In his first political speech after retiring from the police force, James Craig sought to convince Republicans he was one of them (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)

LANSING — The early frontrunner for Michigan’s Republican gubernatorial nomination isn’t hiding it: He used to be a Democrat.

This story also appeared in Bridge Michigan

Detroit Police Chief James Craig has made his Republican “transition” a campaign talking point, but some conservatives question his allegiance to the GOP and argue state party leaders shouldn’t have recruited him.

“He seems to have switched parties specifically to get this nomination, and the state party has pushed him in that direction,” Zach Lahring, chair of the Muskegon County Republican Party, told Bridge Michigan.

Lahring and other Muskegon GOP officials last month took an unusual step, adopting a resolution urging the Michigan Republican Party to stop “promoting” Craig ahead of the August primary, opposing what some grassroots activists consider a coronation. The party denies it is pushing Craig.

The resolution claims that “until recently, (Craig) has been a registered Democrat,” while conservatives question his allegiance to the Second Amendment given his past support for tighter gun regulations.

Records reviewed by Bridge Michigan indicate Craig identified as a Democrat until at least late 2012, longer than he has publicly advertised. That may not be an issue in the general election, but experts say Craig could have a tough time navigating a primary dominated by loyalists to former President Donald Trump.

“Trump-first activists have been attempting to cancel many out of the party for some time,” said John Sellek of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs, a consultant who worked on former Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“Every serious candidate for the GOP nomination supports Trump but right now it is boiling down to two lanes —  those who run Trump-first and those running as their own person but advocating for Trump issues,” Sellek said.

Sponsor

Craig publicly declared himself a Republican in July as he retired from the Detroit Police Department, where he had served since 2013 under Mayor Mike Duggan, one of the state’s most prominent Democrats.

The former police chief has described his police job as strictly nonpartisan, though, and his political coming out was no surprise to viewers of Fox News, where he had become a regular guest.

Craig in July said he transitioned to becoming a Republican during his tenure as police chief in Portland, Maine, where he served from 2009 to 2011.

Records obtained by Bridge Michigan show Craig still identified as a Democrat at least one year later, in October 2012, when he was chief of police in Cincinnati.

While he was not required to declare a political party, he did so when submitting a national registration form three weeks before the presidential election that saw Barack Obama narrowly carry the swing state to win a second term.

Craig told Bridge MIchigan he did not recall “being a Democrat” at that time but denied the registration form was inconsistent with what he called a “slow and steady” evolution.

“I didn’t turn on a light switch in Maine and become a Republican,” Craig said after a campaign event in Lansing.

His transition, he said, started “long before Maine,” when he was working in Los Angeles and met with Democratic U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters in 1991 after an onlooker filmed police beating Black motorist Rodney King.

Waters asked, “How can you as a Black man be a member of this racist police department,” Craig recalled, calling the interaction disrespectful.

“A Democrat from the ‘80s and maybe somewhat the ‘90s would be in the same mode as a moderate Republican today,” he said. “My dad is a lifelong Democrat, but my dad is a conservative.”

‘Walking the walk’

Craig used his first political speech to detail his personal journey from being a Detroit-born Democrat to a Republican and two-time Trump voter.

GOP primary voters should trust Craig because “he doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk,” said campaign spokesperson Ted Goodman.

The former chief “has demonstrated his ability to lead throughout his successful 44-year career in law enforcement, including when he kept the peace in Detroit as other cities burned during the riots of 2020,” Goodman added.

But with the GOP primary more than seven months away, some Republicans question Craig’s commitment to the conservative cause.

The Muskegon County Republican Party’s resolution urging the Michigan GOP to stay out of the primary race cited the Detroit Police Department’s aggressive enforcement of Whitmer’s COVID-19 orders.

Craig’s officers were among the busiest in the state, issuing at least 2,000 citations for violating state orders. Craig later told The Detroit News he “didn’t like” the tickets but “followed what was passed down from the governor to our mayor.”

Lahring, the Muskegon County official, claimed Craig thinks  “the Second Amendment exists for hunting. The conservative base within the Republican Party understands the Second Amendment is designed for defense and to throw off the shackles of tyranny.”

Craig’s campaign has boasted of his two appearances on the cover of the National Rifle Association magazine, in 2014 and again this year. In his July speech in Jackson, the chief proudly displayed his own concealed pistol as he described his support for gun rights.

“I carry here today and will carry until the day I see the Lord,” Craig said during the summer speech, flashing a grin as the crowd erupted in applause.

As chief of police in Detroit, a Democratic stronghold, Craig made waves in 2014 when he said getting more guns into the hands of law-abiding citizens “could be a deterrence to violent crime.” In a recent NRA cover story, he said the United States does not have a “gun problem,” it has a “criminal problem.”

But In 2013, when he was in Cincinnati, Craig reportedly called for stricter federal firearm regulations, including a ban on internet gun sales, reinstatement of an assault weapon ban and a ban on magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds.

“We have lost too many citizens and too many young people to not speak out and do something,” Craig said at the time, according to a local report from Fox 19 news, adding that he was not “anti-gun” or “against the Second Amendment.”

Michigan Democrats last week proposed a 10-round limit following a mass shooting at Oxford High School. Prosecutors allege sophomore Ethan Crumbley, 15, carried three 15-round clips into the school and killed four classmates and injured others.

This week, Craig indicated that he no longer supports the kind of magazine restriction he backed eight years ago.

“I’ve evolved in my position,” Craig said Monday. “I know people try to put me in a box.”

The Oxford shooting is “tragic” and “could have been prevented,” he said, pointing to a school counselor who allegedly allowed Crumbley back to class after he had drawn a picture of a gun, a bullet and someone bleeding.

“This should not be about magazines,” Craig added. “Instead of gun reform, (it should be about) person reform. What if someone is suffering from mental illness or someone who is a violent predatory type suspect?”

While he supported a federal assault weapon ban in the past, Craig has “no issue with weapons like the AR-15, which by definition is NOT an assault rifle,” said Goodman, his campaign spokesperson.

Goodman decried what he called attempts to “smear the chief’s very strong record on the Second Amendment.”

Craig ‘a top’ candidate

Craig’s Democratic past may be a problem for “some hardcore conservatives,” but candidates have overcome similar political baggage to become Republican stars, said Steve Mitchell, a GOP pollster and strategist based in Metro Detroit.

“Republicans are willing to accept someone who has switched parties, especially since (Craig) was never an elected office holder as a Democrat,” said Mitchell, noting that former President Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat.

Craig remains “the top candidate in the Republican field,” even though his campaign “lost some luster” last month when manager John Yob abruptly quit, Mitchell said.

Craig reported raising more than $1.4 million during the first three months of his campaign, tops in the field, and recorded maximum contributions from a bevy of heavy hitters in Republican politics, including former state Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder.

Businessman Kevin Rinke recently shook up the GOP primary with a pledge to spend $10 million of his own money on his campaign.

Other candidates include Kalamazoo-area lockdown activist Garrett Soldano, Muskegon County conservative media personality Tudor Dixon and lockdown protest leader Ryan Kelley of Allendale Township.

Michigan GOP Chair Ron Weiser helped recruit Craig for the gubernatorial race, and a slew of state party leaders were on hand this summer in Jackson when the Detroit native publicly described how he became a Republican.

GOP state spokesperson Gustavo Portela told Bridge Michigan said the state party “does not pick in primaries and will be prepared to support the nominee as we have done in previous years.”

Incumbent governors tend to fare well in Michigan, but the Cook Political Report upped last week by declaring the state’s gubernatorial race a “toss up,” revising an earlier projecting that the contest would “lean” toward Whitmer.

Midterm elections are typically a slog for the party that controls the White House, and while he isn’t on the ballot, experts say President Joe Biden’s negative approval ratings could leave Whitmer and other Democrats vulnerable to GOP challenges.

The Trump factor

Republicans appear to have the wind at their back entering 2022, but Craig isn’t the right candidate, argued Deb Ell of Saginaw, a Trump supporter who has organized “Michigan First” fundraisers for Kelley and other statewide GOP candidates.

“We don’t win when we pander to the mushy middle,” said Ell, who added she doesn’t care that Craig used to be a Democrat.

She and other Trump supporters question Craig’s response to the former president’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud in Detroit, the state’s largest city. She accused him of dragging “his feet on justice for 2020 and protecting our vote with a plan for a safe election.”

Craig has not directly addressed Trump’s election claims but in October signaled support for an “extensive audit” of the 2020 contest, which he said could ”restore faith and identify weak points” in Michigan’s election system.

Trump praised Craig in 2020, calling him a “terrific” chief, but he has not publicly backed him or any other candidate in the governor’s race while endorsing favorites in 11 other Michigan races.

“Candidates like Craig and Rinke are following strategies they believe will make them winners in a general election by sticking more to Trump issues than Trump himself, much like Governor-elect Glenn Younkin did in Virginia,” said Sellek, the consultant who worked on Schuette’s 2018 campaign.

That approach may frustrate pro-Trump activists, but it’s differentiated Craig and Rinke from “the hardest-core MAGA lane candidates” who are now left to “fight amongst themselves” without the resources necessary to grow support beyond their immediate base, Sellek said.

Lahring, the Muskegon GOP official, said he was concerned enough about Trump’s past affiliations with the Democratic Party that he backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 primary.

Trump eventually won him over, but Craig’s Democratic past suggests a moderate approach to politics that some Republican activists are no longer content to condone, Lahring told Bridge Michigan.

“There’s a certain stain about that that follows them for the rest of their political career,” he said. “The grassroots in the GOP don’t look fondly on that.”

He said a Craig primary victory could alienate GOP activists who think the state party is “more interested in winning elections than getting conservative Republicans elected.” Even so, the Muskegon GOP will “fall in line” to support Craig if he wins the nomination, Lahring added.

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