Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a rally for former Vice President Joe Biden in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth
It’s been more than a year since state and federal law enforcement announced a right-wing plot to kidnap and possibly assassinate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over her COVID-19 health orders.
Since October 2020, the number of serious threats to state and local officials across the country has only grown, something Whitmer talked to the Advance about in a phone interview Wednesday morning.
The Advance asked Whitmer how her life has changed since the assassination plot was publicly announced.
“I’m grateful first, I should say, for the [Michigan] State Police, they do a remarkable job and I’ve never really been scared. I will say, though, that the level of concern remains high,” she said. “The threats that we saw multiply over the course of the last couple of years, many have persisted. We see a lot of great public servants leaving public service because of the enhanced stress and ugliness in this environment. And certainly as I get out and about, I’m always cognizant of that, because I think this environment’s just so difficult and toxic.”
Whitmer added that she’s “been able to stay focused on doing the important work of this job, because I do have confidence in the State Police and I do feel secure.”
Since former President Donald Trump lost Michigan and the 2020 presidential election, many Republicans — including Michigan lawmakers and party leaders — have spread conspiracy theories that he didn’t lose or there was massive election fraud. Despite failing to produce evidence — and more than 250 state and local audits showing the election was secure — Republicans have been part of a national right-wing effort and introduced dozens of bills clamping down on voting rights.
While Whitmer has vetoed several bills, including those rooted in pro-Trump conspiracy theories that outside parties had access to Michigan’s Qualified Voter File and poll books were connected to the internet in 2020.
That's why all the political slights that come my way, I'm not going to return them. Because I want to work with this Legislature to get these resources out so that Michigan has a rebound as strong as any other state. And we can't let those dollars sit there because it hurts all of our ability to do that.
– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
However, Republicans have now launched a ballot measure encompassing that legislation that a Progress Michigan report says could result in Michigan losing half its polling sites. As part of the citizen-led petition process, the GOP-led Legislature can adopt the measure if it gets more than 340,000 signatures — and Whitmer has no right to veto.
The Michigan Advance asked if there needs to be a counter-ballot question since she can’t veto the Republican measure.
“I would anticipate that that very well may be the case,” she said, “but at this juncture, our work is to stop legislative efforts to take away voters’ rights and to encourage voters and citizens to decline to sign efforts that undermine our elections, and that’s what that is.”
Whitmer talked to the Advance about the fourth COVID-19 wave swamping Michigan right now, in which she said the May mask guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “a huge disservice” to the state’s vaccination efforts. You can read the interview here.
The Advance also asked Whitmer more about Republican voting restrictions, her administration’s response to the Benton Harbor water crisis and negotiations with the GOP-controlled Legislature over billions in unspent federal dollars as the 2022 election looms.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: There have been warnings about Benton Harbor’s water safety since 2018. Did your administration fail to act quickly enough until there was pressure from residents?
Whitmer: I have a couple of quick observations. So Michigan has the best and most aggressive blood and Lead and Copper Rule. And that was created in the wake of the manmade crisis in Flint. Because of that, we’re doing more testing. Our red flags go up earlier than any other state. And what the requirement was, was that state government let the municipality know so that they would then let the local residents know.
We should have an additional requirement that state government needs to put the local community on notice. And so I have made an executive directive that, now, has created that additional responsibility. I think that’s important. We’re working with the local community to replace the lead pipes. We’re moving fast. We’re already moving dirt and that is in process. We’ll do this quicker than it’s ever been done in other municipalities.
But I also think it’s important to know old infrastructure is a problem all across Michigan. There’s a problem all across the United States. And that’s precisely why Congress and the Biden administration passed this infrastructure plan. These resources will help us emulate what we’re doing in Benton Harbor, so that when a community with old infrastructure sees increased lead levels in their water, that we’ve got the resources to work with the community and to supplement their efforts to replace their old infrastructure.
So I do think that the state has a role. Obviously, local governments are on the front line, but the state has a role to bolster, to inform and to work with local governments, to have the resources, to do this important work. But our old infrastructure is a problem all across the country, whether it is flooding on highways, or it’s 500-year events that breach dams, or it’s old lead pipes bringing water into homes all across the state. This is a challenge that we’ve been focused on. We’re going to keep working forward. I’m glad we got some resources from the feds to do more of [that].
Michigan Advance: You’ve vetoed several Republican voting restriction bills that have been popping up all over the country since the 2020 election. But now in Michigan, there’s a ballot measure that you can’t veto. So what can really be done to stop these attacks on the right to vote?
Whitmer: I think it’s important that residents understand how precarious this moment really is. Every Michigander deserves the right to have their voice heard as they exercise their constitutional right to vote in a safe and secure election. We have robust election protections in place. Strong, effective voter ID laws are on the books and they work. We just had the most secure, accessible high turnout election in our state’s history [in November 2020].
Efforts to make it harder for people to vote that are feeding into this Big Lie that there was something wrong with this last election, which there was not. [It was] demonstrably a fair and secure election that has been challenged over and over again. And there’s not been a scintilla that there’s been any sort of widespread problem.
We’ve got to take a stand here because our democracy really is on the line. That’s not hyperbole. The only thing that is a standing in the way of efforts to undermine our secure elections, the only thing right now, is my veto. And so we’re encouraging citizens to decline to sign any effort that makes it harder for Michiganders to vote. And I’ll continue to do my part to protect our free, fair democratic elections that have been happening in Michigan. It should be a source of pride, not a tool to keep people out of the ability to participate in an election.
Michigan Advance: Does there need to be a counter-ballot measure since you cannot veto the Republican one that’s circulating?
Whitmer: I would anticipate that that very well may be the case, but at this juncture, our work is to stop legislative efforts to take away voters’ rights and to encourage voters and citizens to decline to sign efforts that undermine our elections, and that’s what that is.
I think it's important that residents understand how precarious this moment really is. Every Michigander deserves the right to have their voice heard as they exercise their constitutional right to vote in a safe and secure election.
– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Michigan Advance: Michigan has billions in unspent COVID stimulus funds and more coming from the infrastructure bill. Do you expect that the GOP-led Legislature will appropriate all of it, or are you concerned that the politics of the 2022 election will get in the way?
Whitmer: Well, you know what, we will have plenty of time for political dialogue over the course of the upcoming election. But the fact of the matter is a bipartisan Congress has sent us billions to deploy as we recover from COVID to help small our businesses, to grow the middle class, to build affordable housing, to rebuild infrastructure. Every day those dollars are not deployed, the people of Michigan are paying a price.
And so I am eager to work with the Legislature to get these dollars out so that we can make sure that the workforce in Traverse City has good, affordable housing options, so that working families know that their child is safe and in a good learning environment as they go back to work, [and] small businesses have access to the kinds of support they need to grow and to come out of the tough times of the pandemic.
That’s what these dollars are here for. And it isn’t about who’s a Republican and who’s a Democrat. This is about being Americans who have gotten this opportunity to pave a path to prosperity out of this pandemic. We’ve got to deploy them and it cannot get caught up in politics.
And that’s why all the political slights that come my way, I’m not going to return them. Because I want to work with this Legislature to get these resources out so that Michigan has a rebound as strong as any other state. And we can’t let those dollars sit there because it hurts all of our ability to do that.
Michigan Advance: Do you anticipate a deal this year on the federal funds?
Whitmer: I hope so. I know that we are coming to the close of the year and there’s not a lot of session days left [for the Legislature]. But I think we’re capable of getting a lot of these resources out the door — whether it’s in the form of affordable housing or economic development tools or enhanced supports for working families — these are the things that are absolutely imperative. We can do it, and I’m going to stay focused on trying to make sure that we’re successful.
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