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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Kildee Still Undecided on Governor’s Race

April 28, 2017

DETROIT – U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) faces the biggest dilemma of his career:  Should he give up an utterly safe seat and his career in Congress to risk a tough primary battle for the Democratic nomination for governor next year?  If he stays in Washington, there’s a chance he could become a committee chair and a major power – if Democrats manage to take back control before too many years.  But if he were to run for governor and win, there’s a chance he could have a major role in turning around a state that is in desperate need of government reform.

“Interested in running? Thinking about it? Of course I am,” he told me over coffee in downtown Detroit last week.  But Kildee insisted – convincingly – that he just hasn’t decided.  “It really depends on where I think I can make the biggest difference,” he told me, and added that he doesn’t feel any pressure to decide quickly – noting that the filing deadline is a year away, and the primary not ‘til August 2018.  “It’s too early,” he said, adding that he thinks campaigns in general start too early these days. 

His main rival if he does run, Gretchen Whitmer, the former state Senate Minority Leader, plainly disagrees on timing; she declared her candidacy just after New Year’s Day.  Whitmer, a 45-year-old lawyer who has spent her life in the Lansing area, has been raising funds and running hard and enthusiastically since her announcement.  She has won the support of some smaller unions and women’s groups. 

At least three other little-known candidates have declared their candidacies for the Democratic nomination, though they would likely be eclipsed, financially and otherwise, by a Kildee-Whitmer battle, should one occur.  Both major candidates have considerable strengths – and some weaknesses. 

Whitmer partisans think Kildee ought to stay in Washington and fight for Michigan there.  They note that despite a long history in Genesee County politics, where he served as treasurer and founded one of the nation’s first successful land banks, he has no direct Lansing experience.  Those who favor Kildee, however, note that except for a brief stint as an interim county prosecutor, Whitmer’s entire career was in the legislature.

That legislature isn’t exactly the most popular institution in the state these days; many people resent that after years of complaining, the lawmakers have still not effectively come up with a real solution to fixing the state’s crumbling roads.  Whitmer might also be vulnerable to Republican charges that she accomplished little or nothing as a state senator, though since her party was always in the minority, it is hard to see how she could have done much.

Though no one can say for sure, it is unlikely that there would be much difference on the issues between the two major potential Democratic candidates for governor.  Both Whitmer and Kildee have indicated they think the state has neglected infrastructure and devoted too many resources to corporate and business tax cuts which have failed to produce a hoped-for avalanche of new jobs. 

Dan Kildee thinks the number one issue is “the absolute failure of K-12 education in Michigan,” something that, as he notes, is the state’s constitutional responsibility.  The congressman has been intensely interested in education issues since he won a seat on the Flint school board when he was 18.  “There are plenty of other big issues, but this is one that has such long-term consequences and is so clearly a state responsibility.  We’ve broken a promise to our kids.”  One of his top priorities as governor would be to demand more transparency and accountability from the forest of charter schools that have drained education dollars.

Interestingly, however, he said that if he does run, the driving force leading him there wouldn’t be any one issue, but government reform itself.  “If I were to run it would not be with the idea that there is a policy agenda that I, and I only could execute.  But that we reform our political system so that what I leave behind is a system that is much more rational and allows the body politic to have its beliefs manifest in the legislature.” 

That would mean an end to the gerrymandering that has made most Michigan legislative districts totally uncompetitive in general elections, and left common-sense lawmakers vulnerable to extremists in primary contests.  “Nothing is perfect, but I’d like something as non-partisan and independent as possible.  The fact that nothing is perfect doesn’t take away from that what we have now is horrible.” 

Though Kildee may be able to take several months to decide whether to run for governor, it isn’t at all clear that he’ll get another chance for statewide office after this cycle.  He didn’t get to Congress until 2013, when he was 54, after waiting patiently for his uncle, Dale Kildee, to retire.  Dan Kildee will be 60 a month before the November 2018 election. Next year is likely to be his best shot ever at winning Michigan’s governorship.  There will be no incumbent running for reelection.  Republicans have been in total power in Lansing for eight years, and Gov. Rick Snyder has been intensely unpopular ever since the Flint water and lead poisoning scandal. 

Additionally, there is usually a backlash in midterm elections against the party in the White House – and President Trump’s popularity has been at near-record lows.  If Dan Kildee is ever going to have a chance to try and show what he can do to transform a dysfunctional state government, next year is probably it.  

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

April 27, 2017 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry


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