Detroit Police Chief James Craig’s abrupt announcement that he will be retiring to almost certainly run for governor– as a Republican– invites some curiosity about how the election will play out in a state whose politics are increasingly defined by stark partisan lines and racial divisions. Michigan, whose politics are paradoxical as the birthplace of the very term Reagan Democrat, is less purple, even, than a mottled blue-red. Can Craig, as a Black, native Detroiter running as a Republican, win the hearts and minds of a state that has historically been outright hostile to the state’s largest, majority-Black city in the past 40 years? Or will he go the route of failed Senate candidate John James, whose attempt to quietly distance himself from the increasingly unpopular Trump in 2020 seemed to backfire?
Looking at Craig’s Record
Craig started his career in the Detroit Police Department before moving around to other departments including Cincinnati and Portland. The former-and-current city cop has presided over sweeping, anti-crime initiatives like the Green Light program, which has prompted scrutiny over Constitutional trespass and privacy concerns. The Green Light program, which installs high-definition cameras on private property in potential crime hotspots, has raised controversial questions about the role of technology and surveillance in public safety. It’s also not really public, which raises further questions of accountability. And results are, well, mixed.
The Chief cozied up to maybe-criminal Bill Barr and a number of other Trump Administration officials last year. Taking place during the height of the protest movement last June, when the Trump Administration used military force to disperse protesters in Washington, DC, this prompted rampant speculation about whether Craig would try the same brutal measures in Detroit.
Do Black Lives Matter to Michigan?
The chief also came under fire last year for overseeing repeated brutalization of journalists and legal observers at Black Lives Matter protests, for which he was wholly unapologetic. His cool manner in denouncing the protests contrasted with a city government hell-bent on undermining the protest movement through lavish expenditure on litigation against the protesters. This may will play well with an angry, far-right Republican base that continues to believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that believes that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group.
Complicating this issue further, Craig is also, of course, a Black Detroiter. Experience shows that Michiganders love to hate on majority-Black Detroit, whether by the likes of the late L. Brooks Patterson (“Drop Dead, Detroit!”), some idiot road commissioner in or by Literally Any White Woman In The Suburbs Talking About How Kwame Was So Awful And Deserves To Die In Jail And Coleman-The-Elder Singlehandedly Invented Municipal Corruption. Heck, I’ve even noticed this among liberal white Democrats, who will sing a song about DEI and then, in the same breath, castigate former Black mayors and praise Mike Duggan.
Further muddying the waters is the fact that many Detroiters have voiced their displeasure at the protests. Some observers at June protests echoed Craig’s own complaints that many of the protesters weren’t Detroit residents. (It’s unclear to what degree this is true, but what’s definitely true is that a lot of protesters arrested at the early protests were not Detroit residents. Detroit Will Breathe organizer Tristan Taylor– among others- is a Detroit resident).
The Historical Republican Failure to Court the Black Vote
Especially Trump-grade white Republicans especially love Black Republican candidates owing to their relative scarcity. John James was a good example, and no doubt Republicans relished in their ability to present Tim Scott to respond to Biden’s first address to Congress. (Scott is the first Black Republican to serve in the United States Senate since Edward Brooke, 1966-1979, and the first Black Senator to represent a Southern state since Reconstruction after the American Civil War).
Republicans seem wont to present Black candidates as a way of trying to disclaim the racism that they generally tolerate within their ranks, whether we’re thinking about various state legislatures muzzling teachers on race in history curriculum or, uh, the supposedly unintentional use of a Neonazi rune as the shape of the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Generally, I’d consider the CPAC gaffe to just be a particularly unlucky fluke. But given what we saw in the White House in the past four years, well).
Winning Detroit isn’t what’s going to count. Craig will have to court Republicans and moderate Democrats.
“I’m Not Racist! Some Of My Best Candidates Are Black!”
It’s like. “Hey! Look! We’re not racist at all! We have Ben Carson!” But then this is followed up immediately with Ben Carson opening his mouth and saying something about how he hates poor people. Or doesn’t believe racism exists in America. Or goes along with a staunchly anti-urban agenda, which would seem to undermine voter support in a number of majority-black cities. And thus Republicans are left scratching their heads about why on earth Black Americans and people of color in general overwhelmingly vote blue. What The Hell Do You Have To Lose, Donald Trump asked? (Yikes).
Incumbent Advantage Vs. Identity Politics
On the other hand, Gretchen Whitmer has held a generally favorable approval rating for her handling of the pandemic. The early lockdowns were unpopular in areas initially untouched by COVID, prompting death threats against Whitmer and others. Extremists even hatched an utterly insane plot to kidnap the Governor last year. But even though her support has waned even as the state reopens, Whitmer currently maintains a narrow approval rating in recent polls.
In terms of managing COVID, Whitmer has received high marks as a Republican legislature has attempted to award little more than a proverbial pizza party to first responders and has failed to provide meaningful policy packages to address the issues. But of course, the state’s PUA money, a generous supplement to UIA, will eventually run out. This will put people back to work. But by this time, we hope, more and more Michiganders will be vaccinated, making the reopening question more a question of “when” and “how” than “if.”
Whitmer vs. Craig
Compared to Craig, Gretchen Whitmer is, well, white, for one. It’s unclear to what degree this will be a factor in majority-Black Detroit. John James won more votes in Detroit in 2020 than in 2018, and lost in a squeaker– but Detroit nonetheless voted deep blue, race question aside. There’s another question of whence the two candidates hail. While Craig is a Detroiter, Whitmer is a suburbanite from West Michigan. With names like the DeVoses and the Meijers, West Michigan is generally a bit more conservative and a bit more monied. It’s less industrial than the Great Automotive East, where Flint and Detroit struggle against disinvestment and decline.
And meanwhile, the Mitten loves the suburbs. A whopping 95% of Detroit voted blue in the last election, but, depending on how you slice it, the city of Detroit itself only represents around 15% of the total population of Metro Detroit, and only a meager 6% of the state’s total population. Translation? Winning Detroit isn’t what’s going to count. Craig will have to court Republicans and moderate Democrats.
Given Whitmer’s slim margin of popularity, one supposes it’s possible. Maybe. It seems to all depend upon what happens as the PUA ends and the economy reopens and tries to figure out what’s what. The stock market is just now faltering from ever more daily closing records. That alone might not sink the Governor.
Hey, who knows? Maybe Chief Craig has a really great position on transportation infrastructure investment. Of course, he’s gonna have to do a little bit better than “using DDOT buses to ferry protesters to detain them at the Pizzarena.”
We covered the protest movement extensively in 2020 and have even been tear gassed while doing so. We will provide more updates about the race for the next governor of Michigan, be it James Craig or Gretchen Whitmer, in the coming months. Remember to support your local journalist!