MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Democratic gubernatorial candidates and contenders who might join the race say they want to take lessons learned from the party’s disappointing losses in Michigan’s last two election cycles and use them to win in 2018.
For former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, that means taking no voter or community for granted — a reason she announced her candidacy so early five months ago, to get to every part of the state because “everyone is important.”
“I’m also going to not make the mistake of other Democrats that try to beat up the other guy and think that you can win that way,” Whitmer told The Associated Press at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, which was a chance for candidates and potential entrants to meet with business, political and civil leaders. “You win on an aspirational message. You win on talking about what you are going to do to fix the problems that are facing this state.”
Abdul El-Sayed, the ex-director of Detroit’s health department who launched his campaign in February, said Democrats need someone who has a message and believes in it.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of the same sort of corporate politicians trying to cobble together a message that they think will work,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t come from anywhere except for the talking points on their sheet — certainly not from the heart. … We have to be able to come forward with a message that is about people, with credible messengers and people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get the job done and have demonstrated their ability to do that.”
Attorney and University of Michigan regent Mark Bernstein, who is signaling that he may join Whitmer and El-Sayed in the field, said voters are sick of hearing the “same stuff” from candidates.
“They want policies and practical solutions,” Bernstein, who runs his family’s prominent personal-injury firm, told the AP. “They don’t want rhetoric. They want results. I think there is a need for that. Now, whether the political arena is so desensitized maybe to demagogic populism, that’s an open question. And it’s frankly a hesitation I have on whether this is a moment where the political culture is aligned with the way I approach things.”
President Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton shocked Democrats, who had not lost a presidential election in Michigan in 28 years. They also fell short when Gov. Rick Snyder won re-election in 2014. He cannot run again due to term limits, and Democrats could be poised to make gains in 2018 after what will have been eight years of GOP control in Lansing and two years of a Trump presidency.
Winning the governorship is their No. 1 priority.
An early difference between the two main candidates, Whitmer and El-Sayed, is over experience.
Whitmer is a 45-year-old lawyer, who was in the Legislature for 14 years, including four as Senate minority leader. El-Sayed, a 32-year-old Rhodes Scholar and son of Egyptian immigrants, led the Detroit Health Department for roughly 1½ years and has medical and doctorate degrees.
“Experience is not about time. Experience is about effort. Experience is about the work. It’s about what you have actually accomplished,” said El-Sayed, who has released a progressive policy platform and cited his efforts to provide glasses to Detroit schoolchildren in need, fight pollution and ensure lead-free water for children in schools and day care. “I worry a lot about people who say, ‘Well you’ve been around Lansing a long time and therefore that’s the experience we need.’ I worry about that because Lansing has been functioning in a pretty mediocre way for a long time, and I think the state knows that.”
Whitmer, who already has raised $1 million for her campaign, said her legislative experience is a positive. An outspoken critic of Republicans’ tax overhaul and other laws, she said she was at the negotiating table when Democrats helped to expand Medicaid and provide state assistance so Detroit could exit bankruptcy.
“It’s important to note that progressives in the Democratic Party don’t have to choose between experience and (a) progressive. Bernie Sanders proved that, and I think that’s something I bring to the table as well,” Whitmer said.
She said she is working to become better known across the state and is developing a platform that will “speak to everybody” — voters who backed Sanders, Clinton and Trump supporters who “are looking for a new place to land and people who are so mad at the world that they didn’t vote for anybody.”
Bernstein, whose brother is a state Supreme Court justice and whose family’s Detroit-area firm is widely known because of its TV ads, said he is “taking every step I need to make” should he run, which seems increasingly likely.
“I think Lansing needs to stop lying to people in this state about what works and what doesn’t work,” said Bernstein, 45, of Ann Arbor. “I think that a campaign that gives voice to that sentiment but does it in an honorable, civil, responsible way would really be a great privilege to be a part of. … There are voters who would vote for someone who they may even disagree with on things but they think that person’s going to fight for them and do it in a principled way and just be straight-up with them. That’s what I do as a lawyer every day for our clients.”
Another Democrat who expressed interest in running at the Mackinac Island conference was Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. He said he is “50-50” on whether to get in or instead seek re-election to his county job. He has won big in the vote-rich bellwether, but his more moderate views could be a liability in the Democratic primary.
“When you’re selecting a candidate to put forward, (Democrats) need to be very cognizant who that candidate is because it’s not good enough just to win half a game. You’ve got to win the entire thing,” Hackel, 55, said in an interview, contending that past Democratic gubernatorial nominees Mark Schauer and Virg Bernero were too liberal for the general electorate. “I think the public is looking for that nontraditional or independent, authentic candidate. … I don’t think the public’s looking for extremes anymore.”