Among likely candidates for governor, who can unite our divided state?

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 05/02/2017 - 7:26am

No candidate for governor is going to "unite" our state, the political divide is too wide
for that, the only thing we can realistically hope for is at least some cooperation on issues with which either side can claim "victory" in whatever way they view it.

David E Richey
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 9:44am

There is not a lot that can be accomplished until we get rid of gerrymandered political boundaries and the outsize influence of money (read DeVos et al)...the right is counting on these to maintain a stranglehold on the state.

Tue, 05/02/2017 - 10:57am

None of the candidates mentioned in this article should be considered "uniters". And the fault for that statement should be placed directly at the door of each of the parties. Both parties have demonstrated complete lack of empathy for Michigan voters direction. Both parties have voted directed the opposite of what Michigan voters indicated. No candidate has any convincing evidence that they will follow any mandate put forward by the public. Certainly, they will put forward some sort of slogan that "they are the best because they know what we want or what is supposedly needed". But the rest of the both parties then just keeps making the same old mistakes by going back to old "go along to get along, good old boy" type politics. Nothing is going to happen until both parties heirarchy is replaced. Period. Good luck Phil on trying to find an honest, trustworthy candidate.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 10:26pm

I am curious as to what Jesse means when he says, "No candidate has any convincing evidence that they will follow any mandate put forward by the public." Just what mandate has been put forward by the public? What mandate does he think they will put forward? What would it be?

Kevin Grand
Wed, 05/03/2017 - 1:47pm

Quickly off the top of my head, Proposal 1, opposing the Michigan Income Tax rollback and crony capitalism (i.e. "Gilbert Bills") come to mind.

I think that you'll be hard pressed to find very many Michigan Residents lighting up the Capitol Switchboard up in Lansing to support those harebrained ideas.

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 9:22am

The tax to provide more money for road repair was voted down by 80% of the voters....and yet the Governor and the legislatures passed yet another gasoline tax. What happened to the last gasoline tax that was supposed to be used to fix roads? Oh yeah, the legislature and governor transferred all that to the general fund and spent it on things like MEDC and other pet political projects. Pat them on the head and give them another chance to ignore the voters direction? Yeah right, vote one of these so called uniters into office and see just how long it takes them to pass yet another tax.

Mary Lou Spencer
Tue, 05/16/2017 - 6:30am

Does anyone in or passing through our state think our roads and bridges are safe?

Barbara Stevenson
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 1:01pm

Thx Phil! Will need a lot more defined programs to see what these people offer! Abdul has a good platform but I wonder can a Muslim win statewide? Have grave concerns about Schutte based on his past values and actions! Gretchen and Dan seem mostikely to be the major Dems but some still think Duggan could run! Lots of work ahead to bridge the divide!

Kevin Grand
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 2:50pm


No mention of County Exec. Mark Hackel, Dr. Hines or Rep. Inman?

On a serious note, I don't think that the "uniting" aspect is going to be a factor in 2018, Mr. Power.

The people I talk to on that side of the political spectrum are more than a little bit disappointed in the Michigan Republican Party's record to date, and are serious talking about sitting the next one out.

When their party actively works to raise taxes and fees, have zero respect for the money in the general fund by treating it as if it were less than trash, and looks for new ways to expand the size and scope of state government that you cannot honestly pay for, those people have a point...exactly how are republicans any different from democrats?

Robert Monroe
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 3:27pm

While we are deeply divided, we are still a purple swing state. I believe the candidate who comes out with a deep and coherent vision of the meaning and future of work stands the best chance of uniting the voters. Both parties seem caught in the old paradigms and solutions. Technology will continue its destructive creation, and no one seems immune to the changes coming.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 10:21pm

Mr. Monroe is absolutely correct about technology continuing its' creative destruction. And he is right about " the candidate who comes out with a deep and coherent vision of the meaning and future of work stands the best chance of uniting the voters. "

M. Peterson Buckie
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 4:40pm

While he has yet to put his hat in the ring, Patrick Colbeck ( term limited state senator) has his sights set on another office. Rumors include a shot a governor. Research this man. He is dishonest, a Devos puppet, a theocrat.

Tue, 05/02/2017 - 5:18pm

Schuette? What a worthless, self serving excuse for a government salary. You were certainly tipping your hand with your description. He's another Teabagger wannabe.

We need to get the GOP out of our lives and get some adults who at least semi-care about the middle class.

Tue, 05/02/2017 - 7:41pm

A perfect answer to Phil's question ...... no one!

Michigan Observer
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 10:14pm

Rick says, "We need to get the GOP out of our lives and get some adults who at least semi-care about the middle class." What is the point of having someone who cares deeply about the middle class? Just what could they do for the middle class? We are in the midst of a huge shift in what skills are economically valuable. What can any Governor do about that? If the citizens of Michigan do not have the work ethic and the skills to successfully compete for good paying jobs, how is the political process supposed to make this a prosperous peninsula?

Sun, 05/07/2017 - 1:20pm


You have given us the answer and the campaign for the next successful Governor; define the expectations for agencies and individuals who want to succeed, describe what each has to do to make their success happen, establish the metrics we can all use to measure success and what each is doing in achieving success.

A successful leader listens to people, frames what they want and need into a vision for the future, develops a path to the vision, and then engages/recruits people to make it happen.

A governor could;
- help the schools focus on teaching the 'work ethic', teaching how to learn, teaching how to be creative, to absorb data and turn it into choices, into making decisions, etc.
- help agencies focus by defining their purpose, describing the results they are to deliver, establishing performance metric that can be used for program accountability.
- help people by identifying successes and describing how the succeeds are achieve so others can see how they could succeed and how agencies could adjust to support such successes.

Andrea Bennington
Thu, 03/26/2020 - 9:02pm

Yes! These are great ideas.

Sun, 05/07/2017 - 1:01pm

So agree with you Rick. Currently the GOP is not by the people, for the people but rather by the people bought by corporate.

Michigan Observer
Tue, 05/02/2017 - 10:58pm

" 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. " It is regrettable that Mr. Power didn't make an effort to delineate the basis for their mutual antagonism. What are their fundamental assumptions about the nature of a good society? For instance, what weights do each group assign to disposition versus situation in determining people's behavior? Disposition refers to individuals' character traits, while situation refers to the conditions that individuals have to deal with. What percent of an individual's behavior would a Clinton supporter say is determined by their situation? Sixty percent? Eighty percent? How about a Trump supporter? Would they think that seventy percent is determine by disposition and thirty percent by situation? And what is each group's judgment about how easy or difficult it is to significantly alter people's situation?

And what does Mr. Power think about the success of the Center for Michigan? After all, it was founded "to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture"

Michael K
Wed, 05/03/2017 - 1:26pm

Hey, you forgot someone who has actually announced their candidacy, is campaigning vigorously, and is building quite a team behind him: Abdul el-Sayed. Remember the name.

Thu, 05/04/2017 - 7:44am

I think he was not mentioned because the article is about "likely" candidates. Many people will not be able to get past the name Abdul el-Sayed and no matter what is position is on anything this name means he will be automatically rejected by many Michigan voters. Sadly this is where we are in this country right now.

Sun, 05/07/2017 - 10:47am

I disagree, that is why there are campaigns, campaign advertising, campaign spending.

Campaigns are about helping people better understand what the person offers and how that matches what they are interested in.

If you have any doubts, simply look to last year's Presidential elections. The media was ridiculing Mr. Trump as a candidate from that his first announcement, the Political Parties tried to make him into a parody, and yet after 18 months of campaigning [where he was outspent by his opposition] in both the primaries and general he came out victorious.

I would encourage you to put aside you notions of a who a possible candidate is and that they can not succeed, the world has changed from your youth and people are better informed and are more practiced at making their own choices.

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 9:23pm

Why do we need to be united? I want nothing to do with any democrat ideas, unions, people living off the hard efforts of others, or anyone who wants to put more government into my life. I am quite content with the way Lansing is going, maybe with the exception of those in Lansing trying to put the Christian Right into my life. If Michigan becomes unbearable, I will simply walk away. There is absolutely nothing that ties me, or for that matter, anyone to Michigan.

Sat, 05/06/2017 - 10:46am

I suspect all of the candidates better appreciate Mr. Power and the Center for Michigan, but I wonder what voters can uses from the interviews as they try to decide who they will choose for the next Governor.

John Sullivan
Sun, 05/07/2017 - 9:41am

Brian Calley missed your list.

Sun, 05/07/2017 - 10:48am

Thanks Phil for the heads up on candidates or potential candidates. This is not a republican or democratic or a muslim issue for that matter. This is a Michigan Citizen issue, just as our national issues are American citizen issues. There are many in Michigan who are focusing on the "data driven" facts, not alternative facts.

I would like to see Bridge focus on these facts so Michigan voters can compare candidates who seem to have a handle on the issues facing us today. Michigan is the poster child for how "not to" run government. I listen to and read a variety of news outlets, and the Flint water crisis continues to be a topic of conversation and the problem is still not solved.

I have not commented for quite some time due to the "same old" cynical commentators to Bridge. What happened to the optimistic, problem solving commentators?

Lets focus on solutions.