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Gretchen Whitmer is the Democrats' best hope, even if they don't like it

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer
State Senator Gretchen Whitmer
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer

These days, the place to go for solid in-depth print reporting on what’s happening in this state is not a newspaper, but Bridge, the online magazine.

Bridge, a publication of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Michigan, has hired many of the state’s best journalists to do deep-dive, penetrating reporting about conditions in this state.

Today, they have a blockbuster story that indicates that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and a number of union leaders are trying to recruit another Democratic candidate for governor.

As it now stands, the likely nominee is Gretchen Whitmer, the former state senate minority leader. But according to the story, Duggan and company don’t think she is strong enough. They also worry she doesn’t have enough ties to Metropolitan Detroit to ensure the turnout any Democrat needs to win.

Jack Lessenberry

Well, I don’t doubt Bridge’s reporting. But there’s no way Democrats are going to get another major figure to enter the race at this point, period.

They do have grounds for legitimate worry. I have voiced my own observations about the Whitmer campaign. She does have many strengths: She is especially strong on education, something shown by her endorsement yesterday by the main teachers’ union, the MEA.

Whitmer would also have an advantage over either of our last two governors in that she spent years in the legislature and knows how it works, something neither Rick Snyder nor Jennifer Granholm could say. She is smart and charismatic. But so far, she has not been forceful or powerful enough on the campaign trail.

She hasn’t put forth any major program to seize voters’ imagination. She has been slow to jump on issues and call out the Snyder administration for its failings. She did call on MSU President Lou Anna Simon to resign in the wake of theNassar scandal, but did so tepidly, and only after the Speaker of the House and Lansing’s major newspaper already had.

Most telling of all, she’s been running full-time for a year, and polls still show less than half the public know who she is, especially in Detroit. When Democrats turn out big in Wayne and Oakland Counties, they generally win statewide elections. Otherwise, they don’t.

But the fact is that Gretchen Whitmer is going to be the Democratic nominee. Abdul El-Sayed is a brilliant young man who has been running a spirited race, but lacks experience. The only other realistic candidates aren’t running.

Mike Dugganhas rightly insisted for years that he’s committed to at least two full terms as mayor of Detroit. Flint’s Dan Kildee is staying in Congress. Confronted with these realities, Democrats, according to Bridge Magazine, asked Gary Peters to give up his U.S. Senate seat and run for governor. Pardon me, but even thinking he’d do that is just crazy.

Besides, bringing in a “real man candidate,” to shove a woman out of the way is probably not the image Democrats want to present, especially this year.

Democrats would be better advised to find ways to help their apparent nominee. She’s still got time. I think she needs a signature program, like maybe starting a Michigan Infrastructure Corps, to catch imaginations and fire enthusiasm.

But unless there’s a new Franklin D. Roosevelt I don’t know about, for Democrats, trying to dump Whitmer at this stage would only make their problems worse.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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