LANSING — Gretchen Whitmer on Monday officially tapped Garlin Gilchrist II as her running mate, adding a young, progressive voice to her campaign for Michigan governor in hopes of energizing voters in Detroit.
Gilchrist, 35, grew up on Detroit’s east side and is executive director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Social Media Responsibility. He emerged from relative political obscurity last year to challenge Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey and narrowly lost.
“Garlin Gilchrist is the kind of running mate I was looking for — smart dedicated, a true public servant. Someone who knows how to get things done,” Whitmer said at a press conference staged at a pothole-ridden downtown Lansing intersection in the shadow of the state Capitol.
Whitmer portrayed Gilchrist’s experience as a tech entrepreneur as an asset for tackling government dysfunction, such as when Michigan’s computer-driven unemployment insurance system wrongly accused thousands of workers of benefit fraud from 2013 to 2015.
The announcement came as Democrats and Republicans prepare for their nominating conventions this weekend — and days after Attorney General Bill Schuette, her Republican opponent, unveiled his running mate: Kent County Clerk and former state Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons.
The choices of Gilchrist and Posthumus Lyons for lieutenant governor only reinforce the stark contrasts between the Democratic and Republican tickets on Nov. 6.
Highlighting Gilchrist’s history of liberal activism, a pro-Schuette political action committee attacked the Gilchrist pick, saying it rounded out the “most liberal ticket in Michigan political history.”
“Whitmer and Gilchrist will support higher taxes, reckless spending and liberal policies that will move Michigan backwards,” Better Jobs Stronger Families PAC said in a press release.
Gilchrist, a trained software engineer, worked at Microsoft, helped run social media for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and ran national campaigns for the liberal activist group MoveOn.org. He returned to Detroit in 2014 as Mayor Mike Duggan’s director of innovation and emerging technology.
Gilchrist said his grandmother nurtured his love of technology when she “made me the first kid on my block to have a computer” at five years old.
“That set me on a path toward technology — and problem solving and learning how to fix things and make systems work,” he said.
Gilchrist told reporters Monday he’ll take a leave of absence from the Center for Social Media Responsibility to focus full-time on his campaign. He’s been at the center since February, where he led studies about media consumption and tried to develop tools to fight propaganda spread online.
Posthumus Lyons, Schuette's running mate, serves as Kent County clerk and has deep ties to West Michigan and the Republican Party. Her father, Dick Posthumus, was the lieutenant governor alongside Gov. John Engler and now serves as chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder. She’s seen as a unifying choice for Republicans following a bruising primary season.
The lieutenant governor’s duties include presiding over the Senate. Unlike Gilchrist, Posthumus Lyons — who chaired committees on education and elections and ethics during her 2011-2016 stint in the House — has legislative experience.
Asked Monday if Gilchrist’s political novice status presented a liability, he and Whitmer told reporters no.
“My career has been all about creating systems that work for people — whether that's fixing government systems like I did in the city of Detroit, but also being able to create technology that's accessible to people,” Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist and Posthumus Lyons also differ widely on policy.
For instance: Posthumus Lyons sought to tighten requirements on photo identification requirements for voters in 2016 Gilchrist, by contrast, made easing voting access a centerpiece of his clerk campaign in Detroit — advocating for more polling places, to replace aging voting machines and encourage early voting.
In his unsuccessful clerk campaign, Gilchrist drew an endorsement from “Our Revolution,” a group that sprung out of the movement to support progressive favorite U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the 2016 presidential election.
While a lieutenant governor pick is unlikely to sway the majority of Michigan voters who are more focused on the top of the ticket, such decisions can pull in voters from around the margins, political insiders say. In Schuette’s case, west Michigan’s voting bloc was seen as important, while Whitmer is trying to shore up Detroit and southeast Michigan.
“One, two or three percent can be the difference between winning and losing,” Steve Mitchell, chairman of East Lansing-based consulting firm Mitchell Research & Communications, told Bridge.
Bridge reporters Joel Kurth and Riley Beggin contributed to this story.