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Michigan gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing is endorsed by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at her newly opened Detroit campaign headquarters. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

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Detroit — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer picked up a major endorsement Wednesday in her campaign to be Michigan’s next governor as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan backed her less than two months after trying to recruit an alternative candidate.

Experts say support from the mayor of Michigan’s largest city gives the Whitmer campaign a shot in the arm and reinforces her status as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination despite aggressive challengers.

“Detroit needs a partner in the governor's office who knows how to get things done right now, and without a doubt, that person is Gretchen Whitmer,” Duggan said as he joined the candidate at the grand opening of her new campaign headquarters on Livernois.

“You’ve got the Detroit community strongly behind you,” he said.

Whitmer urged local voters to support her so Duggan has “a partner in Lansing” after the November election.

The endorsement was a turnaround for Duggan, who along with others had urged Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township to get into the governor’s race. Peters declined, saying last month he is focused on his current job of representing the people of Michigan in the Senate.

Other high-profile Democrats who passed on joining the Democratic governor’s contest included U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Ann Arbor attorney Mark Bernstein and former Granholm administration official Andy Levin of Bloomfield Hills, who is instead running for the 9th Congressional District seat now held by his father, retiring Rep. Sander Levin of Royal Oak.

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Whitmer leads all early polls of the Democratic primary field that includes Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed and former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs. But the former state Senate minority leader and former interim Ingham County prosecutor has not polled as well in Metro Detroit.

Duggan said he believes Whitmer would be an advocate for improving public schools in Michigan. He also praised her efforts to put more funding into fixing Michigan roads.

“We have seen the scores slip — it’s not just Detroit — they are slipping in (school) districts across the state,” Duggan said. “We have not had leadership in Lansing that has dealt with the schools.”

Experts divided on impact

Duggan’s backing is a big development for Whitmer, said local political consultant and radio host Steve Hood, suggesting “everybody else should just get out of the race.”

The mayor is well connected with “Democratic big businessmen” and donors in and around Detroit who aren’t going to buck him and could help bankroll Whitmer’s campaign, Hood said.

“The biggest thing is whether he can turn out the vote in Detroit,” Hood said of Duggan. “He’s shown he can do it for himself, but I haven’t seen it for anybody else.”

Richard Czuba, founder and CEO of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group, said Duggan’s endorsement will make it hard for Democratic leaders to support anyone else. Czuba said he now expects other groups, including the United Auto Workers union, to start rallying around Whitmer.

“It seems to be as you watch this Democratic primary unfold, the party is starting to close ranks around Gretchen Whitmer,” Czuba said. “Mike Duggan was a big piece of that puzzle.”

But pollster and strategist Ed Sarpolus downplayed the importance of the Duggan endorsement for Whitmer, saying it shows that “apparently nobody else has attracted his attention.”

Whitmer will still have to “help herself,” he said. “She’s going to have to show up and prove to Detroit voters, to Wayne County voters, that she’s the candidate for them.”

Duggan’s endorsement will mean more if he backs it up with support on the ground, Sarpolus said.

“Bottom line is, there’s been a history of mayors in Detroit saying ‘I support you,’ but they don’t show up. They don’t raise money; they don’t march door to door with you.”

Sarpolus noted that Thanedar is running an aggressive campaign to catch Whitmer in the Democratic primary and “going where she should be seen.” The self-funded entrepreneur is the first candidate to run television ads and has committed nearly $6 million of his own money to the race.

Duggan passes over El-Sayed

Duggan endorsed Whitmer over El-Sayed, who had worked for the mayor as executive director of the Detroit Department of Health & Wellness Promotion in 2015. El-Sayed said in a WKAR interview last spring he expected to get Duggan’s endorsement but has more recently distanced himself from the administration over water shutoffs and other policies.

Duggan called El-Sayed a “smart, hard-working person.” Whitmer “just has a very impressive record,” the mayor said. “So this isn’t against anybody, this is for an outstanding candidate.”

El-Sayed’s campaign declined to comment on the endorsement on Wednesday.

Speaking to press after the rally, Whitmer said she would advocate for more jobs, skills training to help Michigan residents obtain high-wage jobs and lower auto insurance rates.

Whitmer said she is against legislation that would allow teachers to carry guns in schools.

“Every teacher I’ve talked to and every parent I know, me being one of them with kids in a high school in East Lansing, knows that adding more weapons into our schools is not the answer,” Whitmer said. “And I’m hopeful that the governor will stay true to his philosophy and veto any legislation that gets to his desk.”

Some Democrats have worried that recent gubernatorial nominees from mid-Michigan, such as former Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, haven’t resonated with voters in Detroit.

Duggan’s endorsement came after three high-profile Wayne County officials announced last year they would back Whitmer in her bid for governor. Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Executive Warren Evans and Prosecutor Kym Worthy teamed up in October to announce their endorsement.

Napoleon said he is being considered as a running mate for Whitmer.

Whitmer has been polling nearly even with Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is the presumptive front-runner in the Republican governor’s campaign. Whitmer led Schuette by seven percentage points in a Jan. 16-19 hypothetical match-up poll of 600 likely Michigan voters.

nterry@detroitnews.com

joosting@detroitnews.com

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