Name: Gretchen Whitmer
Occupation: Lawyer/Former Legislator
Location: East Lansing
Major Policy Issues: Flint water, education and jobs
July Financial Report: $1.14 million cash on-hand
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of four interviews conducted by the Great Lakes Beacon with each currently declared Democratic candidate. Republican gubernatorial candidates who have declared by September 1 will also be interviewed.
A lifelong Michigander and the first to declare her candidacy for governor, Gretchen Whitmer has worn numerous hats during her time in public service: lawyer, legislator, Minority Leader, professor and Ingham County Prosecutor. But it’s the way Michigan and its public policy has evolved over time that has driven her sights on the next move: Governor.
“The Michigan my kids are growing up in hardly resembles the Michigan I think of when I talk about my Michigan pride,” she told the Great Lakes Beacon in an interview. “There was a point in time where our education was the finest you could get around, that if you worked hard you could actually afford the car you were making, and (you could) retire with dignity in this state.”
Whitmer received her undergraduate and law degree from Michigan State University and first served as a state representative two years after obtaining her law degree. From there, she was elected to the state Senate and eventually chosen by her colleagues to serve as the leader of their caucus – the first woman to lead a party in the Senate. She returned to private practice after leaving the legislature, but was then chosen to serve as county prosecutor after long-time Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III resigned amid a prostitution scandal.
“When I left the legislature, I thought perhaps I would go back to the private sector and have a private life, and I decided very early on I’ve got no tolerance for the status quo in Michigan,” she said. “I think we deserve better, and that’s why I’m running for governor.”
Despite that most running for elected office are eager to label themselves as an “outsider,” Whitmer isn’t running away from her experience.
“Understanding the legislature, understanding how to negotiate tough issues, how to use the power of the executive office to get things done … I’m the only candidate that brings that to the table on the Democratic side of the aisle,” Whitmer said of differing from opponents. “Now more than ever that’s important. If we haven’t learned how important that is after seven years of Governor Snyder and six months of President Trump – the consequences of not having that experience are downright dangerous for people.”
She boasts her work fighting against so-called Right to Work legislation that went after unions, as well as ensuring that anti-bullying legislation was indeed something that helped prevent bullying, but notes that she also worked to get support for Michigan’s expanded Medicaid program, Healthy Michigan.
She’s long been a proponent of increased funding to public education, and names that as one of her top three policy goals.
“I look at our education system, and I see the schools and the struggles forced on them because of years of neglect and years of attacks on teachers,” Whitmer said. “We need to elevate the profession of teaching to support our children, to support our teachers and ensure our children are successful.”
She noted she voted against the expansion of charter schools, saying their promise was to be “unhampered by traditional oversight and accountability” in an effort to innovate.
But, she said, “The reality, sadly, is they haven’t had any better outcomes for kids. … We owe it to the children of this state to ask one question: Is it working for educating kids? And if the answer is no, we need to either close them or demand higher standards from them until they’re successful. The states that have really turned around their public schools are states that infuse more support into those public schools.”
She also said she wants to ensure every resident has “a path to a better job, whether that’s through apprenticeships and trades skills, or making college affordable.”
And although it’s less in the news now, the Flint water crisis has not left her policy goals, she said.
“The fact that we pride ourselves as the Great lakes state and we still have a city full of families that still can’t reliably drink their water and bathe their children, I think, is job number one,” Whitmer said. “We’ve got to ensure the people of flint have clean water they can count on, and we can’t stop providing water to people until we earn back their trust.”
In addition to Flint, she said she recognizes a growing need in other urban centers of the state, be it Saginaw, Benton Harbor or Detroit.
“One of the interesting things, I think, surrounding the discussion about what’s happening in the city of Detroit, for instance – there is a lot of celebration about what’s going on in part of the city and I think that’s great,” Whitmer said. “But it’s also so important we recognize that while there’s eight square miles of great economic development happening, there’s still 135 square miles of families who need grocery stores, transportation and good educational opportunities.
“I think those really are the fundamentals. We’ve got to meet peoples’ fundamental needs, and so few people can say that’s being met right now, and I think that’s what informs and drives the urban agenda we’re working on right now,” she said.
Wages, Healthcare and Getting Out the Vote
Whitmer said she fully supports the state’s prevailing wage policy and in fact negotiated protections to ensure the governor wouldn’t undermine the policy in Michigan while she served in the legislature.
“I think it’s absolutely essential to elevating the standard of living for people in Michigan. As you look to other states that have gutted it, they regretted it,” she said. “Republicans have been on the record acknowledging it has not improved their economy, it has not improved peoples’ quality of life, and at the end of the day, we want people to afford to go see the dentist.”
On single-payer healthcare, Whitmer did not explicitly provide an opinion, instead saying that she supported the expansion of Medicaid and “remain committed to ensuring everyone has affordable coverage here in Michigan and everyone is covered.”
Going forward, she said one of the most important lessons from the 2016 election is not taking any person, community or vote for granted. She acknowledged it is “incumbent on me” to get into communities throughout the state to earn the votes. She said she has so far been to more than 30 of the 83 counties in Michigan, “and I’m going to get to every single one,” she said.
“We’re going to continue to work our tails off and earn the support of people from different parts of this party and different parts of this state,” Whitmer said on unifying the Democratic base. “The people that decided this election were the people that were so uninspired they didn’t even bother to vote. We don’t have to change who we are as a party, but we have to put forth an aspirational vision, and talk to everyone across the state, and build a platform that really speaks to people.”