In a crowded primary field and a hyperpartisan political climate, Kevin Rinke is sick of all the talking.
“There’s way too much rhetoric,” Rinke said in an interview. “Way too many talking points — on both sides. Let’s talk about the facts.”
Facts: Rinke is a wealthy businessman new to politics. He jumped into the Michigan governor’s race out of dissatisfaction with the direction of the state and has spent millions of his own money on his campaign. His pitch to Michiganders is a promise to reforge the climate for business and education in the state.
If this sounds like Michigan’s last Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who published a library of policy briefs while campaigning, think again. Rinke has far more audacious goals in mind.
Last year, Michigan’s 4.25% individual income tax provided $12 billion, almost 30% of the state’s funding, and the single largest source of Michigan’s revenue for the state budget. One year after entering office, Rinke has promised, the tax will be completely eliminated.
His counterparts, some of whom have voiced support for gradually reducing the income tax, contend that’s unrealistic. A slow reduction, Rinke said in a recent debate, would mean a “slow death” for Michigan.
Rinke is facing Mattawan chiropractor Garrett Soldano, Farmington Hills pastor Ralph Rebandt, Allendale real estate broker Ryan Kelley and Norton Shores commentator Tudor Dixon for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Though Dixon is leading among Republicans in recent polling, a singnificant portion of Republicans remains undecided heading into election day.
Whether Rinke would make up the huge budget shortfall by downsizing government or bringing in more revenue with other taxes, Rinke said it’d be a “combination of both.” Beyond that details are vague.
A refrain of Rinke’s while campaigning is that “the Governor’s job is to run the business of the state.” In an interview, Rinke readily draws a contrast with the last business-oriented governor, noting “Rick was more technical in his business experience than me. I’ve been a service provider my whole life.”
And this is Rinke’s value-add, he argues. He’s promising bring that service-centric approach to Michigan government, and along with it, changes that will make Michigan more attractive to businesses and students more successful.
“I look at my employees as internal customers and my customers is external customers,” Rinke said. “And I’ve got to earn their business every day by the actions and the results that I do.”
The long game
In a time where populist messages are at the heart of Republican politics, Rinke has a vision for the state that’s in line with a more traditional conservatism.
He’s unhappy with the size of government, for one. Noting what taxpayers are funding, Rinke asks, “What do those departments do? How accountable are they? What value are we getting for those actions?”
He’s skeptical it’s much.
“We have a governor who was just bragging about how she has signed almost 870 pieces of legislation with three and a half years that she’s been in government,” Rinke said. “You know what, I’m a pretty astute citizen, I don’t know one that’s done a damn thing for me.”
That said, Rinke doesn’t place blame for the poor state of Michigan’s roads solely on Whitmer, despite it being her signature issue.
“I believe historically it is proven out that the Michigan legislature and leadership has not had the stomach to invest in quality roads,” Rinke said.
He also focuses on education and says in the public school system, students should be treated like customers serviced by the schools. He railed against Michigan’s low literacy rates, but doesn’t get into specifics about what he’d like to see change in how schools are funded.
Rinke has hired experienced campaign staff well-attuned to the whims of voters, and in some respects is trying have it both ways.
He is the only candidate that doesn’t believe there was outcome-altering fraud in the 2020 election and recognizes Joe Biden as the legitimate president. But he’s also the only candidate who ran a campaign ad about election fraud — standing next to a zombie, he asks “why is it that dead people always vote Democrat?” — and “free and fair elections” first in his statement of principles on his campaign website.
Rinke couched the ad as “tongue-in-cheek,” a difficult explanation given the swaths of Republican voters that have embraced unfounded conspiracy theory that widespread fraud changed the 2020 election.
He also believes abortion should be legal in instances of rape and incest. That’s more permissive than the 1931 law that may become Michigan’s rule, depending on the outcome of a lawsuit. It bans abortion except to save the life of the mother. Still, Rinke has successfully punted on what actions he’d take as Governor on the issue, saying repeatedly he’d defer to the legislature with a message that seemed tailored to the general election.
“I believe that social issues extend outside many of the actions of government,” Rinke said. “I am a conservative businessman, in my personal values …. I also understand that when I give up my personal values and rights to represent all of the people of Michigan, that I now have to look at what is in the best interest for every citizen, and I’ll do that appropriately.”
An apparent exception to this is the issue of transgender rights, which has become an unexpected conflagration point in the election — and it’s a culture wars topic that polls well among the Republican base.
Though Rinke says he’s “not against transgender people,” he doesn’t believe they should be able to legally change their gender.
“Those surgeries don’t make you a woman. Nor did they make you a man. … You are born a man or a woman and that sticks with you your whole life,” he said. “How you dress or how you act is a right and a privilege that in America should be protected.”
His counterpart Tudor Dixon, who represents the biggest threat to Rinke’s lane of victory, has dwelled on the issue. In an election year where abortion access will be front-and-center, establishment figures are lining up behind Dixon.
She’s overtly courted the endorsement of former president Donald Trump, while Rinke has not. Instead he’s running ads saying “President Trump doesn’t back down — neither will conservative businessman Kevin Rinke.” Rinke’s campaign also created an unaired ad attacking Dixon, claiming she will “say anything to win President Trump’s support then betray him when it matters most.” Dixon’s campaign responded with attorneys threatening to sue over an alleged falsehood in the ad.
A history of salesmanship
In person, Rinke speaks the matter-of-fact assertiveness of someone who built their career in sales. He likes to mention that his family’s roots in Michigan stretch back centuries. Growing up in Grosse Pointe, his father ran a General Motors dealership. It was the all-American childhood, Rinke said — cliches and all.
“I went to public schools, always worked — I cut grass, I shoveled snow, I pulled weeds. I like sports,” Rinke said. “Baseball, apple pie and America was big in my life.”
Rinke’s father ran a dealership which after World War II grew to eventually carry every brand under the General Motors umbrella, Rinke said
Rinke hadn’t planned on assuming the family business, but his brother’s death in a 1988 plane crash — a decisive moment in Rinke’s life that still moves him to mention — led him to change paths, eventually buying the dealerships from his father.
1992 lawsuits against Rinke have come up in the election, alleging Rinke made lewd and racist comments to employees at the dealerhsip, creating a hostile work environment.
Rinke said one of the suits was settled out-of-court after more than three years at the plaintiffs’ request. Each former employee received $5,000. The lawsuits have not been a major talking point of Rinke’s competitors, however.
The business grew considerably under his watch, incorporating a Toyota dealership and another brands. When he sold Rinke Automotive Group in 2000 to billionaire Roger Penske’s conglomerate the purchase price wasn’t disclosed, Crain’s Detroit Business reported, but wrote the dealerships had about $225 million in revenue. Rinke stayed on, continuing to oversee the dealerships, before switching before working at another corporate dealership chain.
He later bought a traumatic brain injury rehabilitation Cassell & Associates, and grew that business before selling it to another firm. That sold for $24.3 million, according to federal records.
This has predictably made Rinke very wealthy. He frequently wears a gold watch on the campaign trail, a gift from his wife for his 60th birthday, and professes to knows little about it. In our interview it’s partially hidden by Rinke’s monogrammed cuff. The timepiece, from the ultraluxe Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, retails for about $39,000.
He’s pledged to spend $10 million of his own money on the race, and advertising totals from the firm AdImpact provided by the Michigan Campaign Finance Network indicate he’s well on the way. On broadcast advertising alone he’s dropped $4.2 million, far more than any candidate still running. Candidates haven’t had disclose any campaign finances yet in 2022.
This brings up a question about economic inequality. The disparity between the top 1% of earners and the rest of the population in Michigan is at its highest since the late 1920s. Does he think something should be done to address that widening gap?
“The fact that I choose to drive one car while somebody drives another is purely divisive,” he said. “We have choices.”
His commitment is to “help people in the state of Michigan have a better life. I do that by creating an economic environment that provides them opportunity, not equal outcome.”
MLive has partnered with the League of Women Voters of Michigan Education Fund to provide information on state, county and local races at Vote411.org.
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