'Quality guru' unveils GOP guv campaign, blasts Whitmer's COVID response

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Republican businessman Perry Johnson, a self-described "quality guru," held his first public event as a candidate for governor Wednesday, using it to argue Gov. Gretchen Whitmer failed to follow science in responding to COVID-19.

Johnson, 74, of Bloomfield Hills spoke to a crowd of about 100 people inside downtown Lansing's Radisson hotel. He said the Democratic incumbent should have lifted restrictions on businesses more quickly during the pandemic and her decisions didn't make sense.

Republican Perry Johnson launches his campaign for governor with an event in Lansing on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.

"She did not pay attention to science, the science of statistics," he told the crowd. "What we needed to do was recognize the basic foundation on which this country was founded: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

He added later, "By golly, if we’re going to take that liberty away, let’s pay attention and give it back as soon as we can. And that was our mistake."

Johnson criticized Whitmer's decisions in early 2020 to care for elderly individuals with COVID-19 in isolated areas of existing nursing homes and to limit non-essential travel.

In April 2020, weeks after the state detected its first COVID-19 cases, Whitmer issued an order that barred people from traveling between homes they owned in Michigan and that required large retail stores to cordon off areas dedicated to furniture, gardening and paint, which weren't viewed as essential supplies.

At the time, the governor said the moves were necessary to prevent surges in COVID-19 infections that could overwhelm hospitals.

"How are flowers and plants going to kill you?" Johnson asked Wednesday, referring to the restrictions on gardening sections. "Come on."

In a statement, Rodericka Applewhaite, spokeswoman for the Michigan Democratic Party, described Johnson as a "self-funding millionaire without Michiganders’ interests in mind."

"Meanwhile, Gov. Whitmer continues to deliver sustained, competent leadership, never passing up an opportunity to work with anyone to keep Michigan first, continue infrastructure improvements, and expand the strength of our economy and workforce," Applewhaite said.

Johnson is one of 13 Republicans who have formed candidate committees to seek the GOP nomination for governor. Voters will choose a nominee in the August primary election. The winner will take on Whitmer, who's seeking a second four-year term in November.

Unlike most of the other GOP candidates, Johnson has already begun running TV ads, including spots that aired during the Super Bowl. And he's pledged to give at least $2.5 million of his own money to his campaign.

Johnson's businesses include Perry Johnson Registrars, Inc., which operates in the certification and registration industry, according to its website. The site says Johnson is the author of "the best-selling definitive text" on international quality standards, ISO 9000: Meeting the New International Standards.

So far, Johnson's campaign has focused on making decisions based on statistics and improving the quality of state government. However, he's a political unknown.

He described himself as a conservative and a supporter of former President Donald Trump during Wednesday's event.

“There’s no getting around it. I am a conservative," he told the crowd. "I am a guy who believes in the great value of the human being. I believe in the Second Amendment. I am pro-Trump. I am a guy who believes in everything this country stands for.”

He also said he was "pro-life," argued the state should remove "all barriers" preventing students from going to charter schools and recommended the state pay teachers whose students perform better more.

Johnson took recorded questions from people on Wednesday, including one from former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and one from Oakland County GOP Chairman Rocky Raczkowski. Afterward, the candidate answered three questions from reporters, dodging one about the 2020 election. Without evidence, Trump, the former Republican president, has maintained Michigan's 2020 election was stolen from him.

"Voter ID will be mandatory," Johnson said. "It means we're going to make it so everyone can have a voter ID. I'm not going to do anything to suppress votes."

At multiple points, Johnson became emotional during his speech while talking about his family.

A handful of Republican officials, including state Reps. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, and Ryan Berman, R-Commerce Township, attended the campaign announcement. Richard Zeile, a former member of the State Board of Education and a 2022 candidate for the board, was also in the crowd.

He described Johnson's presentation as effective.

"You need more than a good heart to serve the people. You need a clear head," Zeile said. "I think Mr. Johnson offers that. I am going to look at him very seriously."

But Zeile said he's leaning in favor of former Detroit Police Chief James Craig in the Republican primary.

cmauger@detroitnews.com