For the past several weeks, I've been travelling around Michigan meeting with three likely major candidates for governor in the election of 2018.
I had two objectives: Get to know some of the people who want to be leading our state less than two years from now. And I wanted to explain directly to them what our nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan is all about, on the grounds it's better to explain what you're up to yourself rather than let third parties do it.
Here, in alphabetical order, are snapshots of those I talked with:
Dan Kildee: He is a Democratic congressman who has represented Michigan's 5th District, which stretches from Flint and Genesee County up through Saginaw and Bay City, since 2013.
Born in 1958, he grew up in the Flint area, where he built his political career. Educated at Central Michigan University, he was elected to the Genesee County Board of Education in 1977, making him one of the youngest elected office holders in the county.
He went on to be a Genesee County Commissioner and board chair and then county treasurer until his election to Congress, succeeding his uncle, Dale Kildee, who represented the area in Congress for 36 years. Dan also founded and ran the nonprofit Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit organization pioneering “land bank” that seeks to reform land sales to reduce urban blight.
Kildee says he's considering running for governor, but has not formally announced his candidacy. His seat in Congress is safely Democratic, so he will have to choose between the certainty of Washington and the uncertainty of Lansing. He's thoughtful, with a good sense of humor and a direct manner.
Bill Schuette: Michigan's Attorney General, a Republican incumbent in his second and final term, Schuette was born in 1953 and grew up in Midland. He has a degree from Georgetown University and a law degree from the University of San Francisco.
He has an extensive set of political credentials, many of them originating in the Midland area. He burst on the scene in 1984, when he narrowly upset incumbent Democrat Donald Albosta for what was then the 10th Congressional District seat.
He served three terms in the House, before challenging U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, in 1990, in what was the one misstep of his career. Levin won by a landslide.
Schuette then became Director of Agriculture in the Engler Administration, before winning a seat in the Michigan State Senate in 1994. He was then elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals in 2002, elected Michigan Attorney General in 2010 and reelected in 2014.
Schuette presents himself easily and skillfully, as befitting his long political experience. He laughs easily and has a comfortable manner with strangers. He is organized (he read some material from the Center for Michigan the night before our conversation) and likes to take notes while conversing.
Lansing gossip says he is deeply invested in running for Governor in 2018, and he has certainly been acting like a candidate, although he has not announced his candidacy. A firm conservative, he is remorselessly active on what looks like a campaign trail.
Gretchen Whitmer: She is a highly articulate Democrat with extensive experience in the state legislature.
She has announced her candidacy for governor and is in the process of building a statewide organization and raising money.
Born in 1971 to a distinguished family, (her father, Richard Whitmer, ran Michigan Blue Cross/Blue Shield) Whitmer grew up in the Lansing area, where she was elected to the state House of Representatives in 2000 and the state Senate in 2006.
She was unanimously elected Senate Minority Leader, the first woman to hold the position. A lawyer with a J.D. from the University of Detroit Mercy, she was appointed Ingham County Prosecutor to fill out the job last year after her predecessor resigned in disgrace.
Whitmer has plenty of legislative experience under her belt and finds it easy to speak fluidly about many state issues and the cut and thrust of getting things done in Lansing. She is very quick and lively in person and at the same time enjoys policy discussions.
In addition, as I’m preparing this column, Lt. Governor Brian Calley seems poised to jump into the gubernatorial race having just launched a new website with an advertised big announcement at the end of May.
And, finally, Center for Michigan president and CEO John Bebow recently visited with Abdul Al-Sayed, the young doctor and former Detroit Health Commissioner who has announced his intentions to run for governor as a Democrat. Al-Sayed has surrounded himself with a talented crew of data-driven advisors.
I spoke at length with Kildee, Schuette and Whitmer, each either a candidate for the governorship or seriously contemplating the race, and was impressed with them all. They are intelligent, concerned about the state's future, willing to ask advice for their campaigns.
In response, I repeatedly suggested that each develop an emotionally compelling but forward-looking narrative that seeks to set out the emotional basis for shared values in Michigan.
All recognized that Michigan voters are at present deeply split: Republicans versus Democrats, west siders versus those in the Southeast, and conservatives versus progressives. But none seemed to have a clear idea how to bring Michiganders together.
Listening to Trump and Clinton voters in Michigan in a series of recent focus groups, I was deeply struck at the deep mutual antagonism between them. When pressed for ways to build common ground, many (particularly Trump voters) expressed deep skepticism that was possible. When pressed, however, many in the focus groups talked about the importance of the Great Lakes, Michigan's plentiful water, and the hard-working and enduring spirit of our residents.
That's not a lot of specific glue to bind us together, which is why I keep thinking an emotionally compelling narrative that seeks to do so will be an important part of any successful campaign.
Politics is not merely an exercise in policy wonking; it's primarily an emotional endeavor that seeks to make connections with a dauntingly large range of people.
In the months ahead, we'll learn a lot more about how these candidates – and possibly more to come – manage this difficult task.