Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her Romney Building office, Dec. 14, 2022 | Andrew Roth
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the Michigan Advance this week that she wants the state to make progress on key civil rights issues as she works with the first Democratic-controlled Legislature in almost 40 years.
Democrats have already introduced several bills to that end.
Last week, the Senate Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee held its first hearing on Senate Bill 4, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), which would add protections to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
There have been strong pushes for this in the last decade, but the legislation never gained traction under GOP legislative leadership.
The Michigan Advance asked Whitmer on Monday what signing that pro-LGBTQ+ legislation would mean to her. Whitmer stressed that this is something that’s important to both Michigan’s economic competitiveness and to her as a mother.
“It would mean a tremendous amount. It’s something that we’ve wanted to get done,” she said. “… And as a governor who’s trying to make sure that our economy is strong and we are a competitive state, I recognize how important this is to afford all people, no matter who they are, who they love, or how they identify, protection and respect under the law. And as a parent, this is something that I am very, very much looking forward to signing.”
During the 2022 campaign, Republicans, particularly GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, ran on a platform of banning books and enacting a Florida-style “don’t say gay” law.
The Advance asked Whitmer what she thinks about right-wing parental groups continuing to try to ban books and discussions on LGBTQ+ people and issues at the local level this year.
“I think it’s sad and I think it’s dangerous. As you look at the arc of where we are and where we could be headed, I think the thought of banning materials and cutting people off from access to information is dangerous. Obviously, we have a vested interest in ensuring that kids are safe and they have welcoming spaces so that they can actually be educated, and that they have materials accessible and age-appropriate,” Whitmer said.
“But I do think that this conversation around banning [information] represents a real threat to a robust education in a world where we have to be able to navigate all sorts of different individuals with whom we come into contact. We’re doing ourselves a disservice by cutting off access to information.”
Democrats also have introduced legislation boosting abortion rights, repealing Right to Work and more. Whitmer told the Advance in the interview that she would like to see changes to the abortion waiting period law in Michigan.
The Advance also asked the governor about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, paying down state debt, childcare and work-life balance issues, and a graduated income tax.
Whitmer’s first term was dominated by wrangling with a GOP-controlled Legislature on everything from budgets to COVID-19 prevention to reproductive rights. Now Republicans find themselves adjusting to life in the minority, but have continued to be sharply critical of Whitmer and Democrats, including their tax relief plan and moving up the presidential primary date.
Before becoming governor in 2019, Whitmer spent 14 years serving in the Legislature — all in the minority. The Advance talked with her about her relationship with GOP leaders and advice she had after being in their position.
I think it's sad and I think it's dangerous. As you look at the arc of where we are and where we could be headed, I think the thought of banning materials and cutting people off from access to information is dangerous.
– Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on right-wing attempts to ban books and discussions of LGBTQ+ issues
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Michigan Advance: Beyond repealing the 1931 abortion ban, what other reproductive rights legislation would you want to sign?
Whitmer: There are a number of other things that are in the works that were created and geared toward, I think, unfairly informing and persuading women about their rights and about the outcome of what the decision could be. So I think there’s other things that are on the books that I would see. For instance, there are some of the materials that are required to be shown to women for waiting periods [for abortion]. I think these are areas where there’s opportunity to make the law make sense.
Michigan Advance: Are you concerned that some of those materials are not medically accurate?
Whitmer: Correct. That’s my primary concern, yes.
Michigan Advance: So when we talked at the Mackinac Policy Conference in 2019, you told me that you would “love” to sign a bill repealing Right to Work. Do you still feel that way? And is it a top priority for you this year?
Whitmer: I don’t think anyone’s going to be surprised about my position on that subject. [laughs] We are going to live our values, and I reject any arguments that are out there in the public that you can either be supportive of the workforce or of business. We can and must do both. And in a healthy economy, all can thrive.
Michigan Advance: We are almost three years into COVID in Michigan. What do you think the state’s role is in the pandemic now?
Whitmer: Yeah, I still think it’s to put best practices out to alert and inform the public so that they can make educated decisions about when to get a vaccine, or when to mask up, how to stay safe from a virus that’s still present and evolving. So we all know a lot more about COVID than we did [in the beginning]. We’ve got a lot more tools to combat it. But it’s still present, and for those who are compromised [in terms of health], it’s still a threat. So I think … accurate, timely information, and access to tools to stay safe is still a responsibility.
Michigan Advance: And have you gotten your bivalent booster?
Whitmer: I have. I got it this fall.
Michigan Advance: Do you still support Michigan having a graduated income tax? And would you like to see a constitutional amendment on the ballot for that?
Whitmer: I think that there are going to be a lot of conversations around potential items for the ballot. I think it’s important that we do have, we build equity into all things. And so that’s a conversation I’m not a part of at the moment, but one of many probably that have continued on.
Michigan Advance: As far as making sure that Michigan’s on stable financial ground for the long-term, would that give Michigan a better tax base to do so?
Whitmer: I’d have to spend a little more time studying it, but I do think that long-term financial health is really important. Still got a lot of things, a lot of good work that we need to get done here. We have to pay down billions in debt.
I don’t think Democrats get enough credit for paying down debt that was accumulated over time, but we did pay down $14 billion of that. We amassed a record rainy day fund. We’ve already operated and with all the unforeseen challenges and crises that are generational. And so I think we’re in a strong position, but we’ve always got to keep our eye on what’s happening globally. And obviously, there’s a lot of uncertainty right now, and that’s why I think it’s going to be important to be strategic and thoughtful as we make decisions around including one-time dollars on long-term decisions around [the budget].
Michigan Advance: We did just have an incident with a new dad who’s a House member and had to rush from the hospital after his daughter was born to take a procedural vote on a key bill last month. And I remember when you missed votes in the House because your daughter was born, and your mom had cancer, that was actually used against you in campaigns. So what do you feel like needs to change overall in politics in terms of work-life balance and burdens for parents?
Whitmer: Well, I think that all leaders need to appreciate how difficult it is to raise a family, and continue your work life, and to make it easier, for … parents. But most crucially, it’s good for these children that need opportunities and need support.
So I did get criticism, none of it worked, fortunately. I think the majority of people in our state are doing the best they can with what they’ve got, trying to raise a family and respect anyone who else is trying to do that as well. But our policies, from our budget, to our statute needs to reflect a state that supports working families.
And that’s why I think the Working Families Tax Credit is so important. So that’s why I think daycare and great options for before and after school, as well as MI Kids Back On Track, bring kids individualized tutoring that they need to get back on track, or these stipends to draw and keep good people in education, these are all critical components to supporting in ways who are working and caring for their kids.
Michigan Advance: Are you planning to hold quadrant meetings [of the governor and four legislative caucus leaders]?
Whitmer: Yeah, we have. We’ve already had one. Not sure when the next one is. And I’ll be in D.C. for the National Governors Association meeting this week, but yeah, I’m looking forward to the next one.
Michigan Advance: What is your relationship like with Senate Minority Leader Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) and House Minority Leader Matt Hall (R-Richland Twp.)?
Whitmer: I don’t know either of them as well as I want to, and I’m looking forward to spending some time getting to know them in the coming weeks. … I’m committed to working with them and making sure there’s a seat at the table for them.
Michigan Advance: You became Senate minority leader after the Democrats lost the House, the Senate and the governorship in 2010. So how would you say Democrats’ reaction and strategy then differs from Republicans this year?
Whitmer: Oh, I think we’ve already done a lot more outreach than anyone ever did 12 years ago. When I was the Senate minority leader [under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder], we were not given a seat at the table, and so that’s something I’m very conscious of not replicating. I think we owe it to the people of our state to try to find common ground wherever we can. And it starts with having an open line of communication and a genuine intention of trying to find that common ground.
Michigan Advance: You served in the minority for your entire 14 years in the Legislature, so what would be your best advice to Republicans who now find themselves in that position?
Whitmer: I always sought out opportunities to be relevant and to improve policy that was coming through the Legislature. Obviously, I had to wage fights on occasion, but for those years that I was the minority leader, and Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) was the majority leader, were marked by a really good relationship where we worked together in a lot of big things, and had our differences, but never let it get personal, and never let it keep us from getting right back to the table.
And I think that’s what helped me and my caucus be relevant, and impactful. And frankly, that’s what our constituents want and need.
Michigan Advance: Have Republicans so far shown any indication that they’re planning to move to the center and be more bipartisan after losing such big races last year?
Whitmer: It’s hard to tell. I think these are the early days and they’re adjusting to their new role. I think everyone is. And I don’t fault anyone for that. I just know that we want to move quickly, and I am eager to get a lot of good stuff done this term. And we already see the House and Senate leadership moving quickly, and so I’m eager to see where we can find common ground.
I did work with Rep. Hall a bit last term, especially on business climate and economic development. And I’m eager to do the same this term.
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