James Craig enters gov's race, vows to get message out over protesters
Detroit — Former Detroit police chief James Craig became the most high-profile Republican to enter the 2022 Michigan governor's race with a one-sentence Tuesday announcement at Belle Isle amid combative chants from protesters, standing just inches away from him.
Craig's formal campaign kickoff, which has been expected for weeks, pointed to the tumultuous political times the battleground state is in during the COVID-19 pandemic, disputes over the integrity of the last election and debate over law enforcement strategies. The 65-year-old Republican hopes to challenge Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer next year in a reelection race that could be contentious and close.
The demonstrators who interrupted his Tuesday event chanted that the former chief is "full of hate," and he called them "paid protesters” who never should’ve been allowed to heckle his rally. Craig also said his "big disappointment" was with the state Department of Natural Resources, which runs Belle Isle, a state park.
“The DNR knew about the potential for protests yesterday, I’m told. ... They indicated they were going to come and move the protesters back," Craig told The Detroit News. "That never happened. So it makes me wonder if it was by design.”
In an interview before his stop at a second Detroit site, he accused the DNR of failing to take steps to protect him and his campaign team from demonstrators on Belle Isle, knowing "this group had the potential to become violent.” According to text messages about a potential protest ahead of the event, a DNR official told the campaign the department "will be prepared" and the Michigan State Police were en route.
Later in an interview on "Tucker Carlson Tonight" on Fox News, Craig said it was Whitmer who needed to be held accountable for what occurred during his announcement.
"She oversees the Michigan State Police and the Department of (Natural) Resources that covers the island," Craig said. "I know that this is not accidental."
But DNR spokesman Edward Golder said Craig's campaign did not request a security plan for the event and affirmed that its leaders understood that crowd control would be the responsibility of the campaign, which appeared to be acknowledged by Craig campaign spokesman Ted Goodman.
"Not on you guys," Goodman said in a Tuesday text obtained by The Detroit News, to a DNR official about the crowd control. "We know."
Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy described Craig's claims as "a baseless attack." The DNR even proactively contacted Craig's campaign to ensure they had the proper permit, and law enforcement was immediately dispatched when a problem arose, Leddy said.
A State Police sergeant was sent to Belle Isle Tuesday morning in response to a 911 call that "indicated there were approximately 200 protesters on the island," said Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police. But when the sergeant arrived, he found only about 20 people remaining, she said.
"They were peaceful and no violations of law were observed, so no contact was made with the individuals and the sergeant left the island," Banner said.
Political consultants said the Craig campaign made a strategic error about where it launched the GOP campaign in a Democratic stronghold that has shown support for Whitmer. Republicans are hoping the former police chief can get more votes in the city than prior party candidates.
Mario Morrow, a Southfield-based political consultant, said it was "cockiness and arrogance" for Craig to assume he'd meet a warm welcome in the city.
"Mr. Craig thinks he is more loved in Detroit than he is," Morrow said about the Democratic stronghold. "Detroit should not have been the announcement site. You go where people love you and support you."
Adolph Mongo, a longtime Detroit Democratic consultant, noted that the Detroit Will Breathe protesters were mostly White.
"These aren't even Black protesters," Mongo said about Tuesday's demonstration. "He ain't seen nothing yet."
Both consultants questioned using Belle Isle as the campaign launch site.
"It's a poor venue for an announcement. It's too open," Morrow said. "That was dangerous. There didn't seem to be much protection for the candidate."
Craig, a newcomer to running for public office, still needs to maneuver through what promises to be a large primary field. Nine other Michigan Republicans have formed fundraising committees to run for governor next year or are in the process of doing so.
The other candidates include Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano, an anti-lockdown activist, and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon of Norton Shores.
The winner of the August 2022 primary will take on Whitmer, who is anticipated to seek reelection and is unlikely to face a viable primary challenger. She won her first term against then-Attorney General Bill Schuette by 9 percentage points in 2018.
Protest changes campaign plans
The feud between Craig and protest group Detroit Will Breathe from the summer of 2020 spilled over into Tuesday's campaign launch. Before the event, demonstrators took over the waterfront site chosen as its backdrop, with downtown Detroit in the distance. About three dozen protesters marched to Belle Isle’s Sunset Point on foot, chanting: “Hey hey, ho ho, James Craig has got to go!”
Then the chant changed to: “James Craig is full of hate! We won’t let him win our state.”
A small chant of “Craig! Craig! Craig!” among supporters failed to pick up steam.
At one point, Craig advanced to a podium and spoke, announcing briefly that he was running. Then the demonstrators drowned him out, and he departed.
After relocating, Craig told The News he was disappointed the demonstrators didn't respect his First Amendment right to speak. "They wanted to disrupt the speech, and they did that," he said, adding they were "very aggressive with my staff."
A 44-year former law enforcement officer, Craig accused the DNR of having "no respect for my safety or the safety of my team. They would not show up knowing that this group had the potential to become violent.”
The former police chief vowed he is "still going to get the message out."
Brian Silverstein, a Detroit Will Breathe member who was at Tuesday’s protest, denied demonstrators were aggressive with Craig.
“There was no violence,” Silverstein said. “It’s incredible that Craig is trying to talk about people being aggressive when his officers are allowed to run through protests with automobiles, beat people down (and) go through neighborhoods with ‘no-knock’ raids. That’s aggression.”
Silverstein called Craig former President Donald “Trump’s man in Michigan” and said the former police chief ran a police department that favored questionable policies such as the use of facial recognition technology in identifying suspects.
The group and Michigan Liberation were the main organizers of the protest, he said.
Detroit Will Breathe repeatedly called for Craig to be fired during the summer of demonstrations a year ago, alleging Detroit officers used unjustified force during demonstrations. Craig condemned the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, calling it "murder."
A federal judge in September 2020 granted a temporary restraining order requested by the group that barred Detroit police officers from using certain tactics and equipment on "peaceful protesters" for 14 days, including the use of striking weapons like batons and shields and chemical agents including, but not limited to, tear gas and pepper spray.
At a May 30, 2020 rally, some demonstrators threw objects at police, including small bricks, M-80 fireworks and rocks, Craig said at the time.
At the second press conference, Craig called the dissenters a “small group of paid protesters” who never should’ve been allowed to heckle his rally.
“They do not represent the majority of Detroiters," he said.
Craig was asked how he knew the protesters were paid.
"Admittedly, I don't" have evidence of money changing hands, Craig said. He said he believed the 2020 protests, which popped up nationwide after Floyd's death, were organized.
On Twitter, Detroit Will Breathe claimed success. It posted a picture of the smaller, relocated press conference with the caption "Craig had to move his press conference to the balcony of a gentrification building."
The second press conference was held at The Icon at 200 Walker. The entrance to the riverfront building is gated. Not only did guards check IDs before cars were allowed admission, but supporters and media were also escorted up to the eighth-floor balcony in small groups.
Some attendees offended
Patricia Pulliam, 77, said she is a lifelong Democratic voter but will be making an exception in Craig's case. She was on the island to see Craig's campaign event.
"I have respect for him," Pulliam said during the protest delay. "He took care of this city as police chief and would take care of the state as governor."
The demonstrators used profanity in several chants, including one where they cursed both Craig and Mayor Mike Duggan. Pulliam, who attended the Belle Isle rally to hear Craig, wasn't a fan of the tactic.
"You can have a difference of opinion," she said, "but the language?"
Carl Meyers of Dearborn started his workday late Tuesday in hopes of hearing Craig’s thoughts on the future and fiscal policy before protesters interrupted the former chief on Belle Isle. Some of the protesters got gruff with Meyers.
“Don’t touch me!” he said to a few, as the group retreated, following Craig.
“It’s not right, in America, that somebody would be denied the right to speak,” Meyers said. “(The protesters) were able to be heard, and they should have let (Craig) be heard, too.”
Why Craig's running
In deciding to run, Craig said he visited several places that shaped him, including his childhood home, his alma mater of Cass Technical High School and the 10th Precinct, where Craig started his career as a Detroit cop in 1977 before being laid off.
When Craig found work again as a cop, it was with the Los Angeles Police Department. Craig stayed in LA from 1981 to 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile, before becoming chief of police in Portland, Maine and Cincinnati.
The former police chief touted his hometown as the creator of the American middle class and, during World War II, the Arsenal of Democracy. He said he was worried about Michigan under Whitmer, citing the many infrastructure challenges Detroit faces.
"You have to lead from the front, and that's not happening" under the governor, Craig said.
The former police chief was asked about masking policies in Michigan schools. A variety of county health departments, including those in Wayne and Oakland counties, have imposed mask mandates for K-12 students, staff members and visitors to guard against COVID-19. In counties without health department mandates, some school systems have adopted mask requirements.
Craig said parents should be allowed to make that choice, not school systems.
He also questioned whether President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate through a federal regulation for large employers was a slippery slope away from the American system.
“Making mandates for vaccines?” Craig said. “What are we becoming? Socialist? Communist?”
Craig is drawing on his law enforcement background as a candidate. Last month, he assembled the Law Enforcement Action Team, a group of Michigan sheriffs and prosecutors, Democrats and Republicans, who this fall are expected to recommend new state laws "to support police," the Associated Press reported.
On Tuesday, the Michigan Democratic Party said Craig's announcement amounted to him "attempting to reboot his previously announced gubernatorial campaign after a months-long clunky roll-out."
The Craig campaign had three stops planned Tuesday, including one in Grand Rapids. Because the Detroit stop ran long, the second stop in Flint was canceled, the campaign said.
Staff Writer Oralandar Brand Williams contributed.