In retrospect, a gubernatorial run by former Detroit police chief James Craig seems almost scripted for an era of rising crime. But news this summer of Craig’s interest in challenging Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) still came as a surprise.

Top cops generally don’t run for political office. Now, Craig aspires to become the state’s first African American governor.

Born in Detroit, the son of a U.S. Army officer, Craig joined the city police force upon graduating from Cass Technical High School, a standout Detroit high school. He spent 28 years as an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department before becoming police chief in Portland, Maine, and then in Cincinnati.

Craig came back home to head up Detroit’s police force during the 2013 municipal bankruptcy. His tenure wasn’t notably successful — Detroit was often among the cities with the highest violent crime rates in the nation. Some of Craig’s anti-crime efforts drew criticism for showboating, but he won praise for community outreach during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Just before his June 1 retirement, Craig began meeting with high-ranking and past Republican officials around the country to discuss challenging Whitmer. The buzz over his possible candidacy began the minute he turned in his badge. Craig kept his profile high over the summer with repeated appearances on Fox News. He is the subject of an admiring cover story in the September issue of America’s 1st Freedom, an NRA magazine.

On July 21, Craig formed an exploratory committee and told Tucker Carlson, “I’m running,” though later tempering that to say he was still at the exploratory stage. Craig was also still in the political-rookie-mistake stage: He hadn’t set up a fundraising apparatus, but supporters jumped in with the launch of a political-action committee called We Need the Chief.

Craig has said that he won’t make an announcement regarding his political future until after Labor Day, but that feels like a formality. His exploratory committee’s website is selling apparel adorned with a patch that looks like a police shield, emblazoned with “Chief James Craig for Governor.”

In a somewhat rambling video posted on the website, he emphasizes how he built relationships with Detroit residents at a time when other cities were rife with conflict: “We know Seattle burned. Portland burned. Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, burned. Even some cities here in Michigan. But not Detroit.”

Of his potential candidacy, Craig says on the video, “This is about leading from the front, keeping people safe, which is a core responsibility, solving problems. That’s what Michigan needs. I am Chief James Craig” — clearly the tagline he’ll be using.

An August poll by EPIC-MRA showed Whitmer and Craig running neck-and-neck, even though more than half of respondents didn’t recognize Craig’s name and 17 percent said they hadn’t formed an opinion of him.

The poll result may say more about dissatisfaction with Whitmer — whose proactive measures to fight the pandemic have angered many in Michigan — than about Craig’s popularity, but it suggests an exploitable weakness. Still, Whitmer has plenty of campaign cash, having raised $8.6 million in the first half of the year, for a total of $14 million — or $1 million more than she raised for her 2018 campaign.

Rick Pluta, a veteran public radio political reporter, says a Craig candidacy is irresistible to many GOP officials. “There’s just kind of this idea within Republican circles that the right Black candidate is the Holy Grail.” But the GOP’s siphon-off-Black-voters dream has been tested twice in Michigan by Detroit businessman John James, who failed to oust Democratic U.S. Senate incumbents in 2018 and 2020.

In August, former Michigan governor John Engler (1991-2002) became treasurer of Craig’s political action committee. Engler, a Republican who now lives in Texas, had seen Craig only on TV before learning in May that he was exploring a run for office. They talked by phone, then met in person in Detroit for a longer conversation.

“There’s no question James Craig would be a historic figure,” Engler says. “I think Michigan is ripe for a debate about its direction.” But he emphasizes that the GOP’s selection of a nominee won’t be much about the person’s race, Black or White: “They’d like to win.”

Craig will have plenty of competition for the job of facing Whitmer. With the primary nearly a year away, eight other Republicans have formed fundraising committees, including conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, a loyalist to former president Donald Trump.

Craig has said he would accept an endorsement from Trump, who won Michigan in 2016. But Craig has declined to say whether he believes the 2020 presidential election was stolen — saying he wants to be defined on his own terms.

He may soon learn, though, that where he stands on Trump-related matters is what will define him within the party. It’s a challenge that Republican politicians with a lot more experience than the former police chief have found impossible to avoid.