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Knowing when to fold 'em

Jul 19, 2017

When I heard that Mark Bernstein wasn’t running for governor, what instantly popped into my head was a line from Macbeth: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."

In other words, the best part of his campaign was his decision not to wage one. The immediate beneficiary is Gretchen Whitmer, whom Bernstein then endorsed.

She is the former state Senate minority leader, and is now the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination. Still, the primary that will finally determine that is more than a year away. There are still a bunch of candidates in the race, four people whose names no one has ever heard, plus Abdul El-Sayed, the former director of the Detroit Health Department.

El-Sayed is brilliant and charismatic, and may keep Whitmer challenged and on her toes. But as unfair as it is, there’s plenty of evidence that Michiganders aren’t ready to vote for a Muslim with a clearly Middle Eastern name.

And apart from that, he has no experience in Lansing, and barely a year with the city. It’s clear that when a governor takes office without state government experience, we pay a price. We’ve had inexperienced governors twice in a row, and in terms of effectiveness, neither Rick Snyder nor Jennifer Granholm ever got to where John Engler was his first day on the job.

This time, all three likely major candidates – Whitmer and Bill Schuette and Brian Calley on the Republican side – have boatloads of experience.

Mark Bernstein is an elected member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, and people I respect tell me he’s doing a superb job.

His brother Richard, blind since birth, is a member of the Michigan Supreme Court. But Mark Bernstein also has no experience in Lansing, and has zero recognition statewide.

His father, however, has lots of experience. Sam Bernstein is the public face of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm, a personal injury firm which floods the airwaves with incessant advertising.

True, Mark Bernstein would have had millions to spend to get known – but voters would have been asked if they were going to let an ambulance-chasing lawyer buy the governorship.

There was also the embarrassing incident a year ago when Bernstein and his wife offered to donate $3 million for a multicultural center on campus, but then withdrew the gift when there were protests over their desire to name the building after themselves.

Amazingly, it now looks as if the Democrats’ entire statewide ticket is shaping up a year early. Patrick Miles, the former U.S. District Attorney in Grand Rapids, may be the candidate for attorney general. Jocelyn Benson, the former Wayne State University law school dean, will almost certainly be the nominee for secretary of state.

Which leaves only lieutenant governor, and here’s a radical suggestion. Whitmer might want to offer Bernstein that job. He does have considerable administrative talent, is only in his mid-40s, and unlike Snyder and Granholm, Whitmer doesn’t desperately need a legislator.

Not to mention Bernstein's ability to raise funds. He, on the other hand, would get the experience he lacks. Those who think they are in the know say he’d never take it. But while Shakespeare never said this, it is also true that 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.