The Wild, Weird Political Misadventures of James Craig

After serving eight years as Detroit’s chief of police, James Craig launched a promising gubernatorial campaign. Eight months later, it would hit a brick wall.
Photograph by Nick Hagen

On a damp Wednesday in mid-August, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig waits for me
alone at a large window table in the back of the vast dining room of Sindbad’s, a seafood place at a Detroit River marina known as his haunt.

He’s quietly scrolling through his phone, sipping a coffee served in a glass, relaxed in a dark gray Under Armour polo, black slacks, and sneakers — and once I sit down, he wastes no time describing how pissed off he is.

This is not how Craig had expected to be spending the weeks after the Michigan Republican Party’s gubernatorial primary.

A mere eight months ago, in the same space, he was the toast of the Wayne County Republican Committee at a party in his honor, where he continued to sharpen his attacks on the woman he hoped to depose, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Back then, according to the polls, he was the front-runner for the nomination in a crowded field of otherwise unknown hopefuls and a serious threat to Whitmer’s reelection bid.

He’d been seemingly anointed by the GOP establishment, most notably in the form of receiving maximum campaign donations from the last two Republican governors, John Engler and Rick Snyder. Craig had even been escorted in the summer of 2021 by soon-to-be Michigan GOP co-Chair Meshawn Maddock on the requisite pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to meet with former President Donald Trump in pursuit of that all-important (and ultimately elusive) Make America Great Again endorsement.

“Candidly, if I had stayed in it, I would have been nominated,” says Craig, 66. “I was the most likely candidate to take on Whitmer. But I’m also smart enough to know that Whitmer
is a formidable candidate. She has significant amounts of money. But things would have been different if I were the nominee, because I would have been able to tap into national fundraising.”

Of course, he didn’t stay in. His campaign, which had already begun showing signs of significant dysfunction by spring 2022, hit a brick wall in late May when thousands of the signatures he had submitted to qualify for the primary ballot were found to have been forged or fraudulent.

The disqualifications left him and four of the other nine declared candidates without the required number of signatures to appear on the ballot, and no amount of legal appeals or machinations by any of them would reverse it. Craig called on his supporters to write his name in, a tactic that worked for his ex-boss Mayor Mike Duggan after Duggan was disqualified from his first mayoral ballot in 2013.

Craig, it turned out, is no Duggan — and a statewide write-in campaign is a much, much bigger and more expensive endeavor than a citywide one. He admits now he knew it wouldn’t work but says he owed it to his supporters.

“Me not giving up was more important,” he says. “It was an uphill challenge. I just felt strongly I needed to do it.”

On Aug. 2, 23,521 Michigan voters wrote the ex-chief’s name onto their GOP primary ballots. That was good for about 2.14 percent — and a far cry from the 436,350 votes garnered by the nominee, Muskegon activist Tudor Dixon.

That outcome especially rankles Craig because he believes Dixon’s supporters were somehow involved in egging on the Democratic secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, to dig into his signatures and find the problems.

“This was a well-orchestrated effort on the part of both Republicans and Democrats to get me off the ballot, so go ahead and call it what it is,” he says. “And it’s offensive.

And so, instead of spending this Wednesday traipsing across Michigan stumping for votes or holding high-level meetings with advisers about who he might select as his running mate, Craig is sitting with me, and the waiter is asking if we’re hungry. I am, but I take my cue from Craig, who asks about the soup of the day.

“Beef vegetable with carrots, celery, spinach, and corn,” the server says. Craig orders a cup and tells me, “Maybe I’ll get something later to take home,” which suggests to me we aren’t actually here for lunch after all, and I better move this interview along, lest he become impatient.

I should have ordered. We sat there for another two hours, excavating the highs and lows of one of the weirdest, briefest adventures in Michigan politics.

He had a few axes to grind — and not just with Dixon, whom he had told me he wouldn’t support in a remark that would go viral in short order. There were also the campaign operatives who he felt had led him astray, refused to consider his perspective, and placed him in physical danger — and who eventually defected to other, more conventional candidates.

“I didn’t know anything about being a candidate,” he says ruefully. “I didn’t know anything about leading a campaign. And the only thing I was hopeful for was that the people who were guiding me, ultimately, would guide me in the right way. But they didn’t. And here we are.”

Photograph by Nick Hagen

Our non-meal together in August was much friendlier and less confrontational than the last time I sat down with Craig — on a Friday night in late April, on the sidelines of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce Awards Dinner at the Shenandoah Country Club in West Bloomfield Township.

At the time, Hour Detroit planned to put Craig on its July cover in advance of the August primary, an indication of the media’s overall expectation that he would be a major factor, if not the likely victor. A week later, the signature-fraud scandal began burbling up, and with so much uncertainty, we scrapped that story.

Before that, however, I decided it was time to test Craig’s mettle as a candidate. He’d spent plenty of time yapping away on Fox News and on friendly podcasts, but he hadn’t given many serious journalists a crack at interrogating what he claimed to stand for.

The fact that Craig is both a Black man and a Republican was, of course, interesting, because there is no group in America more loyally Democratic than Black voters. But when I interviewed him in December 2021, he left me with the distinct impression he had arrived at his conservatism through his 44-year career as a police officer in Los Angeles; Cincinnati; Portland, Maine; and Detroit — and that his most important principle was the GOP support for law enforcement.

He described to me his political awakening in 1991 when, as president of the LA Police Department’s Black officers’ group, he was dressed down by California Rep. Maxine Waters, a vocal Black liberal, following the Rodney King police beating.

“How could you as a Black man work for this systematically racist police department?” he recalls her asking him. Her intimation that he was a race traitor for doing his job, he says, startled him. “That she’s representing me and she’s a Democrat — I didn’t feel right about that.”

Later, as chief of police in Portland, he reevaluated his position on gun control and concluded that he supported allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, after years of believing that fewer guns in the public domain was better. That, too, put him at odds with Democratic political orthodoxy. As the years passed, he also came to agree with the GOP view that government aid was counterproductive to helping poor people, especially Black people, emerge from poverty and become self-reliant.

Still, as a police officer — and especially as the chief of police in Detroit — he kept his party affiliation to himself. He was hired in 2013, at the onset of the Duggan era, and would later in the decade serve as the Democrat’s deputy mayor, in addition to being top cop. Some indications of his political leanings emerged when he appeared on Fox News to talk about his support for expansive Second Amendment rights and his condemnation of violent Black Lives Matter protests.

So to people paying attention, it wasn’t that big a surprise when he announced his retirement from his Detroit post in May 2021, declared himself a Republican, and launched a campaign to unseat Whitmer. The big question was, though, Just how conservative is he?

This is, after all, a man who, as police chief, appeared at a 2018 Black LGBTQ event in Palmer Park to say, “I love each and every one of you. We’re here for you.” And a year earlier, he had shrugged off calls from the Trump White House for local law enforcement to help identify undocumented immigrants by telling the Detroit City Council, “We don’t do the immigration police work — we’re not going to. When we do traffic stops, we’re not interested in immigration status.”

Yet, in late 2021, as Craig delved deeper into the morass of a campaign to win the Republican nomination in a fully Trumpified version of the Michigan GOP, he leaned with gusto into some of the harder-core social issues of the day. He was making big hay out of his opposition to “critical race theory,” or CRT, a concept emanating out of law schools that looks at the ongoing legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era in today’s society.

After Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governorship in part on a campaign that claimed that CRT was being taught in K-12 schools in an effort to make white children ashamed of American history and give Black kids an excuse to underachieve, Craig went to conservative Hillsdale College to declare CRT “racist indoctrination” and blamed it for poor student achievement.

Craig also began offering a mealymouthed answer to another key litmus test for GOP primary voters: Did he believe there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election, especially in Michigan?

Even though such claims had been debunked and tossed out of court several times, Craig tried to walk a tightrope of indecision, saying there were certainly a lot of people questioning it and that laws needed to be passed to improve “election integrity.”

In the days before Craig and I were to meet up in April, he took perhaps his biggest swerve right. At the time, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was in the news for punishing The Walt Disney Co. for its opposition to a new law dubbed “Don’t Say Gay,” which prohibits any classroom discussion of sexuality or gender identity from kindergarten to third grade. Craig said the measure didn’t go far enough and that he would support banning such discussion through the sixth grade.

So when we sat down together, I had some questions. I asked directly who won the 2020 election, and he replied: “There is no evidence that the election was stolen. … However, are there concerns? Absolutely. We owe it to the American people to do an audit.”

Then he took issue with people who oppose the requirement to show photo ID at the polls, insisting that it is “absolutely not voter suppression.” That was a topic that had arisen in some other states and was a big bugaboo on Fox News of late.

“OK, so we have that in this state, so how is this an issue in this campaign?” I asked him.
“Well, I’m not sure how widespread it is,” he responded.
“It’s the law everywhere in Michigan.”
“So I’m not going to sit here and tell you I know election law,” he answered.

We moved on to CRT. He repeated his contention that it was “racist indoctrination” and bristled at the idea that Black kids should be taught they’re victims. “I’ve never been anybody’s victim ever in my life. If I was indoctrinated to believe that I was a victim, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you about becoming the next governor of the state of Michigan.”

When he claimed that Black kids in kindergarten were being taught that they were victims and I questioned whether there were examples of that actually happening, he got testy: “You have your opinion. You asked for mine.”

All that, though, was a warm-up for our collision on LGBTQ matters. I’d made a decision before the interview that I would ask in this very particular way because I wanted to make the issue real to him.

“I am the gay father of two children who will go to school, where there will be family-tree exercises,” I said, “and I’m not sure if the teacher, under the Florida law that bars discussion of sexual orientation or the more expansive version that you support, would be able to acknowledge for the class that some kids have two daddies or two mommies.

Instead of answering the question, Craig rattled off his pro-LGBTQ bona fides, telling stories of how he’d worked to build good ties between the queer community and the various police departments he’d run.

“OK,” I replied, “so under Gov. Craig, a kindergarten kid says, ‘I have two daddies,’ and the teacher says, ‘Oh, that’s lovely,’ and the next day gets in trouble because there’s another kid whose parents find that to be objectionable. What happens then?”

Craig’s answer: “I don’t know if that in and of itself is objectionable, but when you start getting into sexual orientation, sexual identification, I believe the parent should teach that to their children.”

He took a beat, sat straight up, and looked at me with ire and used a firmer voice than at any other point. “I’m not anti-gay — and if you want to suggest that I am, I’m going to reject that.”

And that, essentially, was that. An aide told me my time was up, and I was ushered away as he was swallowed up in a crowd of well-wishers eager to chat up the man who, unbeknownst to anyone, would only be a viable candidate for the GOP nomination for another four weeks.

Photograph by Nick Hagen

For whatever reason, months later, Craig decides to tell me the inside story of his messy campaign and it’s bizarre ending anyway. It starts with a call in early 2021 from Ted Goodman, the newly hired communications director for the Michigan GOP. Goodman asked Craig the right question: “Have you ever thought about running for governor?” While he wasn’t actively considering doing such a thing that year, the idea itself had resonance.

For much of Craig’s police career, his closest friend was an LAPD cop named Randal Simmons, who was shot to death on the job in 2008 during an armed standoff. Simmons and Craig had graduated from the academy together, and as Craig sought advancement in the administrative ranks, Simmons began giving him a nickname, “Governor.”

“He would just keep saying ‘Governor,’ and I’d say, ‘What are you talking about? I’ve set a goal to one day become a chief of police.’ I had interpreted him calling me Governor as a sign that I’d become the chief of police. He said, ‘No — governor.’ The last things on my mind were one, becoming a politician, or two, being a governor. And then I get this call.”

Craig took it as a sign. He told Goodman about his late friend’s prophesy and acknowledged some tentative interest but insists he “didn’t really think that much about it” after the call.

The Michigan GOP brass, however, did. To them, at least on paper, Craig was a compelling candidate to put up against Whitmer in a state that has given every governor a second term since the early 1960s. Having just emerged from the summer of 2020, with its calls to defund the police following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of
cops in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, respectively, folks like Goodman thought putting a conservative cop up against Whitmer held potential appeal for crime-fearing suburbanites.

Craig’s deep, genuine ties to Detroit, where he was born and raised, might even give a Republican nominee a chance to make inroads into the state’s Black vote, too. Craig thought he was dipping his toe in the water, but shortly after, he received calls from local journalists asking him about a rumor they were hearing.

“And so momentum starts ramping up, and I’m thinking, ‘Do I just wait and see what happens?’ … I was kind of evasive about it, but I was really hooked in. The way my mind was working, I’m locked in because it was hitting the media.”

He went to see Duggan to admit that the rumors were true. The mayor warned him that defeating Whitmer would be difficult, but that was the extent of his political advice. By the end of the conversation, they agreed Craig had to resign his city positions, which he did on June 1, 2021.

At the press conference, he stopped short of discussing his political future — but everyone knew. Duggan thanked him for his service and told reporters he had “tried to convince him to change his mind.”

The charmed nascent period of Craig’s first dabble with politics may have deluded him into thinking the rest of the ride would be as seamless. Goodman connected Craig with the veteran Michigan Republican consultant John Yob, who fed Craig a steady stream of polling that showed the nomination as a virtual lock and Craig within striking distance of unseating Whitmer.

Things went south pretty quickly after that, though. On Sept. 14, 2021, the ex-chief headed to Belle Isle to announce his candidacy. As he approached his podium, he was swarmed by protesters from Detroit Will Breathe, an activist group that had spent the past year protesting police misconduct as part of the BLM movement.

Craig got to his mic, but his voice was drowned out by increasingly rowdy and noisy demonstrators, so he decided to return to his car for his safety.

Once he was in the car, though, a campaign aide told him a furious Yob was on the phone “basically telling them to get me back there, despite the very obvious threat. I said, ‘Well, you tell him that I’m not going back. It’s against my better judgment. I got family here.’ This was not like a group of individuals who were protesting peacefully. That I could have dealt with. It was beginning to get violent. Thank God it didn’t because I left at the appropriate time.”

The campaign was caught flat-footed, relocating his announcement to another, private location in Detroit. But whereas Craig was steamed about the poor planning and would appear on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show that night to blame Whitmer for the security lapse, internally the moment showed Craig how politicos think.

“Later, when we debriefed it, Yob was telling me, ‘This is good politics. This happening to you is good,’” Craig tells me. “I said, ‘So it would have been even better if the guy had made contact and punched me and I was assaulted? Would that have been?’ So it was that kind of dynamic.”

Indeed, the dynamic between Craig and his campaign handlers only got worse. Part of it
was a fundamental difference in approach; the campaign wanted the former chief heading all over the state talking to GOP primary voters, but Craig was resistant to the constant travel. He also wanted to do events in places like Flint and Detroit to highlight his outreach to minority voters. Yob and other handlers wanted him in GOP strongholds where he could hustle for votes and raise money.

“I understood what they were saying, but from a place of principle, there’s no way I’m going to disappear for years, not have any interactions with some of these urban areas,” he says. “Then, once I got through the primaries, very quickly I’d be competing with Whitmer in those same areas. Detroit would have thought, ‘Wait a minute, where were you for the last year?’ And so I felt very strongly that I needed to spread the wealth evenly.”

He also learned what it meant to be a Black man running statewide without much assistance from other people of color. An early stump speech written for him had him calling Whitmer a “queen” for her many COVID-era fiats that closed the state and forced residents to lock down.

Later, a female friend reached out to remind him that that particular term had loaded negative resonance for Black women coming in a pejorative way from a Black man. He told his campaign he wouldn’t use that word anymore. His handler, he says, “went on to explain why it was important to say it. I said, ‘Well, it might be important to you, but it’s more important to me. I’m not saying it.’”

In late November, Yob quit the Craig campaign. In his resignation letter, which Yob shared with Hour Detroit, he wrote:

“It is my hope that this will serve as a wake-up call and ultimately makes you a better candidate, albeit with new advisors. Hopefully you use this moment as an opportunity to refocus your time and energy on the hard work that you have ahead. Being a leading candidate for governor is more than a full-time job; it is one of the most difficult endeavors in American life. It requires laser-like focus and around the clock, 12+ hours per day, 6 days per week workload. It also requires constant communication with your key supporters; to keep them inspired, engaged, and willing to allocate their capital — time, financial, and political — to you. … I wish you the best and hope you find people who are able to assist you in running the campaign in a manner consistent with your preferences.”

Photograph by Nick Hagen

Craig would go on to cycle through several other campaign managers as election year dawned. His reputation as a difficult candidate to manage became an impediment to retaining top- shelf talent, says GOP strategist Jason Cabel Roe, who was involved in recruiting Craig to run while serving as state party executive director in 2021. That, he says now, was a mistake.

“He was too naive about how the system works, how to play the game,” Roe says. “One thing that I heard anecdotally was he’d been given talking points and written speeches and things like that and he felt like he was being programmed by somebody else, that it wasn’t a reflection of who he was. That’s certainly understandable, especially if you’ve been able to speak for yourself.”

That, of course, wasn’t what short-circuited the campaign. Craig says he repeatedly asked his staff whether they were on target to collect the required number of signatures to make the ballot and he was repeatedly reassured. Eventually, the campaign hired Vanguard Field Strategies, an arm of the campaign management firm Axiom Strategies, not realizing that Vanguard was subcontracting the work to yet another firm called In Field Strategies.

“I didn’t understand what that meant, that we’re going to subcontract some of the work on this, bring some other folks in,” Craig says. “It was also unbeknownst to me that these same circulators were working on other campaigns, too. The mistake I made is, I should have seen it.”

In early May, the race was radically upended when five of the 10 candidates — including Craig and businessman Perry Johnson, whose campaign Yob had bounced over to — were rejected for ballot access because thousands of signatures on their nominating petitions were fraudulent. Craig and Johnson were the poll leaders at that point; eventual nominee Dixon was polling in single digits. Both Craig and Johnson pursued various legal remedies and lawsuits, but it didn’t change the reality. Their campaigns were over.

Months later, Craig is still angry with Dixon because a political action committee supporting her filed one of the challenges to Craig’s signatures. It happened so soon after his campaign submitted his signatures, he says, that he wonders how Dixon’s folks could have known to do so. Also of note: It was around the same time that Dixon would receive the coveted endorsement of the powerful DeVos family.

“Now I’m thinking like a cop,” he says. “Who paid these dirty canvassers to forge all these signatures? Because how would a campaign know within a relatively short amount of time that there was evidence of forged signatures, all right? So I say, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Dixon campaign did not respond to requests for comment. In August, when Hour Detroit broke news that Craig would not endorse his fellow Republican, in part because of these allegations, her spokeswoman replied via email with this response from the candidate: “My door will always be open for Chief Craig. I would welcome his input on Detroit, policing, and many other subjects. And, I would be glad to have his support if he changes his mind.”

Would Craig have actually won the nomination — and been competitive with Whitmer? He says yes. But he admits the party insiders who had urged him to run had moved on to the campaign of Perry Johnson, whose independent wealth made fundraising less important and buying up tons of TV time feasible.

“Realistically, I had gone from 0 to — I guess the day they knocked me off, I was at 19 percent, whereas he’d gone from 43 down to 21 by that point,” Johnson tells me. “I did believe I was going to win the nomination.”

Others had their doubts, too. Mildred Gaddis, a longtime prominent Black radio voice in Detroit, told Hour last December she doubted the state GOP would nominate a Black man. She didn’t see him convincing white rural primary voters for whom city crime — the main issue Craig could speak on with authority — wasn’t as important as social issues and full-throated fealty to Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. His signature-fraud downfall, she tells me in September, probably saved him an embarrassment on Election Day.

“In this state, race matters,” she says. “There are some great pretenders who would have people think it doesn’t. But it does.”

Craig, of course, disagrees. And as he watches Dixon’s campaign get swallowed whole by her “no excuses” stance on abortion, he feels confident he could have done better against Whitmer. His criticism, however, may not be fair, because he was already out of the race by the time the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June and effectively turned the issue into a top campaign concern.

He would likely have found himself stuck in a similar position, given that earlier in the year, he pledged to supporters in Marquette that he would do “whatever I can” to enforce the dormant 1931 law still on the books in Michigan that criminalizes abortion as manslaughter. (Months later, following the Supreme Court decision that struck down Roe, the Michigan Court of Claims iced the 1931 statute as unconstitutional.)

On this August afternoon, though, the alternative history of the 2022 Republican gubernatorial primary is of little relevance. Craig, who lives alone because he’s estranged from his wife and his two children are adults, seems downbeat and a little aimless. He doesn’t foreclose another run for public office but can’t say what he might pursue. He says he has a few “irons in the fire” but nothing concrete to reveal. When a group of well-wishers stops by our table to chat him up about a security business they’re involved with, his mood improves and he hands out his cell number.

“We were with you,” one of the men says. “We really wanted to vote for you.” Craig smiles wanly and stretches out his arm to shake hands. “That would’ve been great,” he says. “Would’ve been great.”

This story is from the November 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.