Michigan Black officials push Biden for Black female VP over Whitmer

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Black female leaders in Michigan have complicated views on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's potential selection as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden's running mate amid a national push for him to pick a woman of color.

Biden, who is expected to announce his choice for vice president this week, has previously said he'll pick a woman.

But some Democrats say the former vice president needs to pick an African American woman, citing a handful of Black female contenders for the job and the heavy support Biden received from Black voters in the primary. The former vice president not only won the Michigan Democratic presidential primary but defeated U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont 63%-28% in Detroit — the state's largest city with a population that is more than 80% African American.

"It can’t just be about the vote anymore," said state Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, of Black women's support of Democrats. "I think we’re at a turning point in our country."

From left, Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Gov.  Gretchen Whitmer and Cory Booker at the Joe Biden campaign event at Renaissance High School in Detroit on Mar. 9, 2020.

Santana, who founded the nonprofit Black Women in Michigan Politics, is among those hoping Biden picks a Black woman as his running mate. High-level offices need to reflect "the country that we live in," she said.

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Florida and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice have been mentioned among four African American women whom Biden should consider selecting for vice president. There have been no reports of the former vice president interviewing any of the four Black women.

Among those who have been vetted is Whitmer, a white woman and Michigan's top officeholder, who flew to Delaware to meet with Biden in person on Aug. 3. Whitmer, 48, an attorney by trade and former state lawmaker, was first elected Michigan's governor in 2018.

She has become co-chairwoman for Biden's campaign and earned national praise for her aggressive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Michigan State Board of Education Vice President Pamela Pugh opposed selecting Whitmer, arguing the governor lacked national experience and rapport with Black voters needed to win the presidency in 2020.

Whitmer had reneged on campaign promises made to Black voters when she sought to close the majority-Black Benton Harbor high school and when she continued to defend the state from a lawsuit filed by Detroit students under the tenure of Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, Pugh said Monday.

The Whitmer administration did not respond to a request for comment.

Whitmer stopped her plans to close the Benton Harbor high school after Attorney General Dana Nessel opined that the governor did not have the authority to do so. The governor also eventually settled in the Detroit “right to literacy” case.

The Black women being considered for Biden’s running mate, on the other hand, have proven track records, especially on the national stage, wrote Pugh, an African American Democrat from Saginaw. "There is a need to keep Black women engaged, and this time we’re calling for a Black vice presidential candidate to be on that ticket,” she said.

“There are many of us and that’s what we’re expecting,” she said. To do otherwise, “would be a shock to them and a shock that I don’t know if the Biden candidacy could withstand," she added.

During the national debate about Biden's running mate, Whitmer created the Black Leadership Advisory Council last Wednesday "to elevate Black voices in state government." She also signed an executive order recognizing racism as a public health crisis.

In April, she signed another order to create the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities.

For Michigan, the possibility of having Whitmer in such a high-ranking office opens the door for the state to have more of a voice in federal politics, said Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, who is chairwoman of the Detroit Caucus. It also could pave the way for the state’s first African American governor in Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist.

Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit

If Whitmer became vice president, Gilchrist would likely become the only Black governor serving in the United States. He also would become Michigan's first African American governor.

But there are national issues at play that might outstrip the state-specific considerations, Gay-Dagnogo said. The pandemic’s impact on African Americans and the furor over the choking death of George Floyd in police custody have made it a difficult year, she said.

“Given the context of where we are, it would be amazing to have this historical moment in 2020,” Gay-Dagnogo said. "It was a year of calamity, but it also is a moment where we could have a strong African American woman as a running mate."

It's important for Michigan to keep Whitmer as its governor to continue the work her administration has been doing, said state Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor. Over the last four months, the state has gone from third nationally for most COVID-19 cases to No. 18.

State Sen. Erika Geiss

Geiss said it could alienate some voters if Biden doesn't pick one of the qualified Black women on the shortlist, such as Harris or Rice. 

"I think it would feel like a slap in the face, especially given how much Black women have helped prop up the Democratic Party," Geiss said.

Likewise, many African Americans feel Biden owes his nomination to the African American community, and Black women are the most committed group of voters in the Democratic Party, said Jonathan Kinloch, Democratic chairman of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in Southeast Michigan

Support from Black voters was key to the former vice president's primary victory in South Carolina in February, a win that helped turn around his campaign after losing the first three primaries and caucuses.

"The possibility has become an expectation," Kinloch said of the potential for Biden to choose a Black woman for vice president.

But Kinloch said he's keeping his "eyes on the prize" — winning the White House by beating President Donald Trump, who won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016.

"I don’t care if he picks Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck," Kinloch said. "It’s about the top of the ticket."

State Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit, said Biden's pick shouldn't be about color but about choosing whoever "is going to kick Trump’s a--."

Johnson doesn't like that Biden already vowed to pick a woman and argues former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who served in Republican President George W. Bush's administration, would be a good choice.

Of the remaining contenders, Johnson said her pick is Rice.

"I just think she’s an honorable, upstanding woman," Johnson said.