It didn’t matter that it was 80 degrees and sunny outside for the first time this year. More than 150 people headed to a dark and stuffy bar Saturday afternoon to hear from four of the Democratic candidates for governor more than 18 months before they’ll have to cast a ballot.
“I think we have the opportunity to build a movement here, but we have to do it together,” said Steven Varnum, outreach chairman for the Progressive Caucus of Mid Michigan, which sponsored the forum.
While the November 2018 election is far off, Democratic candidates are hitting the road, and they participated in the forum — the first in this election cycle — in an attempt to capitalize on the distress some voters are feeling over the presidency of Republican Donald Trump.
Four Democratic candidates — former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, former head of the Detroit Health Department Abdul El-Sayed of Detroit, retired Xerox executive William Cobbs of Farmington Hills and emergency medical services driver Kentiel White of Southgate — gathered to discuss the issues facing the state.
There was general agreement among the candidates on the issues, including the need for higher wages, the repeal of laws governing emergency managers and right to work, immigration reform and better environmental protections on water and air. They all said there is a critical need for fresh Democratic leadership in the state after seven years of Republican control under Gov. Rick Snyder, who can't run again because of term limits.
"You have to acknowledge that everyone has a voice whether you’re progressive, moderate or conservative Democrat and that we’re in the same boat together," Cobbs said. "If we don’t find a way of coalescing and building a common approach, we lose. We’re approaching the most important election cycle in our lifetime. If we don’t get something accomplished in 2018, we’ll have to wait until 2030 because in Michigan, you have a full-on frontal assault on democracy."
The upcoming election is an especially important one because in 2021, the district lines for legislative seats will be redrawn based on the 2020 Census. Whoever controls the Legislature and the governor's office will control the redistricting process.
"When I left politics, I thought I was done, but I got so mad so quickly. We deserve better here in Michigan," Whitmer said. "I looked at a Michigan that voted for Donald Trump, I looked at my candidate who I was furious with and said I’m going to throw my hat into the ring so I can be constructive instead of destructive."
The forum came nearly a year before candidates face an April 24, 2018, deadline to file to run for state office in 2018. But already 12 people have filed for the state’s top job.
"I just have three questions. Do you want to get the money out of politics? Has government as business fundamentally failed us and do we need new blood in Lansing?" asked El-Sayed. "I'm running to be your next governor. ... Let us come together right now for our future."
White said he wants to be the voice of the people in the state, adding, "I'm the candidate who can rebirth this state."
Republicans who have filed paperwork with the Secretary of State include Joseph Derose of Williamston, Evan Space of Grand Rapids, Jim Hines of Saginaw and Mark McFarlin of Pinconning. Justin Giroux of Wayland is the other Democrat who has filed paperwork. Candidates without a party affiliation include Ryan Henry of Clawson and Todd Schleiger of Lake Orion, and there is also Green Party candidate Dwain Reynolds of Middleville.
“To most normal-thinking people, yes this is too early. But to politicians and their consultants, no. Any advantage of getting out front early is always helpful,” said Robert Kolt, a Lansing political consultant and MSU associate professor of advertising and public relations.
And while the state Democratic Party is focusing more on organizing at a grass roots level and working with county party groups than concentrating on the 2018 elections, those efforts are laying the groundwork for whoever ends up as the party’s candidate for governor and other state offices, said Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.
“I know there are a lot of people out there energized by the results of the last election and are eager to get started, but it does seem a little early,” he said. “This is the first forum I’m aware of, but people want to get moving and begin hearing what the candidates have to say.”
Mike McCurdy, chairman of the Mid Michigan Progressive Caucus, said the meeting was designed to let members get involved early in the upcoming election season.
“We think there’s a lot of good candidates out there, and we really want to see what they have to say,” he said.
They won’t get to see other candidates who haven’t officially announced that they’re running for the seat, but are widely expected to get into the race, including U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Midland Republican, and Lieutenant Gov. Brian Calley, a Portland Republican.
Meeting so early with voters is smart, Kolt said.
“The people who attend these are pretty politically committed,” he said. “If they’re really engaged, they can be persuaded to support and perhaps volunteer for a campaign.”