Susan J. Demas: John Austin’s Power Plays: Is the Democrat Looking at 2018?

Is John Austin running for governor in 2018?

The State Board of Education president, who’s also run a couple Michigan think tanks and served as a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, has mounted a very aggressive re-election campaign this year.

Although a soft-spoken consensus-builder by nature, Austin has made two bold moves in recent months.

The first was coming out swinging for the rights of LGBT students. Austin was part of a work group developing voluntary guidelines to help LGBT kids in school, as almost one-third of them have shockingly tried to commit suicide in the last year. The guidelines before the SBE included allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

Naturally, that caused squealing from the right (including the Detroit News’ Ingrid Jacques, even though the editorial board has repeatedly warned Republicans to stop harping on social issues). SBE member Eileen Weiser led the charge from within the Democratic-controlled board to torpedo the guidelines. She just happens to be married to former Michigan Republican Party Chair Ron Weiser (who had to appease the Donald Trump/Tea Party wing to win the GOP nomination for University of Michigan regent).

But Austin didn’t get cold feet. He continued to champion the cause, even after national right-wing media made him a target and the GOP-led Legislature threatened to cut the SBE’s funding and even eliminate the board completely.

That has, no doubt, endeared him to LGBT and other liberal activists –– which could prove useful if he does take the plunge for governor next cycle. Look for him to court Bernie Sanders supporters, in particular, who may be looking for alternatives to so-called “establishment” candidates.

Austin’s other significant maneuver is more inside baseball, but it’s made Democrats take notice of his political cunning. He backed former Department of Human Services Director Ismael Ahmed for the other SBE slot at the Michigan Democratic Party convention last weekend, effectively boxing out former Republican state Rep. John Stewart. (The AFL-CIO endorsed Ahmed and key players in the education unions let their displeasure over Stewart’s past backing of charter schools be known).

The beauty of Austin’s play is that it’s unlikely to ruffle the feathers of the party’s liberal wing. Few “Berniecrats” are focused on down-ballot races. And besides, these folks consider Clinton to be a quasi-Republican, so they’re unlikely to rally to the defense of a former Republican like Stewart.

These moves and Austin’s glossy fundraising pitches (which take a page from the Barack Obama playbook) have made Democratic insiders wonder if he’s angling for a bigger job. He’s armed with an impressive resume, which includes master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. And Austin has run for Secretary of State and flirted with a gubernatorial bid in the past.

It’s worth noting that he’s hired Dan Lijana*, formerly of the Democratic powerhouse firm Dewey Square. Principal Jill Alper helmed Jennifer Granholm’s gubernatorial bids, as well seven presidential campaigns, including both of Hillary Clinton’s. With Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan vowing not to seek the governorship (and those closest to him swearing it’s true), Alper doesn’t have a dog in the ‘18 fight –– yet.

It would be an uphill battle for Austin. Former state senator and now interim Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer is all but in. She’s a known quantity in Lansing as a fierce advocate for public education and women’s rights. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), who’s gotten plenty of media attention over the Flint water crisis, is popular with key labor figures.

And the field will probably expand beyond that. While it seems increasingly unlikely that popular Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel will leave his prime perch to run, other ambitious politicians could throw their hat in. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) is frequently mentioned. And pollster Ed Sarpolus is pumping up Westland Mayor Bill Wild (who bought billboards up north before the Mackinac Policy Conference).

Austin would have to carve out a niche of his own. But with his power play at the convention, Austin has shown –– for the first time –– that he may have the sharp elbows needed to survive a crowded primary.

But first, he’ll have to survive his re-election fight for the SBE on Nov. 8. As long as the courts uphold the right to straight-ticket voting, Austin should be fine. Clinton is widely expected to win Michigan, which would traditionally help down-ballot Dems.

The wild card is if Attorney General Bill Schuette keeps pushing his fight to reinstate the straight-ticket ban. In he succeeds, look for Republicans to heavily target Austin as payback for the LGBT guidelines. (Not coincidentally, one of their SBE nominees is notoriously anti-gay former state Rep. Tom McMillin).

You can bet that Austin is watching this court fight very closely.

* Corrected, 12:01 p.m.

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.