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Commentary: Democrats have no bench

Two days ago, the  expectation among many Democrats was that Senate Minority Leader Gretchen  Whitmer would be their candidate for governor next year.

Attractive, articulate  and charismatic, she has been the party’s primary and most visible public voice  since Rick Snyder became governor two years ago.

Yesterday, however,  she took herself out of the running. She has two pre-teen daughters, and said,  sensibly, “to be the kind of Mom I want to be for my girls simply does not allow  me to make the kind of commitment necessary to run a successful campaign for  governor at this point in their lives.’

Some may think that is a  cop-out, that she isn’t running because she thinks Snyder is unbeatable. But I  talked yesterday to someone who knows her well and says she is being completely  honest. Her daughters do mean a lot to her, and I think you have to admire that. 

This is a dilemma, by the way, many women in politics face. Republican Danialle  Karamanos just resigned as a member of the Wayne State Board of Governors,  because she has four small children and concluded that she couldn’t do both  jobs.

Now, it is conceivable that Whitmer might still run for attorney  general. You don’t have to worry about a primary, the party picks its nominee in  late summer, and you only have a two-month campaign.

But whatever she  does next, her exit exposes a terrible problem the Democrats face. In sports  terminology, they have no bench. This is largely because they lost two major  statewide offices more than a decade ago -- secretary of state and attorney  general. Democrats used to own those offices.

Attorney General Frank  Kelley was famous for mentoring and grooming young political talent during the  thirty-seven years he held office. Among those who first worked for him were  future Governor James Blanchard and Senator Carl Levin.

But there isn’t  anyone like that today. Governor Jennifer Granholm did not leave any  heirs.

Thanks to Republican-controlled redistricting, Democrats today  only have five seats in the House. Three of their congressmen are octogenarians,  one is brand-new, and the last one, Gary Peters, is unlikely to give up a safe  seat for a long-shot chance, especially because he was a total flop when he ran  for attorney general eleven years ago.

So who are the Democrats left with as  potential candidates for governor? Well, there is John Austin, the state board  of education president, who is earnest, smart, but sadly, a deadly dull speaker.  And there’s Mark Schauer, who served one term in Congress before being tossed  out.

Neither of these men are apt to make hearts beat wildly. Now, I  suppose the Democrats could come up with a surprise candidate from the business  community, sort of their own Rick Snyder. Some have talked about Denise Illitch. But I doubt it.

No Michigan governor has been denied a second term in  more than half a century, and despite some bitter controversies, Governor Snyder  looks pretty safe now. That could change, of course.

In fact, the  governor has yet to confirm that he will run. But even if he doesn’t,  Republicans have several strong candidates. Democrats have a personnel  problem. And that’s unlikely to change, any time soon.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry 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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