Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the keynote address at the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference, Sept. 22, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins
As the last two tumultuous years of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s term came to a close, she talked with the Advance about bipartisan business incentives, the future of Roe v. Wade, the 2022 election and more.
But first, the Advance asked the Democratic governor if she knew what she knows now about a global pandemic, the alleged far-right assassination plot against her, Republican attempts to overturn the 2020 election former President Trump lost and launch a Jan. 6, 2020, insurrection, would she have run for governor in 2018?
“Oh, Susan, that’s a question many people have asked me,” Whitmer said in a phone interview on Dec. 22. “Yes, I would have. Obviously, none of us knew all the challenges 2020 would bring, but even on the hardest day, and there’s certainly been some, I feel grateful to be in this position. I know our early COVID response saved thousands of lives. We will never know who among us is here because of the actions we had to take, and they were hard, and none of those decisions was easy, but we stayed centered around people and listening to the experts. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done.”
As she’s done repeatedly in interviews, Whitmer stressed that she’s still focused on her job.
“I know it’s incredibly divisive. I know so much the rhetoric is so toxic in this moment nationally, but I’m going to stay focused on doing the next right thing,” she said. “And like I said, I’m so grateful to be at the helm. We got a lot of good stuff done. We’ve got more work to do, but I’m going to stay focused on the people of this state.”
The Advance also asked about the upcoming election in November, noting that Republicans are running on the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, issues like Critical Race Theory and that she is a “tyrant” on COVID. Whitmer has stressed kitchen-table issues, like what she’s done to improve infrastructure, public safety, childcare and education.
The Advance asked Whitmer if she thinks that’s going to break through to voters if this turns out to be an anger election like 2010, 2014 or 2016 were.
“It’s an important question, Susan. And I think at the end of the day, Michigan voters are smart. They pay attention and they’re going to vote on the things that really matter to them in their lives every single day,” Whitmer said. “And that’s why, whether it’s all the orange barrels you see across the state because we are fixing the dam roads, or it is the incredible investment we’ve made in public education without raising taxes this year, or it is the 260,000 additional Michiganders who have health care now, who didn’t when I first took office, I think those are the things that are going to drive voters a year from now.”
Whitmer said that issues that impact people directly will be more significant that “baloney talking points.”
“But obviously, there will be lots of turns and changes, and there’ll be, as usual in these long, ugly campaigns, a lot of baloney that is put out there,” she said. “But the fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, people want government that works for them, whether it’s the work we’ve done to make skills affordable, getting skills, getting good-paying jobs, or any of these other core issues that families are confronting. Ultimately, that’s what’s going to impact their lives, not some baloney talking point.”
The Advance also talked to the governor about what labor strikes in 2021 mean after Michigan enacted measures like Right to Work, former Gov. Rick Snyder’s economic strategy, her goals for 2022 and what it will take to reach a deal with the GOP-controlled Legislature on the remaining $7 billion left in federal COVID relief dollars, per the State Budget Office (as well as a “large amount” of federal infrastructure funding that’s yet to be fully calculated).
You can read the Advance’s previous stories from our interview with Whitmer about the state’s new independent redistricting process and how the state is responding to omicron and the ongoing fourth surge of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: You were the Senate minority leader a decade ago  when Gov. Rick Snyder pushed a flat corporate income tax and decried targeted business incentives as being unfair and unnecessary. So is the bipartisan $1.5 billion business incentive plan you just signed proof that Snyder’s economic approach was a failure?
Whitmer: I think it’s important to recognize that the economy is changing rapidly and we have been so fortunate to have had the auto manufacturing … the center of the world’s been Michigan around auto manufacturing. We created the middle class; good-paying jobs benefited everyone in this state. The industry’s changing fast, future technology, whether it’s in semiconductors or it’s in batteries, is something we want to make sure Michigan’s on the front end of.
And the knock on Michigan for many, many years has been we move slowly. We don’t have the economic tools that other states have, and Lansing’s dysfunctional. They can’t find common ground on anything.
Well, I think in this last few weeks, we’ve shown, No. 1, we can move fast. We are sharpening our economic development tools and we can get things done together. And so, I’m really proud of the work that we did. I think it’s going to be absolutely essential in ensuring that we win investment in Michigan that’s to everyone’s benefit [and] good paying jobs. So I’m glad we were able to take this step. I do think it’s a very different moment, and I think we’re rising to this challenge.
Michigan Advance: Did his [Snyder’s] economic policies put Michigan at a disadvantage?
Whitmer: I’ll be honest, Susan. I think we’ve had a lack of economic development tools for a long time at Michigan. And so, meeting this moment required a different mindset and unique partnerships. And I think we’ve got to continue to assess where we stand in the world, and how do we make sure that we’re at the front of this race, and this is a big step toward doing that.
Michigan Advance: How much federal money is left for the Legislature to appropriate between the stimulus and infrastructure? And after being able to come together on a stimulus and business incentives at the end of the year, does that make you more optimistic about a deal early on in ’22?
Whitmer: Well, I’m hopeful. Certainly this momentum is healthy and it’s good. We’ve got billions yet to deploy, whether it’s from the American Rescue Plan, or it is from the infrastructure dollars that have yet to come into Michigan. There are billions there that we can invest in communities and people in our state, that will make us competitive and a great place to live and raise families.
So we’ve got a great opportunity. It really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. All the years I was in the Legislature, we had Revenue Estimating Conferences that never got close to what the projections were, and we had to cut. We couldn’t make investments. We’re in a very different position right now, thanks to the Biden administration and the work that they’ve done. We need to capitalize on this moment.
Other states are moving forward and deploying these resources; we’ve got to do the same. So I am optimistic and I’m focused on how we utilize those dollars to really improve the economic situation for individuals, and for us as a collective in Michigan.
Michigan Advance: Republicans have been making a lot of moves to restrict voting rights, to take over the election apparatus, to change the way we do elections at the state and local level. Do you feel like Democrats are playing catch-up? Is there enough of a strategy there to combat this and to strengthen voting rights?
Whitmer: Well, I do think what we’re seeing across the country is an effort to eviscerate people’s confidence in our election system, to quell their interest in engaging in our electoral system, and make it harder for people to do that. And so it’s incredibly destructive to the Republic. It’s incredibly destructive to our democracy, and it’s something that we cannot take for granted.
Part of my message to the leaders in Washington is they’ve got to get serious about passing the Voting Rights Act, and protecting voting rights for all Americans, because this 50-state strategy where they’re undermining voters and different states based on different factors is a threat to us all and to our future. So this is something that I think we cannot under-stress how critical this moment is on this particular subject.
Michigan Advance: When you were in the Legislature, you were one of the leaders fighting against Right to Work in 2012. There have been some really big strikes across the country and in Michigan this year with Kellogg and labor disputes like over at Sparrow with workers demanding more. Do you think there’s a revitalized labor movement after a lot of decades of attacks?
Whitmer: I do think that in the wake of how hard it has been, and in terms of showing up every day as an individual employee, and wanting to stay safe and needing time off, and understanding how important it is to have a voice, that there is a renewed energy around unions and appreciation for what they need.
I think the ability to negotiate your wages and your ability to spend time with your family, and health care protections that you need is really important. And you’re much more impactful when you buy-in together, and when we pull together, good things happen for all. And I do think that I’m hopeful that maybe that’s a lesson that we’ll take forward from this tough time.
Michigan Advance: What would Roe v. Wade being overturned mean for Michigan women’s health care?
Whitmer: Obviously, we revert to a law that’s 90 years old [criminalizing abortion] that will eviscerate the ability to get reproductive health care in Michigan. And the only thing right now that’s keeping Michigan from looking like Texas, whether it’s on voting rights or women’s autonomy and health rights is my veto, and that tells you how precarious this moment really is.
I’m very worried about where the [U.S.] Supreme Court is headed. I’m going to do everything in my power to protect full civil rights for women in Michigan, but this is a very serious precarious moment. And I’m going to do everything I can to protect women’s rights.
Michigan Advance: If there is a Republican governor and Republican attorney general come 2023, do you think that women and doctors are going to be prosecuted for abortions?
Whitmer: I think that’s very possible. I think it’s very possible. We’ll see who the candidates are that they end up putting out there, but this is frequently a litmus test, and certainly with Roe v. Wade in the balance, this is a very legitimate line of questioning. And that’s part of why I take my role so very seriously.
Michigan Advance: What’s the biggest difference that you’ve found between working with the Biden administration and the Trump administration?
Whitmer: There are so many differences. I would just say, when we need help, we’re able to get on the phone right away and focus on solving problems, and I really appreciate that. I think that we’ve got partners in Washington, D.C., that really want to solve problems and help people, and they don’t get caught up in the politics. They stay focused on the issue and that’s something I think is really important. You saw this [the Biden] administration respond to governors regardless of what side of the aisle they hail from, because they recognize we’re all Americans and the American presidency is focused on serving everyone in this country.
Michigan Advance: What’s your top priority for 2022?
Whitmer: Well, there’s lots. Getting these federal resources deployed in a way that is really a meaningful investment in people helping recovery from COVID, laying the groundwork for longer-term prosperity for everyone is high up there, getting a budget done in a timely matter. I think the Legislature shares that goal, which could be really good for all of us, for us as a state.
I think those are some of the top ones, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, whether it’s in the affordable housing space, whether it’s deploying these infrastructure dollars to connect every community to broadband or rebuild water infrastructure, there’s a lot of opportunity in front of us. We’ve got to capitalize on it by staying focused on what the goals are, and where we can find common ground.
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