Susan J. Demas: Whitmer puts the GOP on notice in her State of the State speech

February 1, 2020 10:15 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s second State of the State speech this week accomplished two things she needed to do after a bumpy first year of divided government: She both acknowledged failure and projected strength.

That’s a tough high-wire act for any politician, but especially for a female executive, who always has to worry about pundits sneering that she came on too strong.

Everyone fails at things, big and small. I have more times than I can count. But it’s somewhat unusual for governors to acknowledge missteps, and they usually don’t do it particularly well (think GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s brief, awkward apology for the Flint water crisis in his 2016 State of the State).

On Wednesday, Whitmer noted that her “Plan A” for solving Michigan’s roads crisis, her 45-cent gas tax hike rejected by the Legislature, wasn’t popular (“Let’s just say it wasn’t warmly embraced”), while still making her case that it was “an honest solution.” (“Anyone watching the national political debate has heard a lot of talk about plans,” Whitmer added, seemingly a callback to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose campaign tagline is, “I have a plan for that.”)

The governor then declared, “But I’m not giving up,” and outlined her “Plan B,” a $3.5 billion bonding plan for roads that the State Transportation Commission unanimously approved the next day.

African-Americans want Whitmer to tackle jobs, health care before roads

The Democrat’s “Rebuilding Michigan” plan allows her to declare an instant political victory, as more road projects will start this construction season — something that may not have happened even if she and Republican leaders agreed this year to a comprehensive deal.

Whitmer also gets to claim this win as her own. Turns out, she didn’t need Republicans to fulfill her biggest 2018 campaign promise.

“From now on, when people see an orange barrel on a state road, they’re going to know that this administration is fixing the damn road,” Whitmer said during a Thursday roundtable with reporters. “As I said before, if the Legislature won’t come to the table, I’m going to still roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

She’s not the first governor to bond for roads (it’s a popular bipartisan play, as both former Govs. John Engler and Jennifer Granholm used it). Nor is Whitmer the first state CEO to bypass an uncooperative Legislature to achieve a top priority for the state. Snyder used his first SOTS speech to announce a new, public Detroit-Canada bridge, much to the shock and chagrin of many GOP legislators who had been blocking the initiative for years.

Because Whitmer has taken action, she can now bang the drum that it’s up to Republican leaders to lead on a long-term infrastructure solution, something she seemed to take some pleasure in during her speech.

“So next time you’re driving down your local street and hit a pothole or see a bridge closed, call up the leadership in this building and encourage them to act,” Whitmer declared.

‘I’d be embarrassed if I were her’: Republicans keep slamming Whitmer’s old gas tax plan

Naturally, that didn’t go down well with Republicans, many of whom claimed Whitmer took an all-or-nothing approach with her 2019 gas tax proposal (she didn’t) and whined about the state taking on new debt. Weirdly, these staunch fiscal conservatives have stayed quiet about their hero, President Donald Trump, exploding the national debt (stay tuned, of course, if a Democrat beats him in November).

There was definitely a difference in tone from this year’s SOTS to last year’s speech.

In 2019, Whitmer ended with heartfelt tributes to legislative leaders, noting GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey’s devotion to his wife and 12 grandkids and the fact that House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) “like I used to, lives next to his parents and he is guided by his faith.”

Personal connections, however, proved to be no match for ideological divides, and last year’s nine-month budget battle left a lot of scars. So this year, Whitmer held up the example of the late Gov. William Milliken (although his moderate GOP legacy, quite tellingly, is far more embraced today by Democrats than Republicans).

She also acknowledged the toll partisanship has taken on progress. “I’ve spoken about building metaphorical bridges between our two political parties,” she said Wednesday. “But, disappointingly, political gridlock prevailed. And we’ve had to literally close bridges.”

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It’s been a year of clashing with Republicans in the Legislature — and even some Democrats — on her top priorities of funding roads and schools. Whitmer has lost key battles and faced GOP leaders’ attempts to quash her executive powers.

Some progressive activists have been demoralized, whether it’s on issues like the auto insurance compromise she signed last spring, or they just feel an overall frustration with the pace of change, something that draws many to the bold progressivism of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

Democrats aren’t usually comfortable exerting raw power, but it’s often necessary in a hyper-partisan age.

So it was crucial for Whitmer to show she had a spine in her address, which she did, with lines like, “For those of you who want to keep playing games, I’m going to press on without you. I’m going to use the power of my office to do what I said I was going to do.”

Her new roads plan and her swagger won’t win over everyone (but in politics, it’s all about getting more votes than the other folks on the ballot). And there will always be journalists who remain deeply uncomfortable with powerful women, especially on the left.

Susan J. Demas: You can really just stop with your creepy fashion critiques of Whitmer

And no, it’s not just men — who could forget a Detroit TV reporter last year embarrassingly devoting coverage to anonymous online commentators critiquing Whitmer’s dress and body instead of her ideas?

That was something Whitmer felt she had to acknowledge at the top of her address this week, urging people to “focus on the substance” because it’s “about issues, not appearances.” She lightened the mood by quipping, “I don’t care how distracting Sen. Shirkey’s outfit is — cut him a break.”

The fact that some Republicans still sniped about her outfit this year just proved her point (and neatly demonstrated why the party has lost women by double digits).

Whitmer’s speech served the purpose of refocusing her governorship in its second year and letting voters — and her GOP nemeses — know who’s in charge.

It also underscores why national leaders gave Whitmer the plum position of rebutting Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. Hers is a damn fine blueprint for Democrats in the 2020 election.

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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.