Whitmer: I know what it’s like to be ‘written off’ like Biden

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives the Democratic response to President Trump's State of the Union address, Feb. 4, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer photo

Now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was endorsed in 2018 by both presidential frontrunners, former Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

But on national television Thursday morning, Whitmer delivered a key endorsement for Biden, just five days before Michigan’s high-stakes primary.

Biden embraces a young child during a campaign stop in Dearborn | Ken Coleman

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, the Michigan Advance asked the governor why she decided to back Biden over Sanders.

“I’ve been watching this presidential race for the better part of the last year and a few months. I’m always focused on the dinner-table issues,” she said. “And I think that showing up and showing that you can get things done … When the chips were down with the auto industry, it was [President] Barack Obama and Joe Biden that had our back.”

Whitmer also noted she was “written off” during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign like Biden was before his South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday comebacks.

“I think there were many points along the campaign trail that people, Democrats — even women Democrats — asked the question, ‘Are we ready for another woman governor? Can I win this thing?’” she recalled.

She will now serve as one of Biden’s campaign co-chairs. Her national profile rose as she was tapped to deliver the official Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech last month.

But long before then, Whitmer’s name had been floated as a vice presidential pick, although she’s repeatedly said she’s not interested. Whitmer told the Advance Thursday that she and Biden didn’t discuss the prospect — but she does have a few ideas for him, although she wasn’t willing to share them.

Jennifer Granholm endorses Joe Biden? You betcha.

Whitmer’s endorsement adds to several in Michigan, including former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

The governor also discussed how the candidates’ economic agendas play in the Upper Midwest, the departure from the race of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the importance of expanding health care and more.

The following are excerpts from the interview:

Michigan Advance: Are you disappointed to see Elizabeth Warren drop out today like four women did before her?

Whitmer: I was hopeful that we would have a diverse group of phenomenal candidates for the long haul in this campaign. She’s so smart and has had such a powerful message. And so I am sad to see that candidates like Elizabeth Warren or [U.S. Sen.] Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) or [U.S. Sen.] Cory Booker (D-N.J.) or Mayor Pete [Buttigieg] or [U.S. Sen.] Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), for that matter, weren’t able to stay in through the Michigan ballot and beyond. But at this point, I feel good about where Joe Biden is on the issues that matter most to me, and I think to most Michiganders.

Elizabeth Warren after the first debate with Jennifer Granholm | Andrew Roth

Michigan Advance: Both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden endorsed you in 2018. So why did you decide to go with Joe Biden today?

Whitmer: I’ve been watching this presidential race for the better part of the last year and a few months. I’m always focused on the dinner-table issues. And I think that showing up and showing that you can get things done … When the chips were down with the auto industry, it was [President] Barack Obama and Joe Biden that had our back. 

Bernie Sanders at the NAACP candidate forum | Andrew Roth

When we expanded health care in Michigan, it was because of the work that Barack Obama and Joe Biden did on the Affordable Care Act. This is meaningful to people here in Michigan. It’s personal when almost 700,000 of our residents get health care, when the auto industry that was written off by so many was supported and it’s come roaring back. And it’s been so important for our economy. 

I’m getting questioned by my fellow Michiganders all the time: ‘Who are you going to vote for?’ And I thought now is the time to jump in. And I feel good about Joe. Joe knows Michigan. Joe has shown up for Michigan when we needed him to. I enthusiastically have cast my vote for him.

Michigan Advance: Why do you think Biden’s economic agenda and support for the auto rescue is a better message for the Upper Midwest than Sanders’ message on trade and inequality?

Whitmer: Well, I think that we have lots of work to do on a lot of fronts. There’s no question. I believe though that the record of the Obama and Biden administration was really critical for our state when we needed leadership in Washington, D.C., the most. 

And I have a great deal of respect for Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren, Sen. Booker and Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar. I think that there was so much talent in this field and so much source of inspiration. 

Breaking: Whitmer endorses Biden ahead of Michigan primary

And at this point we all have to cast our vote in Michigan and I hope everyone does. And my vote is for Joe Biden. If he is the candidate, I know there is space for the supporters of all of these other candidates at the table that he will set. And if he is not, I will enthusiastically support whomever is. 

I think at this juncture, though, I’ve cast my vote and I am absolutely invested in making sure that we’ve got leadership in D.C. that is going to focus on the things that matter to Michiganders.

Michigan Advance: So you said on ‘Morning Joe,’ that ‘as a candidate who has been written off,’ you appreciated Biden’s comeback. So who wrote you off and when?

Whitmer: Oh, I think there were many points along the [2018 gubernatorial] campaign trail that people, Democrats — even women Democrats — asked the question, ‘Are we ready for another woman governor? Can I win this thing?’ I mean, all along the trail. And so it’s not one person or one instance. But I think that that was a continuing challenge. 

And what I look for in candidates is obviously that they’re focused on the issues that are really going to improve people’s lives, that they show up and they listen and that they can get things done and grit their teeth, especially in the hard times. And I think that those are important strengths that resonate with all sorts of Michiganders.

Susan J. Demas: Gretchen Whitmer will be a national star, whether you like it or not

Michigan Advance: OK. You know I have to ask, did Biden talk to you about being vice president?

Whitmer: No.

Michigan Advance: Are you interested?

Whitmer: No. I am interested in helping make sure that he’s got a fantastic running-mate and I’ve got some good suggestions for him, but we did not have that conversation.

Michigan Advance: You want to share these suggestions?

Whitmer: No, that was your last question. [laughs] I think everyone has put a little bit of thought into what the ticket might look like. And I certainly have some thoughts and I think it’s important that they’re shared at the appropriate time and we’re not there yet.

Avatar
Susan J. Demas is a 19-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.