Susan J. Demas: What does the future hold for Gretchen Whitmer?

  Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

This column ran in Dome Magazine.

Gretchen Whitmer’s interest in temporarily taking over the Ingham County prosecutor post has been met with a near-universal sigh of relief.

The Democratic former state Senate minority leader is seen as a healing figure who can restore honor and order to the office tarnished by current Democratic Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III. He’s on medical leave until he resigns on July 2, as he’s facing 15 prostitution-related criminal charges.

But even before that, Dunnings was under fire for allegedly mishandling high-profile murder and sexual assault cases. It’s safe to say that if Dunnings hadn’t been running in a heavily Democratic county, it’s unlikely he would have been re-elected in 2012.

Whitmer served in the Legislature for 14 years and was termed out in 2014. She’s rejoined the law firm Dickinson Wright, specializing in regulatory and administrative litigation, and teaches at the University of Michigan Ford School for Public Policy.

It’s also no secret that Whitmer is keenly interested in seeking the open governor’s chair in 2018 (Rick Snyder is term-limited).

In the most recent poll of the race, completed by Inside Michigan Politics and Target Insyght, Whitmer came in second in the four-way Democratic field. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was first, but he’s steadfastly insisted he won’t run. Whitmer finished ahead of both U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), who’s netted national attention over his city’s water crisis, and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

So how does (potentially) taking over as Ingham County prosecutor help Whitmer land the job she really wants a few blocks over in the Romney Building?

That’s not clear. Becoming a public official once again would attract more media attention for Whitmer, especially in the capital city –– but that’s never been much of an issue for her.

Her biggest electoral strength lies in Lansing and its environs, as she was a well-known legislator for years whose parents were public figures. Her late mother, Sherry, served as an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelley, and her father, Dick, was a Commerce Department director under Gov. William Milliken.

Being Ingham County prosecutor would give Whitmer a public platform. She would also have the chance to burnish her credentials as a reformer willing to clean up another Democrat’s mess, which could be useful in a general election.

And here’s an fascinating little quirk. If Whitmer is appointed and does ride her interim post to the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, she could very well end up facing GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette –– the man who brought charges against Dunnings. That would ironically mean that Schuette would be somewhat responsible for building up his own opponent.

But the truth is that the interim prosecutor gig would be most helpful to Whitmer if she chooses instead to run for AG –– the office she bowed out from in 2010 due to family concerns. She would instantly become one of the most well-known prosecutors in the state. And Whitmer would gain criminal court experience to prove she can be tough on crime.

Now there’s zero indication that Whitmer is interested in AG in ‘18. Indeed, many of her close allies would probably be deeply offended at the suggestion.

After all, she’s paid her dues in Lansing, leading the loyal opposition for Snyder’s entire first term. She cultivated a national profile over the 2012 Right to Work fight and “Vaginagate” scandals. But some Democrats feel burned that Whitmer forgoed runs in both 2010 and 2014 and are reticent to back her ‘18 gubernatorial bid.

And Kildee is already publicly throwing his name out for governor, even though more than six months remain in the 2016 election. He’s smart to strike while the iron is hot, as people still know him as the guy taking Snyder on over the Flint water crisis.

He’s been lining up support behind the scenes and will likely inherit some of 2014 gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer’s operation. (Most people don’t remember the bad blood between Schauer and Whitmer during their Senate days). And most importantly, Kildee will probably land some key union endorsements.

Running for AG is the safe play for Whitmer in ‘18, assuming she can broker a deal to ensure she’s on the ticket (the party’s internal politics are notoriously clunky and self-sabotaging).

Democrats should be thrilled to have her. Republicans probably can’t find a nominee to match her résumé and star power. And running her own office would be far more desirable than filling the lieutenant governor slot. (Whitmer can ask Frank Kelley –– her good friend and her mother’s former boss –– about that one).

And let’s not forget that Schuette cast his ego aside in ‘10 to run for AG. As much as he may have coveted the governor’s mansion, he knew it would be a crowded field with no guarantees of victory. So he’s cooled his heels, methodically building a record for the past five years, and will probably enter the 2018 GOP primary as the favorite.

That’s a model Whitmer could try to emulate, using the AG’s office as a springboard for her 2022 gubernatorial run (if a Republican is in office) or deferring until 2026.

Of course, that’s a long time to wait.

And the idea that Whitmer should step aside for Kildee and possibly Hackel –– both men –– will inevitably be interpreted as sexist by some. One of the maddening realities for many female politicians is that they constantly have to prove themselves and fight for institutional support, no matter how well-established they are.

After all, even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton –– a former Secretary of State, U.S. senator and policy adviser for decades –– was recently called unqualified by her opponent, backbencher U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (who was finally forced to walk it back).

And maybe AG isn’t the right play. Whitmer could follow in Jennifer Granholm’s footsteps in 2002 and beat two men in the gubernatorial primary –– although she was aided by the fact that David Bonior and Jim Blanchard were considered old news. That’s certainly not the case with Kildee or Hackel.

Another scenario is that Hackel or another candidate plays spoiler, throwing the contest to Whitmer. And if it’s a one-on-one matchup with Kildee, Whitmer could certainly win.

But no one believes capturing the nomination will be an easy task. And then there’s the general election, which takes place in a non-presidential year –– which have been killing fields for Democrats in the last two cycles.

It’s not hard to see why the attorney general’s office could beckon for Whitmer in 2018, even if the governor’s mansion is really where she wants to be.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.