‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National

25 min


48
11 shares, 48 points

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 1

LANSING, Mich.—The phone rings once.

“Hello?”

It’s a man’s voice: gruff, impatient.

“Hi there,” the female caller says. “May I please speak with John?”

“Who’s this?”

“Gretchen Whitmer.”

A three-second pause.

Governor Whitmer?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh ma’am,” John says, his tone apologetic. “Hi. How are you?”

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 2

It’s a loaded question. This particular call, one of dozens Whitmer will make on Monday, April 6, comes at a moment of relative calm for the governor who has become one of America’s most visible political leaders amid the Covid-19 pandemic. But the last few weeks have been madness. Since Michigan’s first cases were identified on March 11, Whitmer, having already declared a state of emergency, shut down schools and businesses, banned large gatherings, broadened unemployment benefits and ordered citizens to shelter-in-place.

It wasn’t enough. With Michigan’s death toll soaring, and the state running low on resources, Whitmer began pleading with Washington for help while publicly criticizing the lack of a national Covid-19 strategy. Predictably, this provoked ad hominem retribution from President Trump. He called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.” He dismissed the governor, during a White House press briefing, as “the woman in Michigan.” He declared that his administration would help only governors who were “appreciative” of his efforts.

Meanwhile, with Whitmer’s handling of the outbreak garnering praise, she has gained altitude as a trendy choice to become Joe Biden’s running mate—a reality not lost on Trump, who has continued to single her out for attack. All of this has further complicated Whitmer’s nightmarish circumstance, injecting fragile egotism and election-year politics into a public health disaster that’s grown bleaker by the day.

“Well, I’m doing all right,” Whitmer replies. “You know, I got a message that you had called our office on Tuesday and spoke with Nathan. And I know that you shared your wife’s experience at Henry Ford [Hospital] and just wanted to touch base and see if there’s any updates. We’ve been working so hard to get her the Personal Protection Equipment, but I’d love to hear directly from you.”

“Well,” John says, clearing his throat, “I’m a little choked up right now. Because, umm, literally my brother-in-law’s dad just died at 2:30 at the hospital from Covid.”

Whitmer gasps. It’s 3:07 p.m.

“Oh my gosh,” the governor mumbles, her eyes shut. “I’m so sorry.”

Whitmer had spent the day absorbing anecdotal body blows. There was the medical professional who, after emerging from a 19-day quarantine, was placed on indefinite leave because of his underlying health conditions. There was the school superintendent who worried about the hungry students and indigent bus drivers in his district. There was the doctor who told of seeing numerous patients through to their last moments, then phoning family members waiting in the parking lot and breaking the awful news.

The governor had kept an even keel, looking anxious only once, when upon hearing about the overwhelming fatality rate at one hospital, she hung up and said quietly, to no one in particular, “What are we doing with all the bodies?”

But now Whitmer sounds a bit unsteady. John’s story—the suddenness of his loss—has landed like a haymaker.

Maybe a governor isn’t supposed to show vulnerability in a time of crisis. But John, an Army veteran who served three combat tours, doesn’t seem to mind. The two are bonded now, talking about his family, his circumstances, his fears. John’s fiancée—not his wife—is a labor and delivery nurse who’s been wearing the same mask for seven days. Some medical personnel at her hospital have tested positive, adding to the panic over insufficient PPE. For the next 10 minutes, Whitmer quizzes John on the hospital’s safety protocol, pleads with him not to rouse his fiancée for answers (she worked the overnight shift), and reassures him that help is on the way.

“Well, I appreciate the call, governor,” John says. “I tried to call the White House. I’ll be honest, I’m conservative. Always have been. I voted for President Trump. But I just wish he would stop with the petulance. You know, this is not the time—at all. And I would tell him that to his face.”

John continues, “I can’t understand the president saying … ‘The states have to have a plan.’ It can’t just be on the states. I mean, we’re the United States of America. We’re supposed to be united.”

Ever so fleetingly, a smirk tugs at Whitmer’s cheeks. It’s the smirk known to anyone who has tried to steamroll her, anyone who has been on the receiving end of her Lansing-famous wit. In this moment, it’s a smirk of satisfaction. After all the abuse she had taken from the president, here was a Trump loyalist, someone hurting and anxious and sick of the smallness, telling Whitmer he had her back. She looks ready to drop a one-liner.

But the governor quickly regains her poker face. This is not the time, indeed.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 3

To the untrained eye, Gretchen Esther Whitmer might seem like a pushover. With the suburban-mom hairstyle, the high-pitched giggle, the nasally accent straight out of “Fargo” central casting, she looks like the type of person—OK, the type of woman—that Donald Trump would chew up and spit out.

But looks can be deceiving, especially when they are strategically deployed to deceive.

Reared in the cradle of Michigan’s back-slapping establishment, Whitmer is the quintessential insider, one-part policy aficionado and one-part student of the game. She’s an old-style pol, known as much for impassioned partisan crusades as for her conciliatory three-beer summits. In Lansing, you cannot find anyone, Republican or Democrat, on the record or off, who does not admire the skills of the state’s 49th governor. Moreover, just about everyone likes her. She is genuine, secure, quick to give a hug or share a dirty joke. She is a mom, a sports nut, a lawyer, a politician with a perfect record of winning races and a long history of flustering opponents.

Having toiled for 14 years in the legislature—every minute of every day spent in the minority—Whitmer had grand designs on the governorship. She took office in January 2019 with big ambitions, none bigger than to “Fix the Damn Roads,” the campaign slogan that had proved so effective in the pothole-stricken Great Lakes State. And then everything went sideways. The Republican-controlled statehouse had little interest in Whitmer’s agenda. Flexing her executive muscle, she miscalculated with a proposed gas tax that both parties rejected. The state budget fell into disarray. The rookie governor took the brunt of public criticism. For the first time in her life, Whitmer was floundering.

None of that feels relevant anymore. George W. Bush wanted to be the education president; the 9/11 attacks dictated a different fate. Both in terms of politics and public policy, Whitmer’s legacy as governor will be defined by one thing: her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Every elected official is under pressure right now, but there are few who feel it more than Whitmer.

It’s one thing to be 15 months into your first term and suddenly blindsided by a rampaging disease the likes of which no living politician has encountered; to be thrust into worldwide renown by virtue of a beef with the president and a rising body count in your backyard; to know that your every flinch and syllable are being judged by citizens today and history tomorrow.

It’s another thing to realize, all the while, that you’re auditioning for the job of vice president.

There’s a part of Whitmer that wants to clap back at Trump, to teach him some manners in front of the nation. But it would be tragically counterproductive. He has the capacity to help Whitmer save lives, potentially many lives, with the power and resources of the federal government. At the same time, while roasting POTUS might win Whitmer points with the woke-or-die crowd online, it would damage her prospects as Biden’s No. 2. The presumptive Democratic nominee has campaigned on ratcheting down the political temperature; the last thing he wants is a running mate who fights with a flamethrower while the country is ablaze.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 4

Whitmer insists she’s paying no mind to the talk of a promotion. But it’s becoming harder to tune out. Just last week, as Biden announced the formal beginnings of his search for a vice presidential nominee, he publicly confirmed that Whitmer was on the short list. And on Monday, hours before Whitmer’s call with John the Army veteran, Biden’s campaign made news by releasing the second episode of his new podcast, “Here’s the Deal.” The guest: Whitmer. The themes: keeping calm, governing in times of hardship, and reaching across the aisle.

Rarely in the modern sweep of presidential campaigning has there been a more public tryout for the job of vice president. Contrived and overtly political though it might have seemed, the exercise was necessary. Biden has personal relationships with Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, two of the other top contenders for the job. Despite calling her “a good friend,” the truth is that Biden barely knows Whitmer. America barely knows Whitmer. Heck, Michigan is just beginning to know Whitmer.

In interviews with more than two dozen friends, family members, and political contemporaries, I sought answers to the same questions Biden and his vetters are asking. What preparation is she drawing on during this crisis? How is she holding up under the weight of the moment? What space does she occupy in a fragmented Democratic Party? And, if and when the time comes, can she survive the death march of a campaign against Donald Trump?

Through the double doors of Whitmer’s office, on the left when you enter, stands a hulking mahogany bookshelf that tells her life story: family photos, two Spartan football helmets, autographed basketballs, a stack of books about Michigan, a Holy Bible, framed certificates, a miniature statue of Lady Justice, several beer mugs, and four Catholic prayer candles featuring saintly images of Whitmer’s “wise women”: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Detroit soul legend, Aretha Franklin.

A few feet away, next to Whitmer’s desk, is a peach-colored dummy cut off below the torso, the type used by martial arts fighters to practice their assault techniques.

“I told my security detail, ‘God, I wish I had a punching bag or something,’” the governor says, nodding toward the dummy. “And then he showed up.”

Does it have a name? She grins but holds back. “It could theoretically change daily.”

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 5

Whitmer’s journey to this office begins with her father, Richard, a Lansing legend who worked for Governors George Romney and William Milliken. Long before he became one of the state’s private sector heavyweights—president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan—Dick Whitmer was a trained lawyer who rose up the governmental ranks to eventually lead the Department of Commerce.

His wife, Sherry Whitmer, was a powerhouse in her own right, an assistant attorney general under Frank Kelley, Michigan’s longest-serving attorney general and a godfather figure to young Gretchen and her two siblings. Although Dick and Sherry Whitmer divorced when Gretchen was 10, they instilled in their children a shared love of public service and a shared set of values.

“Neither one of them were ideologues. My mom probably would have been described like a Reagan Democrat, and my dad was a Milliken Republican,” Whitmer says, leaning forward on a blue-cushioned chair. “In Michigan, that’s theoretically a Democrat and a Republican, but it’s pretty close on the scale.”

The eldest Whitmer child grew up harboring no political convictions, much less political aspirations. She dreamed of being a sportscaster for ESPN. This owed to no particular athletic prowess; her adolescent nickname was “Gretchen Gravity,” a nod to her frequent falls, and overall lack of coordination. (These days she goes strictly by “Gretchen”—or sometimes, in an exaggerated Midwestern twang, “Gee Dubya.”)

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 6

The career plan was intact through her junior year at Michigan State University in East Lansing, where she interned for the school’s football coach, George Perles. Concerned that his daughter was too one-dimensional, Dick Whitmer urged her to spend a semester down the road at the Capitol. “So few people understand how government works,” he told her. “Whether government is in your future or not, having a little perspective on it will be helpful to you.”

When Gretchen agreed, her father quickly arranged an internship with a friend, Curtis Hertel, a powerful representative from Detroit who would later become speaker of the House. He happened to be a Democrat. “They were good friends,” she shrugs, reflecting on how the pairing changed the trajectory of her life. “From there on, I realized that I was a Democrat.”

Whitmer caught “the political bug” and couldn’t shake it. Sports soon faded into the background. The idea of law school began to preoccupy her. She surprised friends by running for president of her sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, and winning. “It might sound silly, that being president of a sorority house somehow translates, but that’s when I knew something was up,” says Angie Sullivan, Whitmer’s college roommate.

Before long, Whitmer was spending all of her time studying law and volunteering on behalf of local Democratic campaigns.

“Being raised the way we were, at some point you start to question yourself: What does it all mean? How am I contributing?” says Whitmer’s sister, Liz Gereghty. “And suddenly, she found something that answered those questions for her.“

It was 2000, and Whitmer was a 28-year-old attorney in Lansing, when a local House seat opened up. It promised to be a congested primary. The rookie’s first move was to consolidate the Democratic elite behind her candidacy, which meant scaring one potential opponent from the race—the son of Whitmer’s mentor.

“I could tell in the first five minutes of our conversation that I wasn’t ready for that race—and Gretchen was,” recalls Curtis Hertel Jr., now a state senator. “Even though we were both young, she was just way ahead of me.”

Leaning on her family’s sprawling network of influencers, Whitmer emerged as a surprise contender for the seat. That she could charm wealthy donors was no surprise. What did surprise people close to Whitmer was how exacting she was in designing her campaign. “I was very intimidated by her,” recalls Leslee Fritz, who worked for the small consulting firm Whitmer contracted during the race. “Even as a young, brand-new candidate, she had a very keen sense of things. She knew the district. She knew what issues would play well.”

The race was not without controversy. Whitmer raised so much money—more than triple the haul of the presumed frontrunner—that her opponents cried foul, saying the newcomer was trying to buy a seat with machine-style politics. They also accused her of underhanded tactics. One memorable conflict came when Whitmer underwrote a major contribution to the local public radio station, ensuring that her name—Gretchen Whitmer the local attorney, not Gretchen Whitmer the candidate—would be read on the air repeatedly. It was perfectly legal, but the maneuver raised eyebrows around the statehouse.

Whitmer won by 281 votes. The hyper-competitive primary made the campaign for the 70th District “easily” the most expensive statehouse race in Michigan history, the Lansing State Journal reported.

She cruised through the fall race, already angling for top committee assignments and thinking about hiring a staff. She barely noticed her mother, Sherry, had disappeared from the campaign trail.

“She kept saying she had an inner ear infection,” Whitmer recalls, “but I was so busy that I wasn’t on top of her the way that I ordinarily would have been.” Six days before the November election, Sharon Whitmer received the news: glioblastoma, the lethal brain cancer.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 7

Whitmer spent her first two years in the legislature starting a family, moving into a new home, serving as the primary caretaker for her sickly mother, and in June 2002, burying her.

“They say that the five most stressful life events are getting married, having a child, the death of a loved one, moving your house, and starting a new job. And I did all of those things in that same two-year period,” Whitmer says. She shrugs. “I’m fortunate that I can focus on small tasks, and I think that’s how I got through it.”

Richard Whitmer Jr., the baby of the family, puts it this way: “Gretchen’s story really started when my mother got ill. Liz was living in New York, and I was still at home, but I couldn’t handle it. So, Gretchen took care of everything. She fought with the insurance companies, she cared for her newborn, she did her duties in the legislature.”

Referring to his sister’s management of the Covid-19 crisis, he adds, “Sometimes I wonder, how is she juggling all this? But then I remember, she’s done it before.”

Life in the legislature was tedious. Whitmer was a back-bencher in the House minority. She also was one of few women in an institution long dominated by good-ole-boy mentality. The young lawmaker felt frustrated and overlooked, not realizing the impressions she was making.

“Oh, we could tell right away she was an up-and-comer,” says Randy Richardville, a former GOP legislator who served alongside Whitmer for over a decade. “She just had a presence about her. She’s a very intelligent woman. She wasn’t trying to stand out in those days, but she’s got some natural skills and abilities that were easy to notice.”

Barely 30 years old, with bright red lipstick and long brown hair falling over her stylish pant suits, Whitmer was unlike any woman in the Michigan statehouse. Two former GOP lawmakers—both insisting on anonymity—recalled to me, in separate conversations, instances when action halted on the chamber floor because the men queued up to speak were staring at the gentlelady from East Lansing.

This wasn’t lost on Whitmer. Eager to turn herself into a player, she became a fixture at the capitol watering holes, throwing back beers with veterans in both parties. She learned their motivations and their vulnerabilities. She learned how to play dumb and lull them into complacency. She learned that disarming an opponent is the surest way to defeat him.

“I’ve had a lot of male mentors,” Whitmer says with a smile. “One of them would tell me, ‘Try to make fun of your opponents on occasion. Don’t get mad at what they say; just say, ‘Oh, come on. I know you don’t believe that.’ Because, he said, ‘It drives them crazy.’”

On the floor, Whitmer deployed humor or righteous outrage or hyperbole—sometimes all three—and quickly became known as the best quote in Lansing. Everyone, friend and foe, turned when she stood to speak. “I had to remind my guys on the floor, ‘Stop looking over at her! Stop listening to her!’ Because she was just that good,” Richardville laughs.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 8

Whitmer earned a promotion from House to Senate in 2006, hoping to have a bigger impact in the upper chamber. But it was more of the same: outnumbered by men, outnumbered by Republicans, outranked in terms of seniority. She was growing restless, both in her personal and professional lives. Whitmer divorced her first husband in 2008, and in 2009, fed up with the legislature’s inertia, she began exploring a run for attorney general.

As she traveled the state to meet with power-brokers and interest groups, what Whitmer discovered was not a lack of interest in her candidacy, but a building wave of anger—much of it aimed at the new president, Barack Obama, and his Democratic Party. Whitmer backed out of the campaign, citing the need to be at home with her two daughters. But friends knew there was another calculation: Whitmer wanted to be governor one day, and that dream would be dashed by losing her first statewide race. The decision spoke to a central principle of Whitmer’s politics: She loves a good fight, but she’s very selective when it comes to picking one.

Whitmer instead threw her energies into campaigning for the position of Senate minority leader. She won easily. The reward? Leading the opposition against Rick Snyder, the incoming Republican governor, and her old friend, Richardville, the Senate’s new majority leader. They expected an easy working relationship with Dick Whitmer’s daughter. But in reality, the new minority leader had been on a decade-long leftward drift; in 2010, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce announced that “she was last on its list of voting records for senators, on key business issues,” according to Crain’s Detroit Business.

It was a brutal, exhilarating four years. Whitmer was leading a battered minority—12 Democrats, compared to 26 Republicans—but she was determined to punch above her weight. While rarely winning a fight, Whitmer used her mastery of parliamentary procedure and her oratorical skills to frustrate the majority’s agenda. If she couldn’t stop Republicans from passing laws, Whitmer figured, she could at least slow them down while rallying the public’s opposition. Her fire-and-brimstone speeches on behalf of unions during the 2013 fight over a “right to work” bill, remain the stuff of folklore in Michigan Democratic circles.

Only one moment in Whitmer’s career garnered more attention. It came in December 2013, during another scorched-earth debate, this one over whether to require women to purchase a separate insurance policy to cover abortion—even in cases of rape and incest. Whitmer hoped to convince a colleague to share a personal story of the bill’s potential impact. Then, realizing that she was trying to hide behind someone else’s tragedy, she decided to share her own.

“I’m about to tell you something I’ve not shared with many people in my life,” Whitmer said, her voice scarcely heard above the din. “Over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape. Thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy, because I can’t imagine going through what I went through then have to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker. And as a mother with two girls, the thought that they would ever go through something like I did keeps me up at night.”

With the chamber suddenly silent, she continued, “If this were law then, and I had become pregnant, I would not have been able to have coverage because of this. … I’m not enjoying talking about it. It’s something I’ve hidden for a long time. But I think you need to see the face of the women you are impacting by this vote today.”

The bill passed by a party-line verdict, save for Whitmer losing one of her Democrats. “It didn’t change a damn thing,” Whitmer says. “The next morning, I was about as depressed as I’ve ever been, because I’ve just laid my soul bare. I had to call my dad on the way home from the legislature and tell him—because he didn’t know this, and I knew it was going to be in the press. And I remember [thinking], ‘What’s the point?”

During her commute to the Capitol, however, Whitmer’s phone rang. It was her office. Whitmer’s staff discovered a flood of phone messages and emails from across the country thanking her for the speech. “And it was like, ‘OK, something good came of this.”

The episode highlighted just how dramatically Whitmer’s image in Lansing had changed—from the establishment-friendly socialite to the hardened partisan warrior. She came to embrace the progressive branding, sometimes to her own detriment. When the Republican governor announced his intention in 2013 to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act—alienating many in his own party—Whitmer sensed a rare moment of leverage. Rather than line up her caucus, Whitmer initially held out, demanding concessions from Snyder. He was incensed. Allies of the governor urged him to withdraw his support for Medicaid expansion entirely. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed: Snyder threw her a bone (nobody can remember what it was) and Whitmer helped corral the votes for passage. But it poisoned her relationship with Snyder’s administration and added to the whispers of her ideological evolution.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 9

Given those realities, everyone in Lansing expected Whitmer to run against Snyder in the 2014 gubernatorial race. Everyone from the Detroit caucus to the big donors to the union heads stood ready to endorse her. Running would have made perfect sense: She was term-limited out of the Senate after 2014 anyway. And yet, just as she had in 2010, Whitmer sensed the timing was off, that Democrats would face headwinds. Once again, she surprised Democrats by announcing she would not run, citing family considerations.

Truth be told, Snyder’s team was petrified of running against Whitmer—and were beyond relieved at her decision. For all the advantages Republicans enjoyed in 2014, Michigan proved to be an outlier. In a cycle that saw Democratic incumbents wiped out, the party’s U.S. Senate nominee in Michigan, Gary Peters, won by 13 points; meanwhile, Snyder, running against a second-rate Democratic opponent, held on by just 4 points. Had Whitmer led the ticket, Snyder told his allies, he would have been toast.

Rather than taking the oath of office in January 2015, Whitmer found herself jobless, suddenly obscure, forcibly removed from the political spotlight. Politics is about meeting the moment. Everyone thought Whitmer had missed hers.

“I wasn’t born to run,” she says. “I left the legislature and thought, “OK, I’m done.’”

Retired, remarried (to a local dentist and known Republican), and back to practicing law, Whitmer tried to convince friends and family members that she was hanging it up. But nobody was buying it. “I always knew she would make a comeback,” says her sister, Liz.

Certainly, there were events in the following years that inspired her to return to the arena—namely, the Flint water crisis and the election of Donald Trump. But underlying those developments was a longstanding reality: Whitmer was too restless, too talented, too ambitious to stay on the sidelines. In January 2017, a full 20 months before the Democratic primary, Whitmer declared her candidacy, hoping to clear the field with an early entrance.

But things had changed. Nobody was cowed by Whitmer. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a new shot-caller in the state’s Democratic Party, wasn’t interested in Whitmer. Dan Gilbert, the billionaire business tycoon who owns much of downtown Detroit, had his own list of preferred candidates. Insulting though it was to Whitmer, none of these recruits ultimately chose to run. The Democratic field was set at three: Whitmer, a known commodity, and a pair of left-wing insurgents. Whitmer could hardly believe her luck. Michigan has always been a centrist state—recall those Milliken Republicans and Reagan Democrats—and Whitmer’s had that entire swatch of voters all to herself.

“That primary for governor was something that I had never anticipated,” Whitmer says. “To have not just one but two people in the primary trying to get around me on the left was kind of shocking. But in the general election, it actually set me up well.”

She wasted no time capitalizing on this dynamic. The first call Whitmer made, after winning the primary in a landslide, was to Brian Calley, the lieutenant governor. He had just lost the Republican primary to Bill Schuette, the polarizing attorney general. According to multiple people familiar with the conversation, Whitmer began selling Calley on the need to defeat Schuette at all costs and asked him to connect her with disgruntled Republican donors. (Calley declined to comment.)

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 10

It was vintage Whitmer, aggressive and cunning, not allowing old feuds to get in the way of new opportunities.

But it also raised fresh questions about her political identity. At a time when the party’s ideological spectrum extends wider than ever before, what kind of Democrat is Whitmer?

“I think of myself as someone who is progressive but also can get stuff done,” she says, measuring her response. “And I don’t vilify people that don’t see the world precisely the same way I do. I’m not arrogant enough to think that I’m always right.”

Given the intra-party murmurings of political shapeshifting, Whitmer didn’t dare take the Democratic base for granted. This was, after all, just two years removed from Hillary Clinton’s devastatingly narrow, 10,704-vote loss in the state, one that could have been avoided with higher turnout among the party’s core demographics. Setting out early to build alliances, Whitmer gained footholds in key communities that benefited her in both the primary and general elections.

“I was one of the only people locally who supported her. She was the best candidate on the issue of public education, and so I wound up going across the state with her, speaking as her surrogate in African-American cities,” says state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, who chairs the powerful Detroit Caucus. “And she just got it. Look, I’m a straight shooter, and we would go to some churches, and I’d say, ‘Look, you need to know this’ and she immediately got it. There’s nothing fake about it—she’s comfortable, she’s genuine, she gets up and claps and laughs and talks with people.”

“We all had PTSD coming off Hillary Clinton’s loss, and I told Gretchen that the biggest mistake of that campaign was not listening to people on the ground,” recalls state Senator Jeremy Moss, another early Whitmer backer whose district covers Southfield, one of the state’s most concentrated Democratic strongholds. “She didn’t run a nationalized campaign for governor. She ran on ‘Fix the Damn Roads.’”

Indeed, while some voices in the Democratic Party spent 2018 agitating for revolution—impeaching the president, eliminating private insurance, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement—most of the successful midterm candidates preached more unifying themes. In Whitmer’s case, the most unifying theme was also the most local. There is nobody in Michigan, black or white, gay or straight, conservative or liberal, who doesn’t curse the state’s porous infrastructure.

Whitmer defeated Schuette by nearly 10 points on Election Day 2018. She ran up the score in urban centers, but also flipped counties in west and mid-Michigan that had gone decisively for Trump two years earlier. She out-performed Clinton among black voters, among young people, and most notably, among women. Clinton had defeated Trump by 13 points among female voters in Michigan, but Whitmer pushed that margin to 22 points—while simultaneously faring much better among men.

It was precisely the winning formula, demographically speaking, that Democrats had been searching for since November 2016. Whitmer hadn’t merely won the governorship of Michigan. She had given her party a blueprint for how to take back the industrial Midwest—and with it, the White House.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 11

You would think after winning the way she did, demonstrating such broad support and entering office with such a specific mandate, Whitmer would have had leverage to pursue her agenda.

You would be wrong.

When Whitmer was sworn in as governor, in January 2019, Republicans controlled both chambers of the legislature and had zero interest in fixing the damn roads. They knew—as did Whitmer—that her idea required massive new amounts of revenue. Rather than give the new governor a green light to collect or borrow historic sums of money, Republicans set about achieving their own top priority: overhauling Michigan’s auto-insurance laws.

Whitmer grew annoyed. Not only were Republicans ignoring her trademark issue, they were moving a bill toward her desk that splintered the Democratic coalition in two. The party’s business-oriented wing, led by titans such as Gilbert and Duggan, argued that the state’s astronomical rates were hindering investments; the party’s populist liberal wing, embodied by the Detroit Caucus, feared the legislation would strip poor people of needed coverage and shift their insurance burden to already-overworked programs such as Medicaid.

It was a lose-lose proposition for Whitmer. But she had promised to get things done, and if nothing else, this was something to get done. She signed the bill to great fanfare on Mackinac Island in May 2019, over the ferocious dissent of some Democrats in the legislature.

“And then she hosted a reception for lawmakers at the Governor’s Mansion, and those of us who voted it against wondered whether we’d be welcome there,” Moss recalls. “But it was fine. There was no fear of being putting on an enemies list. Unless you’re really crossing a line with the governor, most things you can solve with her over a beer.”

Some differences aren’t so easily resolved. In the middle of Whitmer’s first year, just when she’d put the auto-insurance nightmare to rest, she stepped on another landmine. As a candidate, Whitmer had pledged to eliminate Michigan’s emergency manager law, which her predecessors had used to take over struggling municipalities. But in the majority-black city of Benton Harbor, where the schools were on the brink of insolvency, Whitmer feared she might have no choice. At one point, she threatened to dissolve the school district entirely. It was a negotiating tactic, yet it smacked of betrayal.

“I put my reputation on the line. I went hard for her, not only in the city of Detroit but with educators around the state,” says Gay-Dagnogo, herself a former Detroit public school teacher. “And then I took the hit when many of them felt they were being—” She paused for nearly 10 seconds. “They felt the governor was not standing with public education. So, I had to speak out. And to her credit, she did listen. But those were tough conversations.”

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 12

Whitmer ultimately backed off her threat. The Benton Harbor district remains open. But the incident further eroded the new governor’s political capital. She had been pushed around on auto-insurance reform. She had offended some of her staunchest allies by talking tough on schools. And all the while, her signature campaign issue was gathering mothballs.

Desperate to correct the narrative, Whitmer decided to go all-in on the roads. Her plan was simple: a 45-cent gas tax. She had floated this number throughout the year, but it was pure fantasy. No politician in either party was going to own such a visible, regressive fee on their constituents. Republicans simply brushed the idea aside. Democrats, not wanting to undermine the governor, waited for a cue from their party’s leadership. When House minority leader Christine Greig told reporters in late August that Whitmer’s plan was “an extreme,” Democrats had the cover they needed. The proposal was dead.

Thwarted once again, Whitmer declared war on Republicans in the statehouse. Her predecessor, Snyder, had balanced the budget in each of his eight years on the job. But the new governor was too peeved about the road funding embarrassment to cede any more ground to the GOP; Republicans, meanwhile, had Whitmer on the ropes and saw no reason to start compromising. What ensued was a prolonged budget standoff. By the time it was resolved, Whitmer was in the worst shape of her political life. Being a Democratic governor with GOP majorities, she realized, was actually harder than being a Democratic legislator with GOP majorities.

Against this backdrop—“a rough first year” was the phrase used by Greig, Moss, Michigan AFL-CIO president Ron Bieber, and just about every other Democrat I spoke with—it was surprising when Whitmer was selected in January to deliver the Democrats’ response to Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address. The role is typically reserved for young political phenoms. On paper, Whitmer was a good fit. And yet, given the pummeling she’d endured over the past year, her friends worried. Was this really the right time to showcase Gretchen Whitmer to America?

Inside the cafeteria of East Lansing High School on the evening of Feb. 4, hundreds of attendees buzzed with anticipation. There were party activists and elected officials, teachers and students (including the governor’s daughters, both of whom are enrolled at E.L. High.) To their surprise, some 90 minutes before her speech, Whitmer bounded in wearing a black tracksuit. “We’re gonna have a good time tonight!” she shouted into a microphone, sending the crowd into a tizzy. When she returned some time later, having changed into a dress, she took her place behind the lectern. Waiting in the hushed room for her cue to go live, Whitmer suddenly spotted a friend in the crowd. “Hey, Jim!” she cried out. “You thought I was going to wear that tracksuit, didn’t ya?” The room fell apart in laughter.

Whitmer went on to ace the speech, an audition that has tripped up many an aspiring leader of the free world. But it was the pre-show performance that reassured her friends and supporters. “Gretchen’s going to keep showing up,” says Liz, her sister, “no matter how bad things get.”

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 13

Whitmer showed up for her sophomore year reinvigorated. The hard lessons learned in 2019 informed a new approach to 2020. She would no longer wait around for Republicans—or anyone, for that matter—to enact her agenda. Gone was the 45-cent gas tax. In its place, Whitmer announced a new plan: issuing $ 3.5 billion in construction bonds to finally, at long last, Fix the Damn Roads. That the idea was met with mixed reviews hardly mattered: Michigan law gives governors unilateral authority to borrow for transportation projects. There was no stopping Whitmer.

She planned a similarly muscular approach with other priorities this year—funding schools, expanding Medicaid, broadening the state’s burden in the areas of childcare and early education. It was liberating. After all the dithering of 2019, Whitmer hoped to make 2020 a year of action.

Little did she know, the action was coming to her.

Whitmer started February by delivering the State of the Union response. She ended February by making her first public comments about a pandemic that had yet to infect a single known Michigander. Within two weeks, she had shut down every school and nearly all non-essential businesses in the state.

Now, each day is like a new chapter of a horror novel. Whitmer rises early, checks her cell phone hoping not to see catastrophic news, makes coffee, then enters into a marathon session of phone calls with staff, doctors, lawmakers, constituents and media, all while monitoring a running total of cases and fatalities in her state. This week, the death toll topped 100 for three straight days and eclipsed 1,000 overall. The only states with more were New York and New Jersey.

“It’s like nothing we ever imagined,” Whitmer says, her voice matter-of-fact. “There’s no experience you can draw on to get through this. It has taken over everything. It is everything. I mean, all I talked about for three years was ‘Fix the Damn Roads.’ And now all I talk about is PPE, and I didn’t even know what it was a month and a half ago.”

Much has changed in that month and a half. No longer is Whitmer on the periphery of the political conversation, a low-profile governor on the outermost edges of Joe Biden’s radar. She is, according to senior Democrats I’ve spoken with, a live possibility to be the vice-presidential pick. If that happens, they say, it will owe primarily to her handling of Covid-19, a performance that caught Biden’s eye and captured his imagination.

Some Republicans, no doubt, would interpret this as raw, cynical politics. But remember: Nobody has done more to elevate Whitmer than Trump himself. Had the president not singled her out, perhaps Biden wouldn’t have noticed her charm, her humanity, her steady hand and sense of humor. Perhaps Biden wouldn’t have noticed that Whitmer, more than anybody else he’s considering for the job, is a lot like him.

“She resembles an older style of politics. She wants to get things done without tearing people apart,” says House speaker Lee Chatfield, the Republican who has battled with Whitmer the last 15 months. “She’s the only Democrat I’ve seen placate the business lobby and the environmentalists. Seriously—nobody else can do it. I’ve seen her sit down with CEOs in suits, then have beers with people from the upper peninsula.”

It’s telling that Chatfield—one of Trump’s closest allies in Michigan—has gone out of his way to publicly back the governor’s decisions in recent weeks. When I ask about the politics of the situation, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Mark my words, it would be a missed opportunity for the Democratic Party not to consider Gretchen Whitmer for the ticket,” Chatfield says. “She’s the governor of a must-win state, and she’s polling very well here right now.”

It’s absurd to think that Whitmer is oblivious to these conversations. But it’s equally absurd to think she’s behaving differently because of them. Yes, she wore a “That Woman from Michigan” shirt on television, a source of pearl-clutching for the conservative Detroit News editorial page. But that’s Gretchen Whitmer. She’s been doing the same thing for 20 years, baiting antagonists into silly attacks and making them look all the sillier in return. The words of her old mentor echo: “Try to make fun of your opponents on occasion. Don’t get mad at what they say.”

Whitmer is mad, all right, but not about being called “that woman” (a line that surely thrills suburban moms across America) or “half whit” (“It’s not even creative,” her brother says. “I’ve called her much worse.”) She’s mad about nurses wearing masks for seven days in a row. She’s mad about poor kids not getting meals. She’s mad about Michiganders dying on her watch.

Trump? Nicknames? Twitter? She rolls her eyes.

‘The Woman in Michigan’ Goes National 14

“That’s part of my frustration,” Whitmer tells John, the Army veteran on the other end of the phone line, in response to his complaints about the president. “We’re not one another’s enemy. The enemy is a virus, and we’ve got to all be on the same team here.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he affirms.

“Using that Defense Production Act to really start cranking out this PPE would be such a help,” she continues. “And, you know, I can’t figure out some of the decisions that are being made [by Trump], but I’m contracting all around the world to try to bring in masks and gowns and try to make as many here in America as we can.”

Her new friend, the conservative Trump voter, sounds overcome with gratitude. He thanks Whitmer for her efforts. He thanks her for the call. He says he’ll be praying for her tonight.

“I can’t imagine,” John tells the governor, “the position you’re in.”


Like it? Share with your friends!

48
11 shares, 48 points

What's Your Reaction?

hate hate
20
hate
confused confused
12
confused
fail fail
6
fail
fun fun
4
fun
geeky geeky
2
geeky
love love
16
love
lol lol
18
lol
omg omg
12
omg
win win
6
win

Read exclusive latest news on entertainment, music, gaming and more topics with unprecedented coverage from around the UK and US.

0 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.