Whitmer ignores ‘chatter’ as Peters declines gov run

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters said Tuesday he has no intention to run for governor this year despite urging by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and others who have not yet backed Democratic primary frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer.

Speaking with The Detroit News at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Peters said he was flattered by the recruitment effort but is focused on his current job.

“I was elected to serve the people of Michigan in the U.S. Senate,” the Bloomfield Township Democrat said. “It is my intention to do that, and so I am not running for governor.”

Peters is the latest high profile Democrat to pass up a chance to join the governor’s race. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Ann Arbor attorney Mark Bernstein and former Granholm administration official Andy Levin of Bloomfield Hills explored runs but decided last year against gubernatorial campaigns.

Whitmer leads all early polls of the Democratic primary race, but the former state Senate minority leader from East Lansing has not polled as well in Metro Detroit. In head-to-head polling, she is running near even with Attorney General Bill Schuette, the early favorite for the Republican nomination.

MIRS subscription news service first reported Jan. 3 about the Peters’ push based on anonymous sources. Bridge Magazine on Monday reported that Duggan, United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams and Detroit Rev. Wendell Anthony tried to persuade him to join the race earlier this month, according to unnamed sources.

Duggan’s office hasn’t confirmed details of the meeting, but Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley told The News and other outlets the mayor “believes it is essential for Michigan to elect a Democratic governor in 2018.”

Duggan has “had positive meetings with Gretchen Whitmer as well as other potential candidates as part of that process” but “does not comment on the details of any of those meetings,” Wiley said in a statement.

Kildee has also been urged to reconsider his decision to sit out the race, but a spokesman said Tuesday he is “committed to his work in Congress and will not be running for governor this year.”

Whitmer on Monday picked up a key union endorsement from the Michigan Education Association but has not yet won the backing of the UAW or Duggan, who said last week he may not endorse a gubernatorial candidate until he knows who all files to run before the April 24 deadline.

"Whitmer is focused on the people of Michigan and how we build an economy where everyone has access to good-paying jobs, high-quality healthcare, safe roads, and working infrastructure,” campaign manager Keenan Pontoni said in a Tuesday statement.

“She's not paying attention to chatter from the sidelines. This campaign has surpassed almost every previous campaign in terms of organization, fundraising and endorsements, and will remain focused on the people of Michigan and electing a governor who will be in their corner."

Democratic leaders want to field a gubernatorial nominee who can carry a ticket in 2018 and not just “squeak by” in the governors’ race, said Target-Insyght pollster Ed Sarpolous. While Whitmer is the clear primary frontrunner at this point, she has not polled particularly strongly in Detroit and bellwether Macomb County.

“No one is anti-Gretchen,” Sarplous said of Democrats. “It’s ‘do we have the best candidate?’ That’s where it’s at.”

The current Democratic field includes Whitmer, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs of Farmington Hills.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat who like many of her congressional colleagues has not yet endorsed a gubernatorial candidate, said she does not have a problem with any of the candidates already in the race.

“I don’t think there’s angst” with Whitmer, Dingell said. “I just think that many of us tend to keep our powder dry. I’ve talked to Gretchen regularly. I’ve talked to all the candidates because I’m really focused on winning next year.”

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester, whose tenure in the state Legislature overlapped with Whitmer’s, said he suspects Democrats are skittish about her because she was a “bulldog” for former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and “embraced the Granholm philosophy.”

“It’s something she will assuredly have to defend,” said Bishop, a former Senate majority leader who often fought with Granholm.

Republicans have blasted Granholm’s policies during eight years in office as being responsible for Michigan’s “Lost Decade” of large job losses that started well before the Great Recession.

Whitmer was the first Democrat to declare for the race in January 2017. She raised $3 million last year, her campaign announced this month ahead of the Jan. 31 reporting deadline.

Four years ago this month, former UAW President Bob King urged Whitmer to join the 2014 governor’s race and challenge eventual nominee Mark Schauer, the former congressman from Battle Creek, in the Democratic primary. Whitmer had already decided against a run and stuck by that decision.

Schauer started the race with little name recognition in Detroit but built it up over time, said former campaign manager B.J. Neidhardt, arguing Whitmer has an opportunity to do the same.

“This is a chicken-before-the-egg argument,” he said. “You’ve got to run a campaign to create name ID. It looks to me like Gretchen is putting together the kind of campaign to do that. She’s outraising opponents and amassing an amazing volunteer operation. She’s clearly moving around the state. The name ID is going to come. I for one am excited about her candidacy.”

But the Republican Governors Association, citing ongoing candidate recruitment efforts, said Whitmer “continues to struggle to unify her party, hurting her chances in the general election.”

Schuette is competing with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck for the GOP gubernatorial nomination but has dominated the early endorsement race. His campaign on Tuesday announced support from 46 of 63 Republican lawmakers in the state House and 13 of 27 Republicans in the state Senate.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said she expects to endorse someone soon for 2018 and was not part of efforts to recruit Peters.

“Right now Gretchen Whitmer is the candidate,” Lawrence said. “There’s been a lot of talk about other people and nobody else has stepped up, so Gretchen Whitmer is like the heir apparent. She’s working hard. She hasn’t been deterred by the different names thrown out there. So it looks like it’s going to be Gretchen.”

The window for another Democrat to enter the race is narrowing, Sarpolous said, noting a well-funded candidate would need about a month to collect enough signatures to make the ballot ahead of the filing deadline in late April, when Democrats will also hold a pre-nomination convention.

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.

Granholm, the last Democrat to win a Michigan gubernatorial race, hailed from Northville and had served as Wayne County corporation counsel. But Lawrence said she does not think Whitmer’s lack of historical connections to Detroit will preclude her from the nomination.

“I want a person who is truly aware of the issues and the changes in Southeast Michigan, but I also need someone who’s going to lead the state,” Lawrence said. “I don’t think you’re limited just because you’re from one part of the state. If you are truly a committed candidate for this position, then you will educate yourself.”

Retiring U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, whose son considered a gubernatorial run but will instead seek to replace his dad in Congress, agreed that Whitmer’s mid-Michigan roots will not be a deciding factor in the primary race.

“I think the main question about anybody who runs for governor … are the leadership qualities and the ability to take those leadership qualities and connect with the public and understand them,” said Levin, D-Royal Oak. “And that is more about the human being and not necessarily where they come from.”

Democrats expect 2018 to be a good year considering GOP President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings and the tendency of Michigan voters to favor change after eight years of rule by one party, in this case Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the GOP-led Legislature.

Dingell, who was one of the first to predict Trump could win Michigan in 2016, said the party must still work harder at defining its message heading into fall 2018 elections.

“The party has got to start becoming more inclusive,” said Dingell, who is not endorsing a candidate yet. “We’ve got to make sure that everybody feels that they’re a part of it. We’ve got to get organized. We’ve got to make sure the people that were frustrated last year, we need them. We need those that stayed home.”