Ex-chief Craig delivers first political speech, says he voted for Trump

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Jackson — Former Detroit Police Chief James Craig urged Michigan voters on Tuesday to declare "independence" from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2022, but stopped short of announcing his candidacy for governor during his first political speech. 

Craig described his migration to the Republican Party and outlined his stances on various GOP touchstones during the roughly 20 minute address, which was preceded and followed by comments from Senate Majority Leaders Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser. 

Craig, who is expected to announce his candidacy for the Republican gubernatorial primary in the coming weeks, said his life experiences led him to become a Republican.

Former Detroit police Chief James Craig stopped short of announcing his candidacy for Michigan governor when he spoke to area Republicans Tuesday evening at the Under the Oaks Memorial Park in downtown Jackson.

Some of the experiences, Craig said, included witnessing cyclical poverty in minority communities that he said was exacerbated by government handouts as well as a lack of support for police from Democratic politicians. 

Craig told the crowd that he voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections, the comments coming shortly after someone in the crowd shouted "Trump traitor" at the beginning of Craig's address.

The 65-year-old Detroiter called for unity within the party and emphasized his support for police and military, gun rights, anti-abortion policies, education choice and self-reliance.

"What I can't respect is a victimhood mentality and that's the mentality being pushed by today's Democratic Party," he said. 

James Craig greets the crowd at the Under the Oaks event.

After criticizing Democratic U.S. Reps. Maxine Waters of California and Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, with whom he's clashed over policing policy, Craig also attacked Whitmer's response to the pandemic. 

“Please listen to me, Gov. Whitmer,” Craig said. “America isn't a monarchy. We aren’t ruled by kings and queens. We ended that back in 1776. 

"Make no mistake, at the ballot box in the year of 2022, we will be celebrating our independence from the rule of Gov. Whitmer," he said. 

Waters was a U.S. House member when Craig was a police officer in Los Angeles. In a meeting with a Black officers’ association after the Rodney King beating in 1991, Waters made “vile remarks” and questioned “how we could work for the LAPD as African Americans,” Craig said.

Craig said his transition to the Republican Party came full circle while working as a police chief in Portland, Maine, where he had the responsibility to approve concealed pistol licenses. His reflections on the importance of gun rights at that time eventually led to more public stances on the issue, he said. 

“I was committed to personally remaining non-political in my public role in keeping communities safe as police chief,” he said. “Privately, I found that my life experiences were leading me to vote Republican, including for President Trump in both elections.”

Linda Lee Tarver and her husband Clint Tarver of Lansing attend the gathering Tuesday.

The Michigan Democratic Party criticized Craig's speech, arguing the former police chief attempted to embrace Trump while staying mum on unsubstantiated allegations that the 2020 election was stolen. 

"This was a total thumb-on-the-scale event featuring heaps of establishment praise from MIGOP co-chairs Ron Weiser and Meshawn Maddock, Senator Mike Shirkey and other local Republican electeds to see if their cherry-picked candidate can land the lines he’s told to deliver in what’s already looking like a rigged primary for those that have actually launched their campaigns," said Rodericka Applewhaite, a spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party.

Craig's address occurred at the Under the Oaks memorial, where a convention of anti-slavery men met on July 6, 1854 to form a political party. The event, held by the Jackson County Republican Party, celebrated the 167th anniversary of the GOP. 

After the event, Weiser said primary voters would decide who would run against Whitmer in 2022, but said Craig would be a "formidable candidate." 

The former police chief's potential candidacy "better reflects the diversity of our party than many people who talk about it say," Weiser said. 

Patrick Barrett of Canton attended the event in a James Craig T-shirt gifted to him by his daughter at Father's Day. He hoped a Craig candidacy could help to "broaden our coalition" and reach minority and urban communities that typically vote for Democratic candidates.

James Craig told the crowd that his life experiences led him to become a Republican.

"Substantively, what he had to say was very good," said Barrett, who attended the event with his son, Sen. Tom Barrett, R-Charlotte. "You want somebody who's going to do what they say they're going to do, who's willing to take positions on the controversial issues of the day and doesn't sound like somebody who's going to just collapse at the first pressure."

Craig ended his 44-year career in law enforcement on June 1 and has been meeting privately with Republicans for weeks as he considers a campaign for the Republican 2022 gubernatorial primary. Weiser noted Tuesday that he had met with Craig, as he had with all "potential candidates"

During a formal May 10 announcement of his retirement in Detroit, Craig said he's been a conservative for at least a decade. But he declined to respond to other questions related to politics.

If Craig decides to run, he will likely enter a contested primary. 

Six Republicans have formed campaign fundraising committees to run for governor so far. The potential candidates include anti-lockdown activist and chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores.

Kerry Haley of Owosso listens as Craig calls for unity in the party and talks about support for police and the military, gun rights, anti-abortion policies, education choice and self-reliance.

Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township has said he's "seriously considering" running for governor. Michigan Republicans also are watching former U.S. Senate candidate John James of Farmington Hill, but James has said little about a potential gubernatorial run.

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.