GOP gubernatorial candidate Kevin Rinke touts 'new kind of leadership'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Plymouth — Vowing to serve Michigan as a leader who "can be trusted," conservative Metro Detroit businessman Kevin Rinke kicked off his gubernatorial campaign Thursday night with a crowd of supporters. 

The former head of the Rinke Automotive Group said at the Bearded Lamb Brewing Company he was a better choice than Democratic incumbent, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"We need a new kind of leadership. A governor who's qualified, tested and can be trusted," he said. "I know as a conservative businessman that effective leaders create an environment for the people that they lead to be successful."

Gubernatorial candidate Kevin Rinke meets supporters at the Bearded Lamb Brewing Company in Plymouth on Thursday, January 20, 2022.

Rinke is among 11 Republicans seeking to become the GOP nominee to challenge Whitmer in November.

Voters in the August primary select the nominee. The candidates include Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor; former Detroit Police Chief James Craig; as well as businesswoman and conservative commentator Tudor Dixon.

Rinke, a Bloomfield Township resident, belongs to a family that has operated auto dealerships in Michigan for decades. Rinke has said he would funnel at least $10 million into his campaign.

He touted plans to rejuvenate the state's economy and small businesses, repair education, respect the rule of law and ensure elections are safe and secure. 

In a statement before the event, Michigan Democratic Party officials called him an "out-of-touch millionaire with a wrong-for-Michigan agenda."

"Kevin Rinke’s campaign kickoff will do little tonight to convince voters that his wrong-for-Michigan agenda is one worth adopting," spokesperson Rodericka Applewhaite said. "At every turn, he’s displayed just how out of touch he is, from rejecting cost-cutting reforms for Michigan drivers, to cultivating toxic workplace environments, to pushing extreme anti-choice views that will do irreparable harm to women and families. Michiganders simply can’t afford the steep cost of electing this millionaire Toyota salesman to office.” 

Applewhaite's comment referred to lawsuits from the 1990s that alleged he made sexual and racist comments to employees of a car dealership he ran in Metro Detroit. He has repeatedly described the claims from past employees as false.

Rinke's campaign has emphasized his business background, noting he started working at the family's auto dealerships "picking up trash, cleaning customer restrooms and washing cars.

After graduating from Michigan State University in 1983, Rinke joined the business full-time. Besides the auto group, he has led other businesses, including a traumatic brain injury center and Centria Healthcare.

In introducing Rinke Thursday, Lloyd Barnes, a former sales associate, lauded him as a businessman whose approach "created the atmosphere" for his dealership to thrive.

"We need someone in office that has the wherewithal to have a good team that's going to write strong legislation," Barnes said. "And I believe that Kevin has the leadership. I've already seen (him) demonstrate the willingness to allow those who are running the show to do their job."

After arriving to the event to Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," Rinke said he had met with voters to hear their concerns and learned they "want leaders that are focused on Michigan" and her people, not leaders auditioning for other jobs."

He accused Whitmer of failing to follow through on her pledge to "fix the damn roads" and imposing harsh measures during the COVID-19 pandemic that he said harmed businesses.

Rinke also mentioned securing elections "that guarantee integrity" and not division, in an apparent reference to claims of irregularities in Michigan's 2020 presidential election.

Those comments heartened supporters such as Susan Lorenz, who traveled from Brighton with her husband to hear him.

Lorenz said she was concerned about potential voter fraud. "It doesn't seem like our clerks are keeping up with the voter rolls very well," she said.

In a statement Monday, the Michigan Democratic Party said Whitmer had vetoed several bills seen as aiming "to dismantle the democratic process, weaken voting rights, and suppress Michiganders’ vote."

“This entire crop of Republicans running for governor have already shown Michiganders that they’ll stop at nothing to undermine our democracy and strip away the right to vote The stakes couldn’t be higher because governors are the last line of defense for protecting access to the ballot box," Applewhaite said. That’s why Governor Whitmer has stood up time and again to ensure that every voter – including seniors, Michiganders living in rural areas, overseas military members, and communities of color – don’t lose their fundamental right to vote.” 

Rinke also criticized the Whitmer administration's handling of nursing homes.

The state health department focused on caring for elderly individuals with COVID-19 inside isolated areas at current nursing homes, while Republicans repeatedly pushed separate facilities to combat the spread. 

Republicans have argued the state auditor general's report released Monday proves Whitmer was wrong. But Elizabeth Hertel, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services, rejected the conclusions, saying it used improper and unfair methods.

Rinke said "this is what happens when you put a career politician in charge who puts politics over the people they're supposed to protect."

He added: "I feel the anger of the people of Michigan and I'll use that to fuel myself to build a stronger and better Michigan that serves you."

Whitmer representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.

Last week, the state Democratic Party noted Whitmer in November signed an executive directive to ensure funds received from the Biden administration's Bipartisan Infrastructure Law "were used efficiently and quickly to start laying the groundwork for upgraded infrastructure. Thanks to her leadership, Michigan localities are prepped and ready to start using these federal dollars as soon as possible."

Support remains for the first-term governor, who was elected in 2018.

Her job approval rating climbed to start 2022, according to a new poll commissioned by The Detroit News and WDIV.

Whitmer, a former state lawmaker, faced controversies last year, including the abrupt resignation of state health director Robert Gordon and revelations about an out-of-state flight to visit her father in Florida amid the pandemic. 

She has declined to issue potentially controversial statewide mandates to combat COVID-19 surges, touted efforts to improve the state's economy and promoted a $400-per-vehicle auto insurance refund for state drivers.