Schuette launches governor run promising to cut taxes

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Midland — Attorney General Bill Schuette is running for governor, he announced Tuesday evening, ending months of anticipation and entering the race as an early frontrunner for the 2018 Republican nomination.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 600 supporters at an annual mid-Michigan barbecue in his hometown of Midland, Schuette promised to cut personal income tax rates, reform auto insurance laws and end “Common Core” curriculum guidelines for state schools.

“I will be a governor who doesn’t ask families to make do with less, while Lansing does less with more,” Schuette said. “I will be the governor – the jobs governor – who cuts taxes and gives Michigan families a pay raise.”

Schuette was introduced by his wife, Cynthia, and accompanied by their children as he launched his campaign from a Midland County Fairgrounds pavilion named after his late stepfather, former Dow Chemical Chairman Carl Gerstacker.

Supporters, greeted by campaign signs and a small group of opposition protesters as they entered the fairgrounds, were asked to sign nominating petitions to help Schuette formally qualify for the August 2018 primary ballot.

He joins a growing field of Republicans seeking to replace Gov. Rick Snyder, including state Sen. Pat Colbeck of Canton Township and Dr. Jim Hines of Saginaw.

Schuette is “certainly” the favorite among announced candidates for the GOP nomination and would likely remain so even if Lt. Gov. Brian Calley decides to run, said Susan Demas, owner and editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

“Nobody in Michigan politics knows how to work a room like Bill Schuette,” Demas said of the attorney general, who is known to pour coffee for constituents at public events. “He knows how to connect with people on a very personal level. He knows how to raise money and he’s very attuned to the changes in his party.”

Former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing is an early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination in what her party expects to be a good election cycle. She’s facing an aggressive challenge from Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed. Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar is sinking his own money into the race that also features former Xerox executive Bill Cobbs.

“2018 won’t be easy,” an animated Schuette told reporters after his announcement. “You better have your strongest Jedi knight. I’m like Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m our only hope.”

A Whitmer campaign spokeswoman said Tuesday the former state legislator has spent her career “fearlessly taking on the status quo to put people first, while Bill Schuette has put special interests and his own political gain ahead of peoples’ lives.”

Schuette did not mention Whitmer by name in his first campaign speech as a declared candidate for governor, but he repeatedly alluded to economic struggles under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat.

“The Granholm team wants to take us back, back to the lost decade,” he said. “You might want to call it the Lost Decade Two.”

Schuette, 63, is a political veteran who has held elected or appointed office for most of the past three decades. He was 31 years old when he first won election to the U.S. House in 1984. He served three terms before running for the U.S. Senate in 1990, losing to incumbent Democrat Carl Levin by 16 percentage points.

Schuette worked as director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture under then-Gov. John Engler before winning election to the state Senate in 1994. He was elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2002 and the attorney general’s office in 2010, defeating Democratic nominee David Leyton by nine percentage points.

Democrats and union groups made clear they intend to use Schuette’s long track record against him. The Democratic Governors Association on Tuesday launched a website highlighting specific votes and actions by Schuette it claims show he has “consistently put special interests and political insiders ahead of the people of Michigan.”

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon mocked Schuette earlier Tuesday, suggesting he has been dreaming about a gubernatorial run since “he was a wee lad in short pants” and has “made a career of looking out for anyone who can help him reach the next rung on his political ladder.”

As attorney general, Schuette has been involved in several high-profile debates the past seven years. His campaign website touts his work to fight human trafficking, secure funding to test abandoned rape kits in Detroit and intervene in the city’s historic bankruptcy case to defend pensioners.

In 2014, Schuette won a Supreme Court case upholding a state ban on race-based affirmative action. He unsuccessfully defended the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage that was struck down by the nation’s highest court in 2015.

More recently, Schuette has spearheaded a criminal investigation into the Flint water crisis that critics contend is politically motivated, a charge he has denied. The probe has resulted in criminal charges against several state and local officials but has not yet produced significant convictions as the legal process plays out.

Calley, a Portland Republican who has been flirting with a gubernatorial run for months, said Monday he is not planning any immediate decision. Instead, he will host a series of town hall meetings across the state in October and November to connect with voters of all political stripes.

“I want to make it very clear — what I’m talking about is not barbecues, and I’m not talking about getting together with my supporters and talking about where Michigan can go,” he said, jabbing Schuette. “I have a good sense of where my friends and supporters are. I know what they think, and so this is really about seeking out a wider audience.”

Schuette is asking attendees at his barbecue to contribute to his attorney general candidate committee, which he’ll be able to shift to his gubernatorial campaign. Suggested donations started at $50 per family, $500 for a “grill master” and $1,000 for an “On Duty” donor, according to an invitation.

As of July 20, Schuette had already built a $1.55 million war chest after raising nearly $2 million this election cycle.

Calley also has continued to raise funds through his existing lieutenant governor candidate committee and is leading a statewide petition drive to make Michigan’s Legislature a part-time body, an effort he restarted in early July after early organizational struggles.

“I think he knows he can’t win, so he’s just going from one gimmick to the next,” said GOP political consultant Stu Sandler, a Calley critic who was a “grillmaster” donor at Schuette’s barbecue.

Attendees included state House Speaker Tom Leonard of DeWitt, a possible candidate for attorney general, and Shelby Township Clerk Stan Grot, who is seeking the GOP nomination for secretary of state.

Local Republicans who have followed Schuette’s political career said they hope to see it continue in the governor’s office.

“I think he’s straightforward, he’s fair and he’s done a great job for the state,” said Mike Dizer, a 16-year Midland resident who works in human resources at Dow Chemical. “He represents us well, and I think he’ll do a great job as governor.”

While Schuette is well known in Republican circles, he could face resistance from some primary voters seeking more of a “fresh face” in a political climate that has increasingly favored outsider candidates, Demas said.

“Bill Schuette meets the definition of a career politician to a tee,” she said. “He’s going to have to contend with that,” but he also has shown the ability to adapt over the years.

In the most recent election cycle, Schuette initially chaired Jeb Bush’s Michigan primary campaign but became a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump during the general election.

“Since he was first elected to congress back in the ’80s, the Republican Party has party has gone through a lot of different iterations, ending now with Trumpism,” Demas said. “Bill Schuette has done a really good job keeping up with the times and making sure he’s connected with the grassroots and what they’re concerned about.”