Whitmer manager out amid ‘inappropriate behavior’ claim

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic candidate for Michigan governor, said Thursday she has received the resignation of campaign manager Keenan Pontoni, citing concerns over allegations of “inappropriate behavior” with former co-workers.

Democratic candidates for Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer

The former Senate minority leader said she received a “credible report” Wednesday that Pontoni had engaged in inappropriate behavior with people in the workplace “a number of years ago,” indicating the allegations stem from incidents before he joined her campaign in August.

“For that reason I have asked for and received his resignation effective immediately,” Whitmer said in a statement.

Whitmer’s campaign declined to elaborate on the statement or allegations against Pontoni. Political director Dana Sherry will serve as interim campaign manager, said Whitmer spokeswoman Annie Ellison.

Pontoni responded late Thursday in a statement released to The Detroit News, saying he learned a day earlier that someone he had worked with early on in his career accused him of saying “manipulative and insulting things to them later on” and reported, “that I had communicated inappropriately with others.”

“Though the allegation as presented to me does not match up with the facts as I know them, I am committed to the continued success of the candidates I have worked for,” he said. “As a result, I made the decision to resign my position so that I'd not become a distraction to the Whitmer campaign.”

The firing is the latest major staff shakeup for Whitmer, who launched her campaign in January of 2017 and is considered a front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Pontoni, a Michigan native, was her second campaign manager, replacing Jerid Kurtz last year. Whitmer also replaced her original spokesperson in May.

The latest move could spur renewed speculation about the stability of Whitmer’s campaign, said Susan Demas, owner and editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

“But I think the bigger picture is most Democrats have adopted a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and she’s sticking to that,” Demas said. “Frankly, if she didn’t, she’d be subject to wider criticism.”

Pontoni made national news in 2017, 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. Roll Call newspaper called him “a rising star in a party desperate for fresh blood.”

Pontoni ran former state Rep. Gretchen Driskell’s congressional campaign in 2016. She lost her general election matchup with Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, 55 percent to 40 percent, but is trying 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 Maureen Brosnan’s City Council race in Livonia. He worked for Michigan House Democrats between 2013 and 2015.

“I am grateful for the time I had working with the Whitmer campaign and I am very proud of the team and culture we built together,” Pontoni said in his statement.