-stakes primary matchup against Schuette, who has already secured endorsements from leading Republican officials such as President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Other GOP candidates include state Sen. Pat Colbeck of Canton and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines.

An independent super political action committee supporting Schuette on Tuesday unveiled a new “Calley abandoned Trump” website highlighting the lieutenant governor’s decision to withdraw his presidential endorsement last year after old recordings surfaced of Trump making vulgar and sexually charged comments about women.

“When Republicans needed Brian Calley the most during the last election, Brian Calley abandoned them,” said Stu Sandler, executive director of the Better Jobs Stronger Families super PAC. “Conservatives will never forget how Brian Calley called for actions that would have led to President Hillary Clinton.”

Calley, who ended up voting for Trump by casting a straight-ticket Republican ballot, dismissed the criticism and downplayed the value of endorsements. He suggested Michigan voters “don’t like to be told who to vote for.”

“I think it says a lot about Bill Schuette that he literally can’t go one day without getting into the gutter,” Calley said in response the super PAC attack.

Calley’s challenges

The withdrawn endorsement could limit Calley’s appeal for Republican primary voters, said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell. Early surveys have shown Schuette with a double-digit advantage over Calley, who is not as well-known as the attorney general around the state despite his work in the Snyder administration.

“You just don’t have the same ability to generate press” when you’re lieutenant governor, Mitchell said. “Calley has to raise the money, he’s got to build his name identification and then he can make this a much closer race.”

Snyder’s approval ratings plummeted amid the Flint water contamination crisis and have not yet fully recovered, posing a challenge for Calley, who positioned himself as the public face of state-led recovery efforts in 2016.

Snyder and Schuette have feuded over various issues in Lansing, including the attorney general’s probe into the Flint water crisis, which Calley said Tuesday has been “politicized.”

Schuette and special prosecutor Todd Flood have charged Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and Chief Medical Officer Eden Wells with involuntary manslaughter related to outbreaks of fatal Legionnaires’ disease in Flint, as well as two state-appointed emergency managers and two other officials.

“I don’t think there’s any chance whatsoever they would have been charged with the things they’ve been charged with if Bill Schuette was not running for governor,” Calley told The News’ Nolan Finley during a morning radio interview on 910 AM in Metro Detroit. “I don’t see how anybody could possibly challenge that conclusion.”

Schuette’s gubernatorial campaign defended the attorney general’s handling of the Flint probe

“Just as the victims of forgotten rape kits deserved to have their cases heard and the victims of human trafficking deserve to be protected, those who were poisoned or even died in Flint deserve their day in court,” campaign spokeswoman Bridget Bush said. “And that is why Attorney General Schuette has taken their case, and he will not stand down because of these comments.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon used Tuesday’s announcement to criticize both Calley and Schuette.

“The Republican primary is a choice between the ineffectual cheerleader of a failed Snyder administration and a glory hound attorney general whose political ambitions are his only priority,” Dillon said in a statement.

Contenders for the Democratic nomination include former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, former Detroit health commissioner Abdul El-Sayed and Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar.

Snyder’s impact on race

While Snyder’s sluggish approval ratings could hurt Calley in the general election, the governor remains relatively popular with Republican primary voters, Mitchell said.

“If the governor’s not going to do well, you’re not going to do well, so you should just tie yourself to him and run with him and take all the support you can get,” Mitchell said. “If Brian Calley is smart, he will run hard with Rick Snyder all the way through.”

Snyder was scheduled to join Calley at campaign event in West Michigan on Tuesday afternoon. They also appeared together Monday in Detroit, where Snyder credited the lieutenant governor with playing a leading role in tax reform, mental health efforts and the fight against opioid abuse.

“I’m proud to have such a wonderful partner,” Snyder said.

Calley cast a tie-breaking Senate vote in 2011 on a major tax code overhaul that lowered taxes for business but eliminated some exemptions and credits for individuals.

He has courted conservatives by launching a petition drive to make the Michigan Legislature a part-time body, but grassroots activists have criticized the Snyder administration over certain policies, such as gas tax hikes to fund road repairs and Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Calley is a former legislator who served in the state House from 2007 through 2010 and was the youngest lieutenant governor in the country when he and Snyder took office in 2011.

While he was not a formal gubernatorial candidate until now, Calley had continued to raise money through his lieutenant governor committee. State records show he raised more than $1.5 million through Oct. 20 and had $1.7 million in cash reserves.

Schuette had built up a $2.3 million war chest by late October.

Michigan gubernatorial primaries, set for Aug. 7, are still more than nine months away.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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