Austin Chenge faces eligibility issue in GOP bid for Michigan governor
Austin Chenge may never get the chance to cancel Michigan’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems, “cancel Black History Month” or try to make Michigan a “constitutional carry” state for gun owners, as he has promised in his fledgling campaign for governor.
That’s because Chenge may not qualify for the job.
The Grand Rapids Republican, a little known candidate whose provocative campaign promises have earned him some national attention, first registered to vote in Michigan in January 2020, according to state records requested and reviewed by Bridge Michigan.
And that’s a problem: The Michigan Constitution requires gubernatorial candidates to be a “registered elector” for at least four years prior to taking office. Chenge would not yet have met that threshold to become governor if his longshot 2022 campaign proved successful.
His registration appears “to make him an ineligible candidate,” said attorney Steven Liedel, a Democrat who served as chief legal counsel to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. “Unless you were somehow registered before that and can document it, that's a major problem for anybody.”
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In an interview with Bridge Michigan, Chenge said he’s already discussed his eligibility with campaign attorneys of his own, and because he has lived in the state since 2014, he’s confident he’d ultimately prevail in court if his ballot qualifications were challenged.
“I’m not worried about it at all,” Chenge said, noting he moved back to Michigan seven years ago after doing business in England and California. When similar disputes have arisen in other states, they’ve “always ruled in the favor of the candidate,” he claimed. “It's a different thing if you’re not a resident of the state.”
Chenge cited New York as an example, but that state's gubernatorial eligibility requirement is specific to duration of residence, not voter registration. Federal courts have in the past overturned residency requirements for congressional candidates.
Eligibility disputes are rare in Michigan, but they have bogged down campaigns before, most recently in 2018, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed battled multiple challenges but ultimately qualified for the primary, finishing second to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
As first reported by Bridge Michigan, the former Detroit health director had registered to vote in New York while working there as a professor, before re-registering in Michigan in 2016, just two years before the election. But El-Sayed’s Michigan registration had never actually lapsed, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections, which concluded he was eligible because he’d been registered since 2003.
In 2010, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Robert Bowman ended his primary campaign when doubts surfaced about his eligibility. The former Major League Baseball official maintained a summer home in Michigan but had spent the better part of two decades living in Connecticut.
A high bar
For Chenge, the eligibility issue will not likely come to a head unless or until he is able to collect at least 15,000 valid voter signatures — including at least 100 from half of the state’s congressional districts — to qualify for the primary ballot.
And that’s a “high bar,” said Liedel, the Democratic attorney.
"There's a whole lot of folks who say, ‘Hey, I'm going to run for governor,’ many of whom have never successfully run for office before and aren't up to the task. They'll either drop out, or you just won't see them file petitions by the deadline."
If Chenge collects the required signatures, a process he said he plans to start this summer with the help of volunteers, he would make his campaign official by filing those nominating petitions and other paperwork, including an affidavit of identity swearing he meets the constitutional requirements to be a candidate.
That filing is due April 19, 2022, and that’s when the Michigan Department of State would begin to review “specific candidate eligibility,” said spokesperson Tracy Wimmer.
But, Wimmer noted in an email, “the Michigan Constitution does require a 4-year registration period to be eligible for office of governor.”
Chenge is among six Republicans who have so far filed initial paperwork or announced a campaign for governor, including Kalamazoo-area chiropractor Garrett Soldano, Allendale Township planning commissioner Ryan Kelley and conservative media host Tudor Dixon.
Retiring Detroit Police Chief James Craig is also expected to run and would likely enter the race as a frontrunner in the GOP primary to take on Whitmer.
David and Goliath
Chenge told Bridge Michigan he discussed his eligibility with attorneys before filing to establish his campaign committee in March 2020. By that time, he’d been a Michigan resident for six years, so he believes, “I qualify,” he said.
His family has long lived in West Michigan, but Chenge left the state to attend college in England, where he later started a software and product design company that eventually also opened offices in San Jose, California, he said.
Chenge said he moved back to Grand Rapids in 2014 but did not register to vote at that time because “my business was still expanding,” and he was traveling frequently. He said he wasn’t able to vote in the 2016 presidential election, because he wasn’t registered, but “adamantly” supported Donald Trump.
He said he decided to run for office last year, in part, because of his Christian faith and concern over the direction of the state under Whitmer. He said he has already visited all 83 Michigan counties to talk with local voters.
“I’m young, I’m charismatic, I’m energetic, and I am for the people,” Chenge, 35, told Bridge, going on to describe his campaign in biblical terms as a metaphorical quest to slay Goliath.
“I may be a nobody from Grand Rapids, from West Michigan, but when the spirit fills you, just like David, you can go out there and stand up against the giants and deliver a decisive victory. And that is what this campaign is about.”
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