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Challengers move left of Whitmer in Dem race for governor

July 21, 2018
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This combination of file photos shows Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidates from left: former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer; entrepreneur Shri Thanedar; and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit's former health director. The three meet for their final televised debate Thursday, July 19, 2018, in Detroit before the Aug. 7 primary. (AP Photo/File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s Democratic race for governor may generally be more cordial than the Republican battle, where negative TV ads and candidate attacks have been steady for months.

But the stakes are just as high for Democrats eager to put one of their own back in the top job held for eight years by GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who cannot run again because of term limits. Those running are former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer, chemical-testing entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, Detroit’s former health director.

Not surprisingly, they are promoting similar policy objectives before the Aug. 7 primary — fixing roads, expanding health coverage, and ensuring clean water in the wake of water contamination in Flint and elsewhere. Major differences include their level of political experience and their ideological positioning within a party that is confronting divisions between the establishment and far-left wings.

Whitmer is seen as the front-runner due to her broad support from many Democratic leaders and organized labor. But she has come under increasing criticism from her more liberal opponents for not backing single-payer health insurance — or “Medicare for all” — accepting donations from corporate political action committees and benefiting from a multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign backed by a group that can accept unlimited individual, corporate and union contributions.

It is reminiscent of Bernie Sanders’ critique of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential Democratic primaries. He has said Democrats must take a strong stand against the role of corporate interests in politics.

“Democrats hate corporate Democrats as much as they hate corporate Republicans,” Thanedar said.

Whitmer, who has made “fixing the damn roads” a campaign mantra while emphasizing that her work to expand Medicaid, downplays the attacks.

“I’m staying focused on fixing problems for Michigan families,” she said. “That’s what this is all about and that’s what drives me and I think that’s what sets me apart from any of the other candidates.”

The 46-year-old from East Lansing is the only woman running on either side of the ticket and the first-ever female leader in the state Senate. She left the Legislature due to term limits and served as an interim county prosecutor before jumping into the race .

Asked about taking corporate money, Whitmer notes that a Koch-backed conservative group has already spent nearly $2 million against her before the primary phase is over. She said as a state senator she voted against a GOP-enacted law that doubled maximum contributions and, as governor, she would fight for campaign-finance changes “because I think our system is corrupting the politicians that are there, but I’ve got to win in order to get there to do it.”

El-Sayed, a skilled speaker and favorite of many left-wing groups, and Thanedar, who has also laid claim to the progressive mantle while spending millions of his fortune on TV ads, are political rookies who sought head-to-head matchups with Whitmer by opposing each other’s eligibility for the ballot. But those challenges were denied.

El-Sayed, the son of Egyptian immigrants, is a former Rhodes Scholar with a medical degree would become the first Muslim governor in the U.S. He has lagged behind in polling but is hoping to mobilize younger voters, minority voters and people who vote less frequently.

“We are running the kind of campaign that speaks to a core set of ideals of what our politics were always supposed to be, that we are supposed to be a society for people and by people — not for corporations and by corporations, not for millionaires and by millionaires,” said El-Sayed, 33, of Macomb County’s Shelby Township.

He cites his plans to stand up for citizens’ “basic rights” such as access to clean water, universal health care and affordable auto insurance.

Born in India, the 63-year-old Thanedar has faced skepticism over his liberal bona fides . But he says his story of “grit and determination” — including a rise from poverty and successes and failures in the business world — has prepared him to lead a state where GOP-backed business tax cuts has left not enough revenue for priorities such as preschool and child care programs.

“The whole thing about (not having) government experience really doesn’t matter,” said Thanedar, of Ann Arbor. He added that if he had served in the Legislature, it “would have made me into a follower, not a leader.”

His campaign is aggressively canvassing in Detroit and Wayne County in a bid to lock down votes after surging in name identification thanks to his spending.

Campaign-finance reports for this year were not due until 10 days before the primary. But at the end of 2017, Thanedar had raised nearly $6 million — almost all which he had given himself — Whitmer had raised $3 million and El-Sayed $1.9 million. Through early July, Thanedar had spent $2.6 million to air broadcast TV ads, while Whitmer and a political nonprofit set up by her allies had spent about $1 million and El-Sayed had spent roughly $400,000, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network .

Among Whitmer’s supporters are the United Auto Workers, Michigan Education Association, many other unions, EMILY’s List, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood and the Michigan Association for Justice, which represents plaintiff’s attorneys. El-Sayed’s backers include the Michigan Nurses Association, Our Revolution — a group aligned with Sanders — the Michigan Democratic Party Progressive Caucus and upstart U.S. House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned a 10-term congressman in a New York Democratic primary.

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/David%20Eggert

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