Susan J. Demas: Kildee in the Catbird Seat: The Flint Congressman Moves toward a Gubernatorial Bid

Anyone who thinks U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee isn’t running for governor in 2018 isn’t paying attention.

It’s not a done deal that he’s in, of course. There are 865 days left between now and Nov. 6, 2018. (A decade ago, no one would be focused on an election almost two and a half years out, but welcome to the era of the perpetual campaign).

Any number of unforeseen circumstances –– personal or political –– could cause Kildee to change his mind. And it’s worth noting that he does occupy a safe Democratic congressional seat in Flint, which could look a lot more inviting if 2018 starts shaping up to be another Democratic off-year bloodbath.

But Kildee is clearly sending signals that he’s a serious contender. As someone who hails from a top political family in Flint, who first won elective office at age 18, Kildee knows exactly what he’s doing.

This week Hillary Clinton tapped Kildee’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, Mitchell Rivard, as her Michigan communications director. Though in the works for awhile, the announcement came on the day a likely 2018 rival, Gretchen Whitmer, was sworn in as Ingham County prosecutor.

The move isn’t a huge surprise. If you look carefully at Clinton’s statements during the primary about the Flint water crisis –– which remains a national symbol of our crumbling infrastructure –– the language and arguments are strikingly similar to Kildee’s.

This move means that Rivard, who’s set to return to Kildee’s staff after the election, will be a top player in a critical statewide election, privy to up-to-the minute election data and polling. That’s a boon to Kildee’s nascent gubernatorial campaign. Not to mention that forging such close ties with the woman who’s likely the next president of the United States (as the odds stand now) is invaluable.

Kildee naturally has been laying the groundwork months before this announcement. Circumstances have thrust him into the state and national spotlight, as he’s railed against the poisoning of Flint water and fought for the release of former Marine Amir Hekmati from an Iranian prison. But Kildee, thanks in no small part to Rivard’s media savvy, has managed to come off as a concerned public servant, not an exploitative, cynical pol. (That’s irked Republicans to no end, who insist he’s overplaying his hand).

At the same time, Kildee has been talking with Democratic powerbrokers –– elected officials, donors, longtime operatives and interest groups –– behind the scenes. He’s definitely made inroads with some unions and allies of former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, the last Dem gubernatorial nominee, look ready to join the fight. Kildee has also appeared at Dem fundraisers across the state, from Holt to Leland, which are decidedly outside the 5th congressional district.

In a long interview with Inside Michigan Politics (right before hobnobbing at the the Mackinac Policy Conference), the congressman finally announced he’s mulling a gubernatorial campaign.

He tried out some attack lines against Gov. Rick Snyder, knowing that the election will be a referendum on his policies, especially in Flint. Kildee repeatedly argued that Michigan has fallen behind in infrastructure, education and urban development in “the last half decade.” For those keeping score at home, that’s effectively flipping Republicans’ highly effective theme that former Gov. Jennifer Granholm plunged us into a decade-long recession (which actually began over a year before she took office).

Kildee also took a shot at the Republican most visibly vying to succeed Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette. Kildee, a strong proponent of same-sex marriage, declared it was “incredible” that Schuette would “actually sue the federal government to prevent Michigan citizens from rights that they have long sought and finally achieved.” Kildee is willing to take the fight right to Schuette, even over an issue that has only enjoyed majority support in Michigan for a few years.

When asked about Whitmer, Kildee was complimentary. He gracefully drew a comparison to the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders primary, noting that such contests don’t have to get ugly and actually strengthen the party.

Perhaps the most salient argument against Kildee’s candidacy is a crude one: Democrats don’t need to nominate another white guy. But Kildee isn’t just any white guy. He hails from Flint, which is still the eye of the storm in Michigan.

He’ll be running as the anti-Snyder –– which is exactly what the Democratic base craves. Any serious Democratic contender will try to campaign on that theme. But who gets it more than someone who lives in Flint and has had a ringside view into the destruction Snyder has wrought?

That may just be Kildee’s ace in the hole.

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