Education union endorses Whitmer for governor

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Center Line — Michigan Education Association officials on Monday endorsed Gretchen Whitmer for governor, urging roughly 140,000 public school teachers, staff and other member educators to rally behind her campaign for the Democratic nomination.

The group is the largest union so far to back Whitmer, an East Lansing Democrat who has secured support from several labor groups but not yet won the backing of the influential United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International unions.

“As governor, Gretchen isn’t going to tell educators what to do, she is going to ask us,” MEA President Paula Herbart said during an endorsement event at Wolfe Middle School in Center Line, where a friendly crowd repeatedly chanted Whitmer’s name.

“She is committed to listening to the voices of front-line experts in classrooms across the state before moving forward with changes that will affect us and our students,” Herbert continued, “…and that will be a welcome change to the way business is done in Lansing.”

Whitmer spoke to dozens of teachers who had the day off for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, vowing to drive a “real education agenda” for Michigan. The former state Senate minority leader has not yet released her full education blueprint but told The Detroit News she intends to do so in the next month or two.

“Right now, we’re not doing enough for the kids of this state, and let me be clear, it is not the fault of the heroes on the frontline every single day,” she said. “It’s because our leaders in Lansing have undermined local control, they’ve undervalued education through budget cuts and they’ve under appreciated the educators and support staff in our schools.”

The endorsement helps Whitmer, who now claims support from unions representing 325,000 Michigan workers. The 13,000-member Michigan Nurses Association endorsed former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed in November.

Despite her early frontrunner status, Whitmer continues to face several hurdles in her quest for the Democratic nomination.

El-Sayed has proven an aggressive campaigner, Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar is spending heavily on television advertising and Whitmer has not yet won the backing of influential Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who said last week he may wait until the April 24 filing deadline to see who all enters the race.

Asked about Duggan’s non-committal position on the governor’s race, Whitmer told The News she is working to “forge an alliance” with mayors across the state.

“I feel good about where we are,” she said. “We’re just going keep working, out-working, building and bringing a vision that people know will move them and their families forward.”

The MEA endorsement was not a surprise but is a “big win” for Whitmer, said Democratic strategist TJ Bucholz, who formerly consulted with Thanedar’s campaign. There has been some “trepidation” by larger unions to back Whitmer or any of the other declared candidates, but the MEA support could discourage other Democrats who may be considering a late run, he said.

“One of the parts of their calculus has to be currying favor with the unions that have not committed,” Bucholz said. “I think the MEA endorsement today has certainly closed that window a bit.”

UAW support could be especially critical for the Democratic nomination, Bucholz added, predicting most major unions will likely back a candidate in the first quarter of 2018.

“While there’s been some primary jockeying a little bit here, no one in any labor union in Michigan wants a Schuette gubernatorial run to work,” he said, referencing Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, an early favorite for the GOP nomination. “So I think eventually they’ll either be in, likely with Whitmer, or they’ll sit out.”

Herbart said the MEA spent several months considering its endorsement, interviewing all willing candidates prior to a final decision by the union’s political action committee. The association plans to support Whitmer both financially and organizationally.

The MEA took longer to endorse Whitmer than it did with 2014 Democratic nominee Mark Schauer, a former congressman from Battle Creek, because there are more candidates running this year, Herbart said. The union backed Schauer in October 2013, nearly a year before he won an uncontested primary.

“It’s my hope that all of labor can coalesce around candidates, but as you know, we already have different groups supporting different candidates,” Herbart said. “We believe that our mission in the MEA is to educate our members to understand why we feel Gretchen is our best candidate for the students of Michigan.”

Whitmer, 46, served in the state Legislature from 2001 through the end of 2014, when term limits forced her out of office. Her Democratic colleagues chose her as senate minority leader in 2011. She served as interim Ingham County prosecutor in 2016 and declared her campaign for governor in January 2017.

As Democratic leader in the senate, she fought against a law recently overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court that took three percent out of educators’ paychecks to fund retiree health care, according to her campaign. The law was signed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, but defended by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

“I was one of the few people that opposed it the whole way through, and I’m proud of that. I knew what it would mean for teachers, just like I opposed cuts that came out of both Democratic and Republican governors,” she said.

Total funding for K-12 education has increased under GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, but much of the bump has gone towards paying down retirement debt rather than directly into the classroom, and per-pupil finding dropped his first year in office. K-12 funding was relatively steady over Granholm’s tenure but dipped her final two years as the state struggled through the Great Recession.

As a candidate for governor, Whitmer has said she supports funding universal prekindergarten, wants to invest in classrooms and put “much-need oversight in place to hold charter schools accountable,” according to her campaign.

Whitmer is a product of Michigan public schools and has two teenage daughters currently attending high school in the East Lansing Public School District. They joined her at the MEA endorsement event.

“We get once chance to educate a child,” Whitmer said. “It is time to stand up and fight back. I am ready to work with everyone who wants to solve a problem, but I’m not afraid to take on anyone who stands in our way.”

Michigan voters will select Democratic and Republican gubernatorial nominees in August. The winners will compete with third-party candidates in the Nov. 6 general election to replace Snyder, who is term limited and cannot seek re-election.