Alma Wheeler Smith: Fighting for Change from Within

Dome Magazine, 11/16/09

Shortly before more than 84,000 breathless supporters invaded Invesco Field to hear Barack Obama’s historic acceptance speech at last August’s Democratic National Convention, the 2010 Michigan governor’s race was already declared over.

“I went into a caucus room and [Lieutenant Governor] John Cherry preceded me,” recalls Representative Alma Wheeler Smith. “And he was introduced as the next governor of the state of Michigan. And when it was my turn, I said, ‘Well, now I know how Barack Obama felt when he entered a room and Hillary Clinton was the presumptive presidential candidate.’”

Indeed, most of the pundit class does consider the gubernatorial contest to be a foregone conclusion on the Democratic side, even though several candidates have expressed interest, including Smith, Genesee County Treasurer Dan Kildee, former Rep. John Freeman and Michigan State University Trustee George Perles. The only drama seems to be whether House Speaker Andy Dillon jumps into the fray.

For Smith, it’s an odd feeling of déjà vu. When the now 67-year-old Salem Township Democrat first ran for governor in 2002, she was overshadowed by then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, who was hailed for fighting to break the glass ceiling at the governor’s office. Little attention was paid to Smith, who would have not only busted that barrier but become the Great Lake State’s first African-American chief executive as well. Poor fundraising forced Smith to join forces with then-U.S. Rep. David Bonior as his running mate.

“She was a wonderful partner, very thoughtful about the issues,” he says. “She had the ability to reach out to so many communities — environmentalists, women, the African-American community, the Latino community.”

But the pair finished a distant second in the primary.

Read more.