After winning Michigan’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2018, Gretchen Whitmer surprised a great many in her party by choosing Detroit activist Garlin Gilchrist II as her running mate.
In some ways, it was a bold and radical move given that Gilchrist had never held elected office. His only brush with electoral politics had come a year earlier when he returned to his hometown from Washington, D.C., to run for Detroit city clerk. He lost.
But in that first race, Gilchrist, whose pre-politics jobs included community organizing for progressive groups and causes, mounted a spirited grassroots campaign that shocked the Democratic establishment. He outraised his opponent by a 10-1 margin, losing a contentious race by just shy of 1,500 votes out of 100,000 ballots cast.
Such nascent political prowess convinced Whitmer, who has a long and respected resume in state politics, to ask Gilchrist to join her campaign as a running mate.
The Whitmer-Gilchrist team helped lead to a reversal of fortunes in Michigan, as Democrats won big in statewide elections, flipping the governor’s mansion from red to blue by beating the state’s former attorney general, Bill Schuette, a popular Republican who had the backing of President Donald Trump.
Gilchrist played a crucial role in the 2018 Michigan elections, helping Democrats inspire black-voter participation, especially in Detroit, where Gilchrist was emerging as a homegrown, rising star. Trump won Michigan, partly because white voters turned out and black voters stayed home, according to a Washington Post analysis. That wasn’t the case a mere two years later as black voters helped in large measure to return Democrats to statewide power.
Now, as Democratic presidential hopefuls gather tonight in Detroit for the first of two consecutive nights of debates in the run-up to the 2020 election, Gilchrist told ThinkProgress in a telephone interview that he’s delighted to play host to all of the candidates — but not to any one in particular.
The debates offer a prime opportunity for voters across Michigan to get a closer look at the men and women who want to be the next president. In fact, Gilchrist said Democrats will have to go through Michigan to arrive at the White House, given that it was one of three swing states to hand Trump an Electoral College victory in 2016.
Prior to Trump’s surprising upset, Michigan was considered a key building block in the Democratic Party’s “big blue wall,” having soundly supported Democrats in six consecutive presidential elections from 1992 to 2012. The last time a Republican presidential candidate carried the state was 1988, when George H. W. Bush defeated Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
Here’s a transcript of my conversation with Gilchrist, which has conducted last week and has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Sam Fulwood: Have you picked a candidate?
Garlin Gilchrist: I have not selected a candidate and I’m not going to be in the endorsement business here. What I’m in the business of is making sure that the candidates who choose to come and have time to invest themselves in Michigan are connecting with communities that are representative of the whole state.
But I’m not one of those people who is super concerned that we have a lot of candidates in the primary right now. I think it’s a good thing for us to really understand who these people are and what their visions are for America.
SF: Not in a hurry to winnow down the field?
GG: I think that happens naturally. There’s no need to rush it. As we come closer to when we start having caucuses and we start having primaries, you are going to see people have hard conversations about what they feel their viability is. I’m not concerned and I think that will work itself out.
To be very blunt, the Republicans had 19 candidates in 2016 and they got one president and we got zero, so I don’t know that we should be too concerned about that.
SF: You’re getting to play host to all the presidential candidates for a debate in Detroit. How do you see Michigan shaping up for the primary and choosing a final candidate or the next president?
GG: I think it’s fantastic. Anytime you can bring the candidates to Michigan, to my hometown of Detroit, it’s a good thing. I’m glad the DNC [Democratic National Committee] has made the choice to recognize the primacy of the state of Michigan in the election going into 2020.
And it’s also a great opportunity for more people in Michigan to get exposure to all the people who are participating in the primaries. It’s never a bad thing for Michiganders to rub elbows with and ask question of someone who says they want to be your president. We’re very excited to welcome everyone to Michigan.
SF: What will you share with the Democratic candidate about how to win in Michigan?
GG: Well, I think that every campaign will take Michigan very seriously. And given that the president won by less than 11,000 votes, I don’t think that anyone is going to take it for granted. But that also includes people in Michigan and the people organizing in Michigan. Certainly the governor and I are going to be working to insure that people know how important this choice is.
But what’s going to be critical is that candidates come here and they engage communities directly. It’s a big, diverse state. We have pretty much every issue that you think is important in the country. There’s a microcosm of it in Michigan.
It’s going to be critical that people spend time here. The candidates who spend the most time and connect in the most direct way will be successful. I know that’s going to take a lot of work. Michigan is a state that requires good organizing and good infrastructure. So the candidate that invests in that can be successful.
SF: So far, are the Democratic candidates doing what it takes to win in Michigan?
GG: Yeah. We’re seeing more candidates making stops in Michigan in the lead-up to the debates next week. The NAACP national convention is here in Detroit right now. I believe that nine or 10 candidates came through for the NAACP convention. A number of them have also made other stops in different parts of the state while they’re here.
We have prepared a briefing about issues that are happening in Michigan and what’s important in Michigan for all of the campaigns. We have shared it with all of the campaigns to make sure they’re speaking from a place of understanding of local and statewide context. We have also let every campaign know that if they come to Michigan and there is a particular constituency group that they want to engage, we are more than willing to make connections to those constituencies for those campaigns. Some of them have taken advantage of that.
SF: What do Democrats need to say in Michigan to be successful?
GG: If you look at the [gubernatorial] campaign that we ran in 2018, we ran on a very, very practical platform. We promised to solve problems for people and we were going to fix the things that were broken. And that we were going to invest in the infrastructure that we need to support life and support prosperity in the future.
I think that candidates coming through Michigan are going to have to tell people that they’re going to invest in what makes this state tick. They’re going to invest in infrastructure and make sure that people are trained for the jobs of today and tomorrow. They have to talk about investing in education and to make sure that everyone has access to high-quality public-school education.
They also must be willing to listen to the things that people have concerns about. People are concerned about what the economy is going to look like in 10 years in a place, a state where we see the evolution of manufacturing, which has been unfortunately harmful to people who have been losing jobs. So I think that candidates who come in and speak to those things very directly will be received very well here in Michigan.
SF: Are there Democratic candidates who aren’t speaking about those things or about issues of concern to people in Michigan?
GG: I wouldn’t say that. I think everyone is trying to do that in their own unique way. Candidates, of course, have stylistic differences, so they’re not going to sound exactly the same. We’re just excited that everybody is deciding and choosing to show up here in Michigan.
SF: Historically, Michigan has been a blue state, but it went for Trump in 2016. Will it be red or blue in 2020?
GG: I think by definition Michigan is a swing state because it went for the Republicans in 2016, so we have to do the work, the organizing work, the infrastructure-building work to return Michigan to its blue-state status. That’s why the relationship-building needs to happen from the campaigns, but it also needs to happen here in the state. We need to all come together as a movement to ensure that people in Michigan realize their political power and that Democrats turn out in record number.
One of the things I’m most proud about the 2018 race is that we saw the highest voter turnout in the gubernatorial election that had been seen in Michigan in the last 50 years. We need to build on that momentum in 2020. If we do so, I think Michigan will go back to being a blue state that we have known and loved.
SF: Was that high turnout in 2018 — no disrespect to you and Gov. Whitmer — because people were so upset with Trump? Or was it because they just loved you?
GG: I think it’s a combination of both. I think it’s absolutely true that the urgent danger that a Trump presidency presents to so many people and to so many people’s livelihoods is absolutely a motivating factor. Anyone who happens to have to give in to the curse of being on Twitter can see that on a daily basis.
But I also think, in addition to that, we cannot win based on the fear of the bad things that somebody may do. We have to win by saying here are the things that we’re going to present as an alternative to that bad reality.
So in our campaign, we didn’t actually talk about Trump that much. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about, you know, what the consequences would be from electing a Republican as the governor and lieutenant governor of Michigan. What we did talk about is the vision that we had to create opportunities for people in the state of Michigan and about the infrastructure that needed fixing and all the things that are broken. We did talk about those things and I do think that was the message that resonated with the people of Michigan.
SF: President Trump seems to have embarked on a campaign of racism to whip up white anger, especially against people in cities, to drive up turnout among aggrieved white voters. Michigan has has some issues with racial concerns. What do you think about Trump’s strategy and how will it play in Michigan?
GG: I think that kind of politics as a strategy is dangerous for our state and for our country. It’s certainly true that the president has embarked on virulently racist messaging tactics and that has shown itself as well in how the administration has governed. A state as diverse as Michigan makes that kind of politics especially harmful to communities here in our state.
But I don’t expect to see anything different. The president has governed in this same way. I do think it is worth recognizing that the president kind of ran as a racist who at least attempted to present himself as a fairly moderate candidate. As an example of that, he ran as someone who supported or said he supported the LGBT community, but that has not been how he has governed given that he tried to ban gay people from military service.
My point is it was the racism mashed with this attempt to be like this different kind of Republican. But we’ve seen in the reality of his governance that he’s just a racist Republican and we need to make sure that our vision, what we articulate, is one that focuses on how we are actually connecting people to live their best lives and be their best selves here in Michigan and by extension in the United States.
SF: But isn’t that true in every state? Is Michigan all that different?
GG: What’s going on in Michigan is an exercise in understanding what could be happening in the rest of the country – the good, the bad and the ugly.
I think that there is no better place in the country to understand what that looks like and to work on how to articulate a positive vision than here in Michigan. We are a state of people where our reputation is based on how hard we work and how high-quality our work is. Our reputation is about being a place where people have come to for generations for opportunities to build a prosperous future. These are the same things that we want to be about in America.
If you are able to hone that type of energy and those types of ideas in the state of Michigan, you can take that all the way to the presidency. Democrats need to understand that.