Anti-lockdown leader announces campaign to challenge Gov. Whitmer

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Garrett Soldano, a former college football standout who gained an online following opposing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, will seek the Republican nomination for governor in 2022.

Soldano, 42, of Mattawan is a chiropractor and has served as a co-chairman of the Unlock Michigan campaign, which is working to repeal one of the two state laws that allows the governor to declare a state of emergency. He announced his candidacy Wednesday, becoming the most well-known GOP gubernatorial hopeful in a field that still lacks candidates with experience in elected office.

But Soldano said in an interview that he prides himself on not being a "politician." Former Republican President Donald Trump "blazed a trail" showing that he doesn't "have to be a politician to get elected," he said.

Garrett Soldano

"We need to reopen Michigan and start the recovery by giving people their lives back," Soldano said. "The pandemic hurt people who got the coronavirus, but Gov. Whitmer is responsible for the closing of businesses, kids falling behind in school and people losing their livelihoods all in the name of a power grab."

The former Western Michigan University all-conference linebacker won fans among opponents of Whitmer's executive orders by posting videos on social media and voicing his objections to policies, including a statewide mask mandate.

His first video came at the height of the initial surge in Michigan and in response to Whitmer's April 9, 2020, extension of Michigan's stay-at-home order until April 30, 2020, he said. While supporters of the Democratic governor's restrictions have argued the policies saved lives, Soldano has said they violated residents' rights, negatively impacted families and hammered businesses, including his own chiropractic office in Kalamazoo.

Soldano's campaign released an 11-minute launch video, entitled "Taking Back Michigan," Wednesday that featured residents talking about the repercussions of the the state's emergency orders. The video included Owosso barber Karl Manke, who gained attention for defying COVID-19 orders and keeping his shop open.

"We need a person like Garrett that is not a politician, that is willing to take off the gloves and fight," Manke said.

In 2018, Whitmer won her first term by defeating then-Attorney General Bill Schuette by 9 percentage points. She's expected to seek reelection next year.

Harness a movement?

Former U.S Senate candidate John James, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, former state House Speaker Tom Leonard, businessman Kevin Rinke and conservative radio host Tudor Dixon are among potential Whitmer challengers being discussed in Michigan GOP circles.

It's unclear, however, how seriously any of them are considering joining the race. As of now, four lesser-known Republicans have formed committees to run: Austin Chenge of Grand Rapids, Ryan Kelley of Allendale, Ralph ReBandt of Washington Township and Bob Scott of Howell.

Soldano believes his work against Whitmer's COVID-19 response and his ability to organize what he described as a grassroots movement will set him apart from other Republican contenders.

"I've always been a fighter in my life," he said. "I have always fought for everything that has been given to me. I am not the kind of guy who is going to quit."

The Michigan Democratic Party slammed Soldano on Wednesday, saying he's "a fringe candidate with no path to victory."

"Soldano's entry reinforces the complete recruitment failure Republicans are continuing to suffer as viable candidates refuse to get this primary off the ground," said Rodericka Applewhaite, the party's spokeswoman.

He's a native of Coldwater and a 1996 graduate of Onsted High School. He played college football at Western Michigan University, where he was all an All-Mid American Conference linebacker in 2000.

After college, he was signed by the Chicago Bears but the team waived him before training camp. He eventually went to school to become a chiropractor. He now operates Soldano Family Chiropractic Center in Kalamazoo. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children.

Social media following

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, he founded a group called Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine with a page that gained more than 380,000 followers on Facebook.

The social media company shut down the page. At the time, Soldano told media outlets that Facebook had flagged it for violating standards against advocating the spread of COVID-19. But he described the page as "non-violent" and a "positive movement."

He also co-founded the group Stand Up Michigan and his YouTube channel has more than 7,600 subscribers. His 252 videos mostly feature him speaking directly to the camera about the pandemic. In one video from Aug. 6, 2020, Soldano said he's "not against masks" but is "against you forcing me to wear a mask." A March 7, 2021, video was entitled, "no more face diaper mandates."

"There are many, many states that are releasing the mask mandate which should never, ever have been put in place to begin with," Soldano said in the video.

Unlock Michigan co-chairs Garrett Soldano and Meshawn Maddock speak to supporters in Lansing. Boxes filled with a reported 539,384 petition signatures were delivered by Unlock Michigan to the Michigan Department of State Bureau of Elections on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020.

The Centers for Disease for Control and Prevention says COVID-19 spreads mainly through respiratory droplets. Masks are "a simple barrier" that help to prevent those droplets from reaching others, according to the CDC

Through an epidemic order, Whitmer's administration generally requires people participating in gatherings to wear face masks.

In a Jan. 15, 2021, video, Soldano described a visit he had received from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He said a "special agent" came to his house because someone reported him as an "extremist."

"I got to share our story about our movement on how we've always been a nonviolent, positive movement. Isn't that something?" Soldano said. "For the person who reported me to the FBI, nice try. Try again."

In an interview this week, he spoke out against mandates the Whitmer administration has used to combat the pandemic. He said other states opened their economies more quickly than Michigan and are now doing better than Michigan in the fight against COVID-19.

For nearly a month, Michigan has led the nation in new COVID-19 cases per population, according to tracking by the CDC. Overall, Michigan ranks 35th for cases per population for the entire pandemic.

Soldano spoke positively of Trump, the former Republican president who lost Michigan by 3 percentage points to Democrat Joe Biden last year but remains popular among GOP voters. Trump "always did what was right" for the country, Soldano said.

The 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary is still 15 months away, but candidates for governor in Michigan usually launch their campaigns the year before the election.

The last Republican governor, Rick Snyder, formed his campaign committee in March 18, 2009, before the August 2010 primary. Whitmer formed her committee on Jan. 3, 2017, before the August 2018 primary.