Bankole: Business leaders divided in governor's race

Bankole Thompson

The political action committee of Business Leaders for Michigan (formerly Detroit Renaissance) announced support for Republican Bill Schuette. But days later several of its members came out in full support of Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as their choice to be the next governor.

In the past, such a split was unheard of in a governor’s race because business executives are viewed as more traditionally aligned with Republicans than Democrats. But that’s no longer the case as Whitmer gets unlikely support in the business community. 

Former Democratic legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer and Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette won the nominations to run for Michigan governor.

“Gretchen has a demonstrated ability and willingness to reach across the aisle to bring both parties together for the good of business, for workers, and for our economy,” Cynthia Pasky, CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions told me. “Her plans focus on building a Michigan that will attract business and ensure that Michiganders have access to training and good jobs. Gretchen is the right kind of leader for the governor's office because she'll work to ensure we all thrive in Michigan.”

Pasky, is not only a player in the Michigan business community, she is also one of the few women at the top of the corporate chart and chairs the Downtown Detroit Partnership, a group of corporate, civic and philanthropic leaders that’s an anchor of the city’s business district. She’s been a believer in Detroit and making investments in the city and hiring Detroiters long before the comeback became fashionable.

I asked her what she expects Whitmer to do for Detroit, which appears to be in play in the election.

“Gretchen has plans to improve education and skills training and strengthening our economy by attracting more business to our state,” Pasky said. “While Detroit is leading in skills training to match the needs of employers, having a governor who brings resources and support to our city is mandatory. Detroiters want to work, and with marketable skills, they will.”

Pasky is correct. In a city where poverty is a stinging reality the question of putting more people to work becomes a matter of urgency. That is an issue that hasn’t garnered much attention in the general election so far as the candidates crisscross the state for votes.

But still the prescription for some of the inequality issues plaguing Michigan’s largest city cannot just be soundbites and press release statements to pacify probing questions. Whitmer has sought to present herself as the candidate who can tackle the inequality that Detroit residents know so much about. She declared for the first time during a Democratic primary gubernatorial town hall on poverty I hosted at Martin Luther King Jr. High School that she would appoint a cabinet-level poverty czar if elected.

Her remarks at that town hall could easily be dismissed as simply pandering to voters and making convenient statements during an evening, where the questions for 90 minutes centered around the various dimensions of poverty and how the state can help to reduce inequality in Detroit. If she follows through substantially with the promise of a cabinet-level poverty position that is armed with resources, she will be different from many politicians who say anything for votes.

After all, the issue of restoring dignity for families in the city by offering them real training and employment opportunities should be the concern of any business leader invested in the well-being of Detroit.

“Gretchen Whitmer is the right candidate for Detroiters to support for governor,” said Daniel Loepp, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. “I believe her proposals to address poverty, improve our schools and train people for 21st century skills resonate strongly in Detroit and all of our urban communities.”

Loepp, is among a class of industry leaders who get it. They don’t run away from the subject of inequality and how to deal with it, which often becomes a minefield for many in their ranks. He too is another Detroit champion.  Aside from the fact that he moved the corporate headquarters of the insurance giant to downtown, he has been involved in efforts to revitalize the city.

But pushing Whitmer is also about the state according to Loepp.    

“The business community is looking for a governor who can work with both sides of the aisle and Gretchen has a proven record of doing that,” Loepp said. “She has solid plans for infrastructure, roads, career training and K-12 education that Michigan needs to compete for jobs and talent.”

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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