My body may have been cold on Jan. 1, but my heart couldn’t have been warmer as I had the honor of being one of the thousands of friends freezing at the Capitol with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as she took her oath of office.
I was proud to serve in the Michigan Legislature with Whitmer for almost a decade, including serving side-by-side during her first term in the House and again in the Senate from 2007 to 2011. And it is that relationship and experience that has me just as excited professionally as I am personally about her taking over the state’s highest office.
Counting Whitmer, I have had the privilege of working closely (sometimes with, sometimes against) our state’s last four governors. I have seen all kinds of personalities, leadership styles and political strategies — and have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t.
But this is my first time watching someone forge and hone all of those things firsthand.
Whitmer was only 29 when she and I first served in the House together, making her one of the youngest lawmakers at that time. Her legislative career and policy perspectives were shaped by the life changes that impact us all. During our term together in the House, Whitmer unexpectedly found herself in the sandwich generation, caring for her own kids and her ailing mom at the same time.
The birth of her daughters and the loss of her mother gave her a new, albeit difficult, perspective on the struggles so many Michiganders around the state face, and galvanized her appreciation for the role lawmakers and public policy play in helping our fellow residents.
I saw firsthand as she drew from those experiences, and they shaped her stances on policies that support new moms and promote equity for women in all regards, the value of health care and the many hurdles that lie within our insurance system.
In the Senate, she continued to gain important experience and learn some valuable and very different lessons. She found her voice as the Senate minority leader, becoming the first female caucus leader in the Senate. Her incendiary, sometimes highly personal speeches and sharp criticism of political gamesmanship made her a hero to many around the state. She conveyed a level of authenticity, courage and conviction never seen in the Capitol before.
But it also came at a personal cost. As the state’s biggest defender of progressive values and the thorn in the Republican Senate majority’s side, the future governor faced major opposition. Lawmakers in the majority rarely took up her legislation and stymied her accomplishments any way they could.
And 99 percent of the time, regardless of her brave and passionate stances, her Republican colleagues had the votes and passed many of their harmful, hyper-partisan bills anyway. But with her work on the successful Healthy Michigan Plan and an expansive roads package, Whitmer also saw what could be achieved with bipartisanship.
These are some of the experiences that have informed Whitmer’s work, and will certainly shape her policy goals and approaches now that she is governor.
She talked the talk, and now she’s walking the walk. She has transitioned from a firebrand to a statesperson and has been exactly what the people of Michigan needed at those respective times.
Now is the time for civility, compromise and, most importantly, progress, which can’t be achieved without the previous two.
Staying true to her word, the new governor is building bridges — not just to cross partisan divides, but to connect all Michiganders. For too long, many in our state have been left behind. They’ve been on opposite shores, and the gulfs that separate them go far beyond political leanings — they’re gaps in income, education, values and basic rights.
Over the last several years, as Michigan’s economy and employment rate have slowly recovered, the Michigan League for Public Policy has been trying to draw attention to the widening moat between our residents. It has been a tale of two Michigans.
The League has put out countless reports about how your standing in our state — your education outcomes, your health, your employment opportunities, your income and more — varies dramatically by the color of your skin, where you live and how much money you make.
And in every category, kids and people of color and people living in poverty are at the bottom of the scale. In fact, Michigan is one of the worst states in the nation to be a child of color. Our state’s rural residents are struggling significantly, as well.
These are the things that have to change if we want Michigan to thrive as a state. It is clear that Whitmer understands that. She is committed to building bridges, not just between parties but between people.
In her short time in office, she has already used her executive power to ensure that state employees act swiftly and responsibly so that threats to public health like the Flint water crisis can be prevented, encourage the state to award more contracts and direct more investment to low-income communities, provide protections for the LGBTQ community and ensure equal pay for female state employees.
This is the Gretchen Whitmer I know. This is the kind of governor Michigan needs. And I am excited to work with her in the years ahead as we reconnect our government and public policies with the people — all the people — they are meant to serve.