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Is the governor's race over?

May 9, 2017

Congressman Dan Kildee of Flint has decided that he will not, after all, run for the Democratic nomination for governor next year. Sources close to the congressman told me last night that he had been wavering until last week, when House Republicans rammed through a health care bill that few understood and which made Democrats extremely mad.

Kildee, who has told me he loves Congress, had an epiphany then that his work was to stay in the House, where he has a safe seat, and fight for what is right for the nation.

That’s certainly understandable – and it is conceivable that within a decade, he could be a major power in Congress. His decision leaves Gretchen Whitmer, the former state Senate minority leader, as the presumptive nominee, fully 15 months before the Democratic primary.

Now, there are other candidates for the nomination, four of them totally unknown, including an emergency services driver and a retired Xerox executive. The way things look now, the closest thing to serious competition she faces is a challenge from Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the former head of the Detroit Health Department.

El-Sayed is brilliant and a clear and forceful speaker. He is both a medical doctor and a doctor of philosophy, an accomplished athlete who attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. He did more than generally known to improve public health in Detroit.

And what may be most astonishing is that he is only 32 years old.

But he faces two enormous handicaps. First, he has never run for anything before. That was also the case with Rick Snyder, and it’s clear that made him a weaker governor.

More serious is one that many would find it taboo to mention. El-Sayed is a Muslim with an Arabic name. Last fall, Democrats nominated the well-known and much-beloved Ismael Ahmed to a seat on the fairly low-profile state board of education.

Ahmed was hugely qualified and about as American as apple pie. But he ran almost a quarter of a million votes behind the other Democratic nominee, for one reason only: Many voters were unwilling to vote for an Arab and a Muslim. I found that terribly unfair.

But there’s no reason to believe those attitudes are going to change anytime soon, and there could be even more reluctance to vote for a Muslim for governor. This race may not, however, be as over as at it seems. There are still many months ahead.

Over the weekend, someone sent me a little-known gubernatorial poll the respected firm Target Insyght did in March. It included a familiar name that we haven’t heard much this cycle. It found that in a mythical Democratic primary matchup, Whitmer would have gotten 27% of the vote to 17% for Kildee, while a further 28% were undecided.

But another 28% opted for a different name. They chose the controversial and flamboyant attorney Geoffrey Fieger.

What’s more, the poll showed Fieger beating Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, the most likely Republican nominee, 41% to 39%. Those numbers are all within the margin of error, it is way early, and there’s absolutely no indication that Fieger, their disastrous nominee 20 years ago, has any interest in running. But in politics, as in life, you never can tell.

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.