Former Pontiac dealer Kevin Rinke commits $10 million in GOP bid to be governor of Michigan

DETROIT — Kevin Rinke, who amassed a fortune in car dealerships and traumatic brain injury care, is committing $10 million of his personal wealth toward seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Michigan and unseating incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Rinke, the former owner of Rinke Automotive Group, enters the crowded field of 11 Republicans vying to take on Whitmer in the November 2022 election.

On Monday, Rinke kicked off his campaign with a television ad airing in Michigan that draws on his roots as owner of one of the best-performing Pontiac car dealerships in the world.

The ad features Rinke driving a 1969 Pontiac GTO muscle car on a race track and compared Whitmer to a Yugo, the Yugoslavian compact car that’s often considered in the auto industry to be among the worst vehicles ever built.

“Gretchen Whitmer, she’s straight out of the assembly line of disastrous career politicians,” Rinke says in the ad. “She’s a Yugo.”

Rinke, 60, who resides in Bloomfield Township, has been largely out of the metro Detroit automotive dealership scene for more than a decade after selling Rinke Automotive Group to Penske Automotive Group (formerly UnitedAuto Group) in 2000.

Rinke Automotive Group was once one of General Motors’ top-ranking dealership groups globally. Kevin Rinke’s cousin, Ed Rinke, owns Ed Rinke Chevrolet Buick GMC in Center Line, Mich.

After selling his dealerships to Roger Penske, Kevin Rinke worked for UnitedAuto Group in the early 2000s before becoming an executive at Sonic Automotive, another large publicly traded dealership group.

Rinke is focusing his campaign on Whitmer, even though he’ll have to knock off retired Detroit police chief James Craig, conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, Kalamazoo chiropractor Garrett Soldano and seven other lesser-known candidates in a Republican primary next August.

Wide-ranging interview

In an interview Monday with Crain’s Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News, Rinke was critical of one of Whitmer’s signature achievements — sweeping changes to Michigan’s auto no-fault insurance system.

“The bill that was signed (by Whitmer) made promises that it really hasn’t kept,” Rinke said. “And the folks that have been injured that had valid claims have suffered based on how the bill was written and I think that it needs more work.”

After Rinke left the automotive dealership business, he purchased Cassell & Associates, two post-acute traumatic brain injury rehabilitation clinics in Novi and Warren that care for injured motorists. He later sold those facilities to Boston-based NeuroRestorative.

Rinke is not the first multimillionaire to self-fund a campaign for Michigan governor.

Amway heir and West Michigan billionaire Dick DeVos spent a record $36 million in 2006 in an unsuccessful bid to topple incumbent Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

The $11 million Ann Arbor venture capitalist Rick Snyder spent in 2010 helped him pull off an upset victory in the Republican primary that year against four career GOP politicians — and go on to win the governor’s office.

Name recognition

Rinke said he’s spending $10 million to “get out the message” and boost his name identification among Michigan Republican primary voters.

“This is going to be an expensive race for governor,” Rinke told Crain’s. “I’m willing to invest in the people of Michigan with my own funds because I have something to offer.”

Michigan Democratic Party spokesperson Rodericka Applewhaite said Monday that Rinke is attempting to “buy” the governor’s office.

“Though he plans to set himself apart by trying to buy this election, he stands with the rest of the field in his extreme views and his sole focus on relitigating an election that happened over a year ago over issues that matter to Michigan families” Applewhaite said in a statement.

“Michiganders deserve a governor that’s actually going to fight for working families and the issues they care about, like the recently signed infrastructure law that will invest in fixing local roads and create good-paying jobs.”

Eleanore Beatty

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