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James Craig teases run for Michigan governor: End Whitmer ‘rule’

James Craig
James Craig of Detroit speaks “under the oaks” in Jackson, where Republicans gathered to celebrate the 176-year anniversary of the GOP. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

July 21: James Craig closer to Michigan governor run, launches exploratory committee

JACKSON — Recently retired Detroit police chief James Craig teased his likely gubernatorial run Tuesday, touting conservative bonafides while explaining his “transition” to becoming a Republican in a speech at a birthplace of the GOP.

Craig, 65, was raised in Detroit as a Democrat. But while serving as a police chief in Los Angeles, Maine and then back in Detroit, he found himself supporting school choice and gun rights while increasingly voting Republican, he told a crowd of roughly 100 spectators.

“The truth is, I’ve been a Republican for many years now,” Craig said at the “under the oaks” park in Jackson, where anti-slavery activists helped christen the Republican Party with a state convention on the same date in 1854.

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In what was billed as his first political speech since retiring as police chief on June 1, Craig appeared to read prepared remarks from a teleprompter. He did not take questions from reporters, ducking into a black SUV after taking a few selfies with supporters.

Craig stopped short of announcing his expected candidacy but offered the GOP crowd several pieces of red meat, describing himself as two-time voter for President Donald Trump who opposes abortion and is a staunch supporter of gun rights.

Twice, Craig opened his blue suit jacket to reveal a concealed pistol sitting in a hip holster.

“I carry here today and will carry until the day I see the Lord,” he said, flashing a grin as the crowd erupted in applause.

Experts say Craig would enter the Republican primary as frontrunner for the party’s gubernatorial nomination, and his Tuesday speech functioned as a test run. He was introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and surrounded by GOP officials, including state party chairman Ron Weiser, co-chair Meshawn Maddock and former chair Bobby Schostak.

Republicans have struggled to find a high-profile candidate to take on first-term Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but GOP insiders told Bridge Michigan they are thrilled by the prospect of fielding a Black Republican, especially one with a public safety background.

The field of announced candidates so far includes chiropractor Garrett Soldano, conservative media personality Tudor Dixon and Allendale Township planning commissioner Ryan Kelley.

Craig could be “a game changer for the Republican Party in Michigan,” said Dave Dulio, director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Oakland University.  “He kind of breaks the mold.”

Not only is he relatively well known in vote-rich Metro Detroit, the “law and order” message he is likely to run on could appeal to Republican and independent voters who moved away from Trump last year in areas like Oakland and Kent counties, Dulio said.

“If he can get 15 or 20 percent of the vote in Detroit, he is in a really good position,” he added.

But first, Craig would have to get through a GOP primary, which means he will have to stake out positions on hot-button issues he has not yet addressed, including Trump’s continued claims that the 2020 election was “rigged” and that Detroit is “perhaps the single most corrupt election area in the United States.”

Unlike many of the other declared Republican candidates, Craig has not publicly criticized Whitmer’s COVID-19 pandemic orders, which he enforced as police chief in Detroit. Last year, he said supporting the Michigan health department was one of his agency’s “top priorities.”

But Tuesday in Jackson, Craig hewed more closely to the party line, comparing the Whitmer administration to the British monarchy that had once ruled America.

“Make no mistake, at the ballot box in November in the year 2022, we will be celebrating our independence from the rule of Gov. Whitmer, just as we celebrated our barbecues and fireworks on the Fourth of July and the birth of our party right here today,” he said.

Jackson is one of two cities that claims bragging rights as the birthplace of the Republican Party, which brought together anti-slavery activists from both the Whig and Free Soil parties. 

According to the GOP’s own historical account, a group of future Republicans first met in Ripon, Wisconsin in March of 1854.  But less than four months later, on July 6, the Jackson convention marked the “first ever mass gathering of the Republican Party.”

Hot weather forced the “large crowd” outside, where they met “under the oaks” in Jackson, according to the GOP history. There, Michigan activists adopted an anti-slavery platform and nominated political candidates, including Kingsley Bingham, who later that year would win election as Michigan’s first GOP governor.

It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that Black voters, frustrated by the GOP’s refusal to pursue civil rights legislation and other factors, began to align more with Democrats despite that party’s previous attempts to suppress their rights in the South.

Craig suggested he could bring some voters back into the GOP fold. He offered to “help lead our Republican Party into areas that haven’t historically voted Republican” to show that “there are no enemies when it comes to Michigan’s future.”

The former police chief touted his work to keep the peace during last summer’s “Black Lives Matter” protests in Detroit, where he has faced some scrutiny, and accused Democrats of pushing a “victimhood mentality” that is “dangerous” for the country.

“I will never back down to liberal wokeism,” he said to applause.

Craig’s biography and background could make him a compelling general election candidate against Whitmer, but “he has some real vulnerabilities that have never been tested,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic consultant with Grassroots Midwest in Lansing.

And “getting there is going to require taking some positions on some issues that are important to Republican Party base voters that'll be less popular with the general public,” Hemond added.

“James Craig is no fool. He knows that there are certain things that you know he has not taken a position on yet, that he's gonna be asked to that could hurt him in the general election, depending on where he lands.”

The 2022 election will likely function as a referendum on Whitmer’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and she enters the cycle in a fairly strong position with solid (but sagging) polling numbers and a campaign war chest that had already topped $3.5 million by January 1.

Whitmer has some historical precedent on her side:  An incumbent Michigan governor has not lost re-election since 1990, and no governor has been ousted since voters approved a two-term limit in 1992. But there are also trends working against her: Mid-term elections tend to favor the party who does not control the White House, as Democrats do now.

“To be blunt, she’s not as vulnerable as a governor of the president’s party should be going into a midterm election,” said Hemond, the Democratic consultant. “The governor has an enormous financial advantage over whoever ends up being the Republican nominee because she has millions and millions of dollars in the bank and she doesn’t have a primary.”

While Craig is likely lining up financial commitments of his own, he can’t actually raise money until he declares his candidacy, which puts him at a disadvantage, Hemond said.

“Running for governor, even just to get your party’s nomination, is going to be extremely expensive. Commitments are great, but you need to get that money in the bank so you can start hiring people and doing paid communication and all the things you need to do to win.”

Whitmer is a “talented politician” who will run a professional campaign, but a series of “missteps” by the first-term Democrat have opened the door for GOP attacks, said Dulio, the Oakland University professor.

Republicans have already hammered Whitmer for taking a private jet to Florida before she was fully vaccinated, for instance, and for later violating her own administration’s COVID-19 order by gathering around a table with too many friends at an East Lansing restaurant.

“There are vulnerabilities, I think, on the Whitmer side, and James Craig may be the candidate who can exploit them,” Dulio said.

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