James Craig slams 'Queen Gretchen,' vows to win over urban voters

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — James Craig, former Detroit police chief and likely Republican candidate for governor, promised Monday to campaign for support in Michigan cities as he leveled a new round of attacks on Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

During a 30-minute speech at Kent County Republican Party headquarters, Craig referred to the incumbent as "Queen Whitmer" and focused on what his strategy would be for winning over young people and voters in urban areas. But he didn't formally launch his campaign, which he is expected to do later this week.

"I offer to lead our Republican Party into areas that haven't historically voted Republican and show that we are all among friends, and there are no enemies when it comes to Michigan's future," Craig said at one point.

James Craig, former Detroit police chief, speaks on Monday, July 19, 2021, at Kent County Republican Party headquarters in Grand Rapids.

Craig, who's from Detroit, retired as the city's police chief on June 1 after spending more than four decades in law enforcement. Many Republicans view him as a potential top contender to claim the party's nomination in August 2022.

On Monday, he criticized Whitmer's handling of a surge of unemployment claims and said Democratic policies had hurt young people by canceling in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"The young people of today don't want to sit at home and get free money," Craig said. "They want to experience the world, and in fact, they want to change the world.

"You can't change the world sitting at home in your pajamas getting free money waiting on Queen Gretchen to issue her royal decree."

Craig said Republicans need to take their message "into Democrat communities," mentioning specifically Detroit, Flint, Traverse City, Marquette and Grand Rapids in his speech. Grand Rapids is the largest city in Kent County, a former GOP stronghold that has been trending toward Democrats in recent years.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump lost Kent County by 6 percentage points to Democrat Joe Biden. Republicans "are going to win Kent County," Craig said Monday.

The former police chief didn't take questions from reporters after the speech.

Rodericka Applewhaite, spokeswoman for the Michigan Democratic Party, called Craig a "typical politician" with a "cabal of insider consultants."

"This prolonged dress rehearsal tour won’t get Michiganders any closer to uncovering where James Craig stands on the questions he’s been dodging," Applewhaite said. 

Likewise, Jeff Timmer, a longtime Republican consultant in Michigan who has been a vocal critic of Trump, filed a campaign finance complaint, claiming that Craig had violated the law by not officially forming a fundraising committee yet.

Timmer contended in his complaint that Craig has spent money on gas, internet and consultants to advance his campaign, which he hasn't formally launched yet.

John Yob, a political consultant who has appeared with Craig and been linked to his upcoming campaign, pushed back on the complaint.

"Private citizens are allowed to give speeches and volunteer their time to help the party," Yob said. "Those people who are excited about his potential upcoming announcement don't have much longer to wait."

About 100 people were inside the Kent County GOP headquarters for Craig's address. When he officially launches his campaign, he will join six Republican candidates for governor who have already formed campaign fundraising committees, including anti-lockdown activist and chiropractor Garrett Soldano of Mattawan and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores.

Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke of Bloomfield Township has said he's "seriously considering" running for governor. And former U.S. Senate candidate John James of Farmington Hills is another potential candidate whom Michigan Republicans are watching, but he has said little about his personal feelings about a possible run.

Rob VerHeulen, chairman of the Kent County Republican Party, said he, like others, is waiting to see what Craig decides about his expected campaign for governor.

"I think he has an appeal to the urban centers, has an appeal to all Republicans," VerHeulen said. "I think he's going to make some significant inroads into what are not traditionally perceived as strong Republican areas."

Craig's largest applause line Monday came when he criticized some Democrats for pushing to "defund" the police.

"We need to be supporting them," said Chris Kerber, the 21-year-old chairman of the Michigan Federation of College Republicans.

During an appearance on Fox News Wednesday night, Craig said he will make an "important announcement" this week. For weeks, he has been privately participating in discussions with key Republicans as he contemplates a campaign for the party's nomination for governor in 2022. It's likely to be a contested primary race with the winner challenging Whitmer, who is expected to seek a second term.

Craig's experience leading the police department in Michigan's largest city and his reputation as a fighter have many within the GOP excited about his expected entry into the race. However, there are also unknowns about the former chief, including where he stands on key political issues and how he'll handle questions about Trump, who has become a political lightning rod.

The former chief gave his first political speech on July 6 in Jackson, where he called for unity within the party and emphasized his support for the police, the military, gun rights, anti-abortion policies, education choice and self-reliance.