Finley: Democrats call Mark Bernstein in Mich. gov race

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial primary lost one strong contender this week, but may be picking up another.

Mark Bernstein.

Party officials have long courted prominent attorney Mark Bernstein of the “Call Sam” law firm that bears his family’s name.

With the withdrawal of Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Flint, from the gubernatorial race, those calls on Bernstein have picked up. And apparently they are having an impact.

Bernstein, of Ann Arbor, is said to be bowing to concerns among some in the Democratic Party that their current front-runner, former State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, doesn’t have what it takes to win a general election. He had considered a run earlier in the year, but decided to give Whitmer and Kildee a chance to prove they could win. Those who’ve talked to him say he’s not sold on Whitmer’s chances.

Bernstein is not denying — as he’s done in the past — that he’s weighing a run, saying only that he’s not ready to comment on his plans.

Should he get in, the opening Kildee gave Whitmer would suddenly narrow.

“He’d be a significant factor in terms of his resources,” says Stu Sandler, a Republican political consultant. “Whitmer has a head start in fundraising and endorsements, but he could easily wipe that away.”

Kildee rules out gov bid, making way for Whitmer

Democratic consultant Howard Edelson, who’s also heard Bernstein’s name, says the attorney and businessman would benefit from both his wealth and his status as a political outsider.

“Kildee dropping out allows for people to keep looking for another candidate, a non-establishment candidate,” says Edelson. “Bernstein could self-fund quite a bit of his campaign. That allows him to spend more time campaigning than worrying about money. He can put together a campaign plan based on solid dollars.”

The Bernstein family law firm is one of the best known in the state. When brother Richard Bernstein ran for the Supreme Court in 2014, the family reportedly spent more than $1 million to help him win.

While Mark Bernstein lacks the political resume of Whitmer, who was Senate minority leader, he did win a state-wide election to an eight-year term on the University of Michigan Board of Regents in 2012.

And the “Call Sam” television commercials in which he’s prominently featured appear throughout Detroit Tigers broadcasts and have made him a familiar name in the state.

Those who have spoken with Bernstein this week say he believes if he gets in the race, he can win.

Any hesitation is rooted in his lack of appetite for a nasty partisan campaign. As a regent, Bernstein prides himself on working civilly with his Republican colleagues.

He’s told those who are pushing him to run that he’d only get in if he could wage an issues-based, Rick Snyder-style campaign that eschews personal attacks.

This cycle may not prove fertile for that sort of candidate. The Democratic base is in a state of heightened outrage, and if that’s still true a year from now, primary voters may not respond well to an intellectual candidate who preaches bipartisanship.

And Bernstein may not have much to sell to the influential Bernie Sanders wing of the party, which is steadily warming to little known Abdul El-Sayed, a former city of Detroit health executive who is showing up everywhere.

But the uncertainty about Whitmer’s ability to reclaim the governor’s office is real.

She hasn’t established herself as able to push innovative policy ideas, sticking so far to safe Democratic talking points on the major issues.

Her statewide name identification is weak. And she’s thought to be too closely aligned to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose policies she championed in the Senate.

Democrats have been scrambling to find a stronger alternative, even pressing Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to reconsider a run.

If they can lure Bernstein in, Democrats would have a self-funding candidate with positive name recognition and potential appeal to moderate voters who by the time this race begins may be sick of the partisan screaming.