Whitmer: Voters elected me to have the same powers as first 48 governors

Gretchen Whitmer being sworn into the state Senate while holding her daughter, Sydney

The Republican “power grab” bills that have been on the national radar are an example of “ugliness and foolishness” during Lame Duck sessions, Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer told the Advance this week.

“When the dust settles at the end of this legislative term, I’m going to review my options, because the voters expect me to be a governor with all the authority that the first 48 governors of our state’s great history had. And I’m gonna fight to make sure that those powers are in the executive office,” the East Lansing Democrat said in an exclusive interview with the Advance.

Lame Duck protest, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

A bill to usurp power from Secretary of State-elect Jocelyn Benson is likely dead, but several other measures remain as the Legislature gears up for its last scheduled day of legislative action of the year on Thursday.

House Bill 6553, sponsored by Rep. Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker), would limit the power of Whitmer and Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel. The bill would allow the Republican Legislature to intervene, without a judge’s approval, in court cases that are the purview of the AG.  

When asked about criticism from some on the left that she hasn’t been rallying at the Capitol, Whitmer said she’s been “trying to be very thoughtful” in Lame Duck and has been meeting weekly with GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

“He spent a lot of energy talking about civility and he has vetoed bills that go after executive authority. And my hope is that he shows the world he’s a statesman and not a political game-player like the people in the Capitol right now,” Whitmer said.

Rick Snyder and Brian Calley at their year-end press conference, Dec. 11, 2018 | Ken Coleman

The East Lansing Democrat, who served 14 years in the Legislature, captured national attention in 2012 for leading a rally of more than 10,000 people at the Capitol against Right to Work, which Snyder quickly signed into law.

Earlier that year, Whitmer helped organize a demonstration there featuring Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues.” The event, which drew more than 5,000, protested “Vaginagate,” when then-Reps. Lisa Brown (D-Bloomfield Hills) and Barb Byrum (D-Onondaga) were silenced on the House floor for speaking out against anti-abortion legislation.

The Advance also talked with Whitmer about running on the 2020 Democratic ticket and endorsing Michigan Democratic Party Chief Operating Officer Lavora Barnes as the next party chair.

Gretchen Whitmer at the 2012 “Vaginagate” protest at the Michigan Capitol

Whitmer hails from a bipartisan family. Her first job out of college was in 1994 working on the staff of the late Curtis Hertel Sr. — father of state Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing) and Rep. Kevin Hertel (D-St. Clair Shores). That was during the days of a perfectly divided state House, when Hertel Sr., a Democrat, and Republican Paul Hillegonds served as co-speakers.

Whitmer talked about holding regular meetings with legislative leaders and working with them on issues like roads. But she said that if the GOP-controlled Legislature doesn’t want to compromise, she prepared to “go straight to the voters.”

The Advance will have additional coverage in future editions. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: What is your response to the criticism that you faced from some on the left that you haven’t been more vocal about the GOP Lame Duck ‘power grab’ bills?

Whitmer: Well, I served in the Legislature; I survived a number of Lame Duck sessions. I’ve rallied. I have raised my voice. I have engaged as an activist. Right now, I am in the midst of a transition and working long, hard hours to make sure that we’ve got great people in important positions that matter to Michiganders’ everyday lives. The ugliness and foolishness that’s happening at the Capitol is disturbing and petty, but showing up at a rally — I don’t think is gonna change what the Legislature does right now.

Lame Duck protest at the Michigan Capitol, Dec. 12, 2018 | Ken Coleman

I do have a dialogue directly with the current governor [Rick Snyder]. He spent a lot of energy talking about civility and he has vetoed bills that go after executive authority. And my hope is that he shows the world he’s a statesman and not a political game-player like the people in the Capitol right now.

And so I think that my energies are best spent in conversations with him and doing the work that I need to do in a transition. And when the dust settles at the end of this legislative term, I’m going to review my options, because the voters expect me to be a governor with all the authority that the first 48 governors of our state’s great history had, and I’m gonna fight to make sure that those powers are in the executive office. And I’m trying to be very thoughtful about how to do it in this short term, here.

Michigan Advance: Do you think that you could actually make things worse if you interjected yourself more into the process?

Whitmer: I don’t think interjecting more is gonna change what the Legislature does. I just don’t think so and that’s why I’m spending my energy on the transition, and in direct communication with the governor.

Michigan Advance: Gov. Rick Snyder didn’t do many quadrant meetings of legislative leaders since he had strong GOP majorities. Do you think that this transition would have been easier if you’d been given the opportunity to forge a closer relationship with your predecessor?

Whitmer: I think that [in] so much of what happens in government and the private sector and our personal lives, relationships matter. Had we had more of an ability to build those relationships, perhaps we could streamline some of the initial phases of this transition and get right down to business.

Rick Snyder and Gretchen Whitmer during the transition | State of Michigan

But I will say that the governor has made time every week to sit with me, to share information and host my family at the residence with his family, and so there is nothing that says governors have to do that. And I’m grateful that we are doing that. But certainly, had we built a closer relationship over the years, this might be even going faster. But I’m not complaining about where we are because things are moving pretty smoothly.

Michigan Advance: You’re planning to bring back regular quadrant meetings, is that correct?

Whitmer: I am, yes. I think quadrant meetings are really important. I said that during the campaign, even before I knew that I’d have two Republican-led houses of the Legislature. So that’s something I am really looking forward to getting started as soon as the first of the year has passed. I have already sat down with [Senate Majority Leader-elect Mike] Shirkey and [House Speaker-elect Lee] Chatfield, as well as [House Minority Leader-elect Christine] Greig and [Senate Minority Leader-elect Jim] Ananich individually, and I’m eager to get started as a quadrant.

Michigan Advance: Have you also met with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley?

Whitmer: I have, actually. I had a number of conversations with the lieutenant governor.

Michigan Advance: You come from a bipartisan family with your father serving under [Republican Gov.] William Milliken in his cabinet [as Commerce Department director] and your mother was an assistant attorney general under [Democratic Attorney General] Frank Kelley. How does that shape your approach to leading a divided government in Michigan?

Curtis Hertel Sr.

Whitmer: Well, I think that a lot of us are raised in households with parents from different political mindsets. Back in those days, the Milliken Republicans and Frank Kelley Democrats had a lot in common, whether it was women’s rights or environmental protection. They had a lot in common ground… I was hired right out of college into [then-House Co-Speaker] Curtis Hertel [Sr.]’s staff when we had divided House, 55 Democrats and 55 Republicans, I got to see it work really well and people communicated with one another. And it didn’t mean they agreed with everything, but you can’t find common ground if you’re not talking. And that goes back to your earlier question about relationships. I’ve got to build these quadrant meetings into a regular schedule, because we got work to do and we gotta build relationships in order to get it done.

Michigan Advance: When did you start in the House, was it 1993?

Whitmer: I’m trying to think … I graduated from college in ’93 and I worked there all of ’94, so from January to December of 1994.

Michigan Advance: If you find yourself in a stalemate with the GOP-led Legislature over your priorities like roads, the Medicaid expansion and public school funding, what will your strategy be?

Michigan State Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer: Well, you know I’m always gonna have a plan in my back pocket. But the people voted for all of us with these certain priorities in mind. And I know that potholes are not Republican or Democratic and they don’t just tear up one partisan’s car or another. It’s devastating all of us in terms of making us less safe on the roads and making us less competitive as a state. So I’m, first and foremost, gonna focus on trying to get it done with their help.

Michigan Advance: And if that doesn’t happen?

Whitmer: Well, there might be a case where I’m gonna go straight to the voters. I think that all of those different possibilities are real, but I don’t wanna announce too many alternatives, because I wanna make sure that they [Republicans] step up and do the job that the voters elected them to do, as well: Work together and fix the damn roads.

Michigan Advance: When you say go to the voters, you’re talking about doing town halls, you’re talking a potential ballot initiative? Is all of that potentially on the table?

Whitmer: Yep, all of the above.

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Susan J. Demas is an 18-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on 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, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. 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 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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