Could Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ties to NY House race cost her politically?

According to documents obtained by theGrio, Whitmer has already held a fundraiser event in New York for her sister, Liz Whitmer Gereghty, and asked donors to contribute to her campaign.

After losing his congressional seat in a bumpy midterm election last year that included being bucked by leadership in his own party, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Mondaire Jones is seeking to reclaim New York’s 17th Congressional District in the 2024 election.

The 36-year-old former progressive lawmaker made history in 2020 when he was elected the first openly gay Black person to Congress, along with fellow New York U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres.

Jones hopes to make a triumphant return to Capitol Hill. However, he’ll have to overcome a Democratic primary contest against businesswoman Liz Whitmer Gereghty – and, by proxy, her older sister, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Left to right: Former Congressman Mondaire Jones and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. (Photo: Getty Images)

The House race in NY-17 is an unlikely two-state tale of dizzying Democratic and racial politics that sees a young, popular Black and gay lawmaker on one side, and on the other, a little-known former school board official and her powerful sister.

Gov. Whitmer, a surrogate for President Joe Biden and presumptive 2028 presidential candidate, has already used her political muscle to aid her sister’s campaign. 

According to documents and communications obtained by theGrio, Gov. Whitmer has already held a fundraiser event in New York for her younger sister and asked donors to contribute to Gereghty’s campaign. In at least one instance, theGrio learned that a donor who previously pledged to contribute to Jones’ campaign later retracted due to their strong support and loyalty to Whitmer. 

Additionally, the New York Times reported that of the more than $400,000 Gereghty’s campaign raised in the most recent quarterly filing, almost half came from residents from Whitmer’s state of Michigan and not New York. 

A rising Democratic star, Governor Whitmer has proven to be a fundraising machine in Michigan and is so popular that a Detroit rapper nicknamed her “Big Gretch” – a moniker that Michiganders and political circles have embraced. While it remains to be seen how much of a force Whitmer will be in her sister’s campaign, her influence may already be felt in the race.

According to Federal Election Commission records, Gereghty received thousands in campaign donations from Emily’s List, which endorsed her and Gov. Whitmer’s 2022 reelection campaign. 

There’s also a contribution to Gereghty’s campaign from Wade Rakes, board chair of the Victory Fund, a campaign and fundraising organization for LGBTQ+ candidates. The Victory Fund endorsed Jones in the NY-17 race. However, Rakes contributed to Gov. Whitmer’s Fight Like Hell PAC and Emily’s List. Rakes did not reply to a request for comment when theGrio asked in an email if he planned to contribute to Jones’ campaign.

But where Gereghty has the influence of her powerful sister, Jones has a hometown advantage. He was born and raised in the district and served its constituents in Congress for two years.

Former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) speaks during a House Judiciary Committee markup hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on June 2, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

“Mondaire Jones grew up in this community and understands it,” William Trotman, president of the NAACP chapter in Spring Valley, New York, said in a statement to theGrio. “He served us well when he became the first person of color to represent our district in Congress, and I know he will serve us well again.” 

Trotman added, “The Democratic nominee in this district will need to excite and inspire Black and brown voters in this community — voters who watched very closely how national Democrats treated our Congressman in redistricting last year.”

Jones lost his seat last year after former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, challenged him in his upstate district following a chaotic court-ordered redrawing of New York’s congressional map. 

Rather than go against party leadership, Jones ran in another district in New York City and later lost in a crowded Democratic primary. Ironically, Maloney lost in an upset race against Mike Lawler, handing the slightly more conservative district to a Republican for the first time since 1983.

Whether Jones or Gereghty win the primary contest, Democrats are looking to NY-17 as one of the current seats held by Republicans that could be flipped in the 2024 elections and help the party reclaim the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.  

U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, told theGrio that Rep. Lawler is “arguably the most vulnerable Republican in the entire country,” citing the likelihood of blowback due to recent court decisions by the conservative-majority Supreme Court and Lawler’s vote record with “MAGA” Republicans.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Texas, speaks during a news conference at the AFL-CIO building in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“Besides the fact that Lawler is uniquely vulnerable, Mondaire is also uniquely more qualified than the average to take out an incumbent,” Crockett said. 

As for Whitmer’s seemingly outsized influence in the New York primary race, Crockett, who admits she has been a “fan of Big Gretch,” said if she were advising the Michigan governor, “I probably would have advised her differently.

“If the governor is looking to ascend, she can’t be seen as kind of being a part of tearing down another Democrat, but also a Black male member of the LGBTQIA community,” said the freshman congresswoman. 

“Whitmer is going to have to kind of really rely on her advisers, and they’re gonna have to work closely with her sister to make sure that this doesn’t end up being a misstep that causes a problem for her if she is looking at running in four years.”

Kevin Olasanoye, national political and organizing director at The Collective PAC, told theGrio that Whitmer would have to be “incredibly prudent” in her involvement in the NY-17 race on behalf of her sister.

“Potentially offending members of the [Congressional Black Caucus] in a congressional district that is not in your state might not be something you want to do,” Olasanoye said.

The Collective PAC, a political fundraising organization dedicated to electing Black candidates to public office, has endorsed Jones in the primary election. The Congressional Black Caucus PAC also endorsed Jones.

Olasanoye said that while Whitmer using her political influence to help her sister is expected and her right, it could suggest an “inconsistency” in her record and reputation as governor for advancing racial equity and opportunity. Whitmer chose a Black running mate, Garlin Gilchrist, who became the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and appointed the state’s first Black female Supreme Court justice.

(Left to right) Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist II gesture during a Get Out the Vote Rally ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. (Photo by Dominick Sokotoff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Is it the person who’s gone out of her way to help advance the causes of more diverse voices? Or is it kind of the political machine type, family business type thing that people are cynical about when they talk about politics?” Olasanoye asked.

While there is usually not much mudslinging in primary elections, Gereghty has already hit Jones for comments he made in 2020 about defunding the police. She argued that it makes him a weaker candidate in a hypothetical general election against Lawler.

Crockett said Gereghty should instead “run on her own principles,” adding, “The only person that’s ever barking and attacking is the person that’s running from behind, and it very rarely gets you ahead, unless you have something that is truly of substance.”

Calling out Jones for his comments, which the former congressman described as “emotional” and “facile” in the wake of the 2020 uprising against police brutality and racial profiling, is more a playbook for Republicans, Crockett said.

“I hate for primaries to start breaking down that way and sending kind of the tropes that we’ve seen the Republicans use,” she explained.

Antjuan Seawright, a political strategist who has advised several national Democratic campaigns, told theGrio that ultimately, Jones has the advantage over Gereghty, regardless of her high-profile family connection.

Former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill on Sept. 29, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for We, The 45 Million)

“Mondaire wasn’t the candidate who lost and went away. He was very visible on the scene. People know him,” Seawright said. 

He described Jones as a “skilled politician,” adding, “You can’t underestimate a skillful politician when it’s a contested battle and someone who’s been battle-tested before.”

Seawright said Jones returning to Congress would send a “strong message about the diversity of the Congressional Black Caucus, and [its] continued growing influence.”

He added, “The Congressional Black Caucus is the conscience of the Congress, the country, and the Constitution.”

More broadly, he said Democrats must absolutely win back the NY-17, telling theGrio, “The world is depending on Democrats to win in November” 2024.

He added, “I think it will send a strong message to the perceived moderate wing of the Republican Party, this modern-day extremist party, that we are running everywhere to win anywhere.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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