Gilchrist: ‘Exciting and humbling’ to be Michigan’s first African-American LG

Garlin Gilchrist | Facebook

On Jan. 1, Garlin Gilchrist II will make history when he is sworn as Michigan’s first African-American lieutenant governor.

Gilchrist spoke with the Michigan Advance this morning in one of his first in-depth interviews since the Nov. 6 election and said his history-making role is both an “exciting and humbling opportunity.”

The 36-year-old Detroit native and University of Michigan graduate worked for Microsoft as a computer programmer and was a political organizer for the progressive organization MoveOn.org.

Garlin Gilchrist (left) and Gretchen Whitmer (right) | Facebook

He also managed social media for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008 and led the city of Detroit’s Innovation & Emerging Technology Department. In 2017, Gilchrist ran for Detroit city clerk, narrowly losing to incumbent Janice Winfrey by only 1,482 votes out of nearly 100,000 ballots cast.

Gilchrist has served as the executive director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan. He’s married to Ellen and the couple has 5-year-old twins, Garlin III and Emily Grace.

He talked to the Advance about his relationship with his running-mate, Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, and the transition with current Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Gilchrist also discussed his work experience in the public and private sector, his goal of improving broadband access and how to encourage entrepreneurship in the state.

The following are excerpts from his interview:

Michigan Advance: You’re the first African-American to serve as Michigan lieutenant governor. Is that a daunting responsibility?

Gilchrist: It’s an exciting and humbling opportunity. I’m very mindful of earning the distinction. Working alongside the governor-elect is a privilege that is bestowed upon me by voters and is also something that is only possible because of the hard work and foundation laid from leaders of all stripes, but Black leaders, in particular, throughout Michigan history. It’s in that spirit of public service that I hope to follow and emulate and build upon.

Richard Austin

Yes, the fact that we haven’t had a Black statewide executive since [Secretary of State] Richard Austin [in 1995] is something that I’m excited to carry that tradition forward.

Michigan Advance: Lansing politics can be rough-and-tumble. You’re the first Michigan lieutenant governor who didn’t first serve as an elected state lawmaker since [Democrat] Phil Hart won the seat in a popular vote in 1954. Is that an advantage or disadvantage?

Gilchrist: What’s advantageous is that the governor-elect and I have very complementary skill sets; very complimentary life experiences; very complimentary backgrounds. Her administration — with her background, negotiation experience, lawmaking experience — will make sure that we will be able to serve the people of Michigan well with that visibility.

I’m bringing to this a diverse career in many different sectors — working in the public sector; working as an entrepreneur; working in the private sector; doing nonprofit work as an advocate. Working at the national level and at the city level gives me perspective that adds to our administration in how we consider things. It also gives me perspective in how we are able to listen to people and move our agenda forward in unique ways.

I think that it’s an asset that we have different experiences and in our administration. One of our underlying values is that all that we do is reflective of the people in the values and diversity of Michigan. Our partnership is a testament to the identities that we represent, the experiences that we represent. That will make us have a complete package that we are offering to Michigan residents.

Michigan Advance:  Lieutenant governors in the past have taken on special projects or issues. [Current Lt. Gov.] Brian Calley’s top concern was expanding care for autism; John Cherry’s was student preparation for higher education. Do you have a public policy interest that you’d like to lead?

Garlin Gilchrist | Facebook

Gilchrist: First and foremost, I take very seriously the constitutional duties of the lieutenant governor, as presiding over the state Senate is something that is very important to me. And I’ll dive in to make sure that is done well and that we have good working relationships in the chamber.

As far as policy areas, I talked about a lot of those on the campaign trail. … I am a transit rider, so transit and transportation are very important in terms of how we’ll connect our communities but connected communities extend beyond transportation.

It includes connecting people to the internet. You know that we have a challenge in stratified internet connectivity in the state of Michigan, where as many as 40 percent of the people in the city of Detroit and 50 percent of the people in the Upper Peninsula don’t have access to consistent, high-quality broadband internet. That’s significant barrier to employment, health care services [and] education. I want to bring equity to those sorts of things. In terms of poverty and affordable housing, we want to bring equity.

Also, we have a very diverse set of people who have ideas about enterprise and business. I want to make sure that they can participate and make their ideas flourish in Michigan. As someone who has started multiple businesses myself, I care about supporting diverse entrepreneurs and all of their ideas. There is technology, but also your barber is an entrepreneur. How can we be better partners and encourage people to step out and have the infrastructure in place so they can pursue their dreams?

Michigan Advance: Has the transition process with [Lt. Gov.] Brian Calley been helpful?

Garlin Gilchrist (left) and Brian Calley (right) | Facebook

Gilchrist: Lt. Gov. Calley has been fantastic in terms of being very generous with his time and his experience, and having ideas — pointers on presiding over the body, and things to keep in mind. He also has been generous in terms of the type of relationship-building with [our] counterparts around the country.

He was very encouraging to me to participate in the National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA), which I did. I attended the NLGA meeting in November. It was a very valuable experience to build relationships with lieutenant governors across the country. I’ve been able to spend a significant amount of time with him — and my staff and his staff. They really helped to prepare us to hit the ground running as of Jan. 1.

Michigan Advance: How are you and [Michigan State University graduate] Gretchen Whitmer going to handle U of M and MSU games?   

Gilchrist: [laughs] Michigan took care of business [in football] during the campaign and so it’s the one thing that we may not find common ground on. But nonetheless, again as I said earlier, our partnership reflects the diversity of our state.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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