Susan J. Demas: The sister act between Whitmer and Nessel bucks stereotypes about powerful women

January 13, 2019 1:13 pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel | Andrew Roth

Turn on any reality TV show or soap opera (yes, I believe those still exist) and you’ll find women as perennial rivals, frequently dissolving into hair-pulling brawls.

Sexist stereotypes persist in politics, as well, with the tedious debate over whether female candidates are “likable” and Democrats fretting that a woman can’t win the White House in 2020, despite the pink wave that crested last year.

There was no more striking example of that than in Michigan, which Donald Trump shocked the nation by winning in 2016. But now the state is the only one in the country with women — all Democrats, by the way — at the helm of four top political offices.

In November, now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was the top vote-getter in the state, despite early headlines bemoaning her chances. Dana Nessel triumphed in a hard-fought attorney general race and Jocelyn Benson was elected secretary of state.

And last week, Bridget McCormack was unanimously elected Michigan Supreme Court chief justice — and by a body that’s still split 4-3 in favor of GOP-nominated jurists, no less.

In their first two weeks in office, it’s been particularly striking to watch Whitmer and Nessel work hand in glove on so many major issues.

“This is an extremely exciting and historic time to have a woman serving as governor, attorney general, secretary of state and chief justice at the same time,” Whitmer told me this week. “It’s clear that Attorney General Nessel has already hit the ground running and is committed to serving Michigan residents. I expect that she will be a powerful voice for the people and I look forward to working with her in serving and fighting for all Michiganders.”

Dana Nessel

Nessel agreed, telling me that “the Governor and I are philosophically aligned and we are absolutely committed to making government truly work for the people of this state.”

Michigan hasn’t had a governor and AG on the same page for the last eight years. Former Gov. Rick Snyder and former Attorney General Bill Schuette may have both been Republicans, but they clashed repeatedly over major issues like Detroit city pensions and Flint water crisis prosecutions.

Snyder even refused to endorse Schuette for governor in his battle with Whitmer last year, despite considerable pressure from conservatives to do so.

That was in sharp contrast to Democrats in 2018, despite the pervasive #DemsinDisarray cliché. And the tiresome trope of progressives vs. the establishment took a hit, too. Whitmer may have been tagged as an “insider” for her 14 years in the Legislature and Nessel may have run an insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination, but both pulled together on the campaign trail.

Bill Schuette (left) and Rick Snyder (right)

“I think [Whitmer] ended up talking more about other candidates than she did herself,” Nessel told the Advance in an exclusive interview just after the inauguration. “She just seemed so committed to … pulling as many other Democrats across the finish line with her as possible. And I’m so grateful for her coattails, which turned out to be, I think, very long.”

Now that Whitmer and Nessel are in office, they’ve continued to work in concert on their top priorities.

Whitmer’s first AG opinion request for Nessel was on the legality of a Lame Duck law creating a new panel that rubber-stamped a deal keeping the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline running under the Straits of Mackinac. Nessel said she’s “eager” to do so and planned to tackle her request “immediately.”

In announcing her first executive directive aimed at preventing crises over PFAS contamination and Flint water, Whitmer acknowledged tension between Snyder and Schuette. The new governor said had that had a “huge impact” on how state employees responded and she noted that with Nessel as AG, “We don’t have that dynamic anymore.”

Before becoming attorney general, Nessel was best known as a lawyer fighting to overturn Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, which the U.S. Supreme Court did in 2015.

Gretchen Whitmer (left) and Garlin Gilchrist II (right) announcing the LGBTQ directive, Jan. 7, 2019 | Ken Coleman

So when Whitmer issued a sweeping executive directive against LGBTQ discrimination, Nessel, the first openly gay top elected official in Michigan, declared, “This action is deeply personal to me and I am grateful that Governor Whitmer has made anti-discrimination one of her top priorities in her first several days in office.”

Nessel also praised Whitmer’s equal pay directive, adding the governor’s “commitment to making our state the gold standard of equity and equality on all fronts is refreshing.”

Anyone looking for a catfight in Michigan government will be sorely disappointed.

For her part, Nessel told me that she and the governor are working together for “the greater good.” And she believes that women have been doing so for years, but that fact is too often ignored.

“Frankly, it’s not unusual for powerful women to join forces — we’ve been doing it for years,” Nessel said. “Our commitment to working together for the greater good is finally coming to light because of the visibility of our positions — not the perceived novelty that women don’t play well together.”

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.