August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor
March 2018 update: After early doubts, UAW backs Whitmer for governor
Less than a month after nearly losing the support of some of the region’s most influential leaders in her party, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday announced the opening of a campaign office in Detroit, with the city’s mayor by her side.
As Bridge Magazine revealed in January, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, arguably the most influential Democrat in Southeast Michigan, was part of an earlier, clandestine effort to find someone other than Whitmer to support for governor.
But on Wednesday, he said Whitmer has his full support, even as he sought to explain his earlier reluctance. Duggan said there was never any question about whether he was a fan of Whitmer, he just worried about whether she had the statewide recognition to win in November.
In exchange for his support, Duggan said he expects her to be a partner in Lansing on issues such as education, roads and car insurance reform.
“That’s what Detroiters want,” he said. “We’ve got a (potential) governor who I think believes in giving everybody a fair chance. And that’s what I expect her to do.”
Whitmer, of East Lansing, the state’s former Senate minority leader, hugged Duggan at the podium – twice – flanked by local clergy, elected officials and community activists. She called her relationship with Duggan “a true partnership.”
“Michigan will not be a successful state unless Detroit is a successful city,” she told a packed house of supporters.
It would have been difficult for Whitmer to achieve success without a strong Detroit turnout, backed by the popular mayor’s ability to help get city voters to the polls. His endorsement is also a blow to Whitmer’s biggest party rival, the charismatic Abdul El-Sayed, who until recently was Duggan’s health director in Detroit.
But some key local Democrats’ view of Whitmer was different as recently as last month. Duggan was among leading metro-Detroit Democrats who engaged in a campaign to recruit an alternative to Whitmer to support for governor because they were worried she could not win, Bridge reported.
Joined by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, other union leaders, and powerful Detroit pastor the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the Dems had tried to persuade sitting U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint. to enter the campaign, sources told Bridge.
Both Washington lawmakers declined.
On Wednesday, Duggan said he had courted other candidates for governor because they had experience running and winning statewide office.
“Sen. Peters, having run statewide, would’ve had an easier time of it,” Duggan said. “Sen. Whitmer on the other hand has never lost. It means we’re going to have to work a little bit harder, it’s going to be a 50-50 race.”
Anthony, president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, said the Dems’ earlier efforts to recruit other candidates ‒ what he called “looking at the field” ‒ is something that happens during election seasons and was not an effort to derail Whitmer.
“To my knowledge, there was never a lack of support for her,” he said. “Gretchen Whitmer is the best candidate in my view. She’s our candidate moving forward, 150 percent.”
Political insiders separately told Bridge that the Peters and Kildee refusals led Dems to reverse course and publicly back Whitmer for a governorship state Democrats are desperate to reclaim.
Beside El-Sayed, Whitmer will face other rivals in the August primary, including Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and businessman Bill Cobbs.
Republican candidates include Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Governor Brian Calley and state Sen. Patrick Colbeck.
There has already been other drama in the Democratic race. El-Sayed, who polls suggest would be Whitmer’s biggest Democratic challenger, hit an early roadblock.
A Michigan native, El-Sayed has run into questions about whether he meets eligibility requirements to run for governor after he registered to vote in New York while in medical school there, a Bridge investigation found. His campaign contends his New York stint does not pose a legal problem. But party leaders have urged El-Sayed to seek a legal review on his eligibility by taking the question to court.
Whitmer has had her own hiccups, with the departure of her campaign manager in recent weeks. She is looking for a replacement, Annie Ellison, Whitmer’s communications director, confirmed.
But Wednesday was a very good day for Whitmer in what is still early in a long campaign season. With less than six months until the primary, the hand-wringing about which candidate Duggan will support is over.
“We’re going to have to get her elected, if we care about people,” Duggan said.