Susan J. Demas: From ‘fix the damn roads’ to give us the damn masks: Whitmer’s governorship takes an unexpected national turn

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives a COVID-19 update at the state Capitol, March 30, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer photo

As COVID-19 rips through Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spends her days tracking down ventilators and N95 masks for jammed, desperate hospitals, working to secure as much federal help as possible, and trying to reassure anxious and terrified residents.

This wasn’t the year that Whitmer — or any of us, of course — envisioned at the start.

She spent much of her first year in office clashing with a Republican Legislature on her campaign pledge to “fix the damn roads” and trying to undo measures passed during eight years of total GOP rule, like strict Medicaid work requirements. After the Democrat had the temerity to veto cash for cherished conservative agenda items like private schools and a national anti-abortion group, she had to fend off GOP power grabs (and a barrage of partisan attacks, like the Senate majority leader telling college students she and Democrats were “on the batshit crazy spectrum.”)

“We’ve had our tussle with the budget, but in year one, that’s kind of to be expected,” Whitmer diplomatically told reporters during a year-end interview in December.

So year two was supposed to be about making progress on her priorities. Armed with the experience of 14 years in the Legislature (and four as the top Senate Democrat), Whitmer found a stopgap measure in bonding for major roads. But she still hoped to work with Republicans on a long-term solution to the $2.5 billion annual (and growing) infrastructure problem. She wanted to invest more money in education, from preschool to postgrad, and finally pass her Michigan Reconnect program to help adults afford to go back to college or trade school.

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It was also supposed to be an exciting (and yes, slightly melancholy) time when Whitmer’s oldest daughter would graduate and head off to college, something she acknowledged while giving the official Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address last month (which feels like last year). Her youngest daughter isn’t far behind.

As a single mom in the Senate, she used to rush from committee hearings to pick them up from activities and camp (I bumped into her several times doing the same thing). And now, like so many parents of a certain age, she’s having to let go as her kids find their own place in the world.

There was also the 2020 election. A distinctly joyful campaigner, Whitmer was looking forward to working to get a Democrat elected president. After sitting the contest out (and unhappily watching female and candidates of color drop out en masse), she endorsed her longtime friend, former Vice President Joe Biden, in early March before Michigan’s primary, noting that he always “had our back” in Michigan when the auto industry almost went belly-up.

At his last Detroit rally, Biden, in a very self-aware moment, linked hands with Whitmer, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), saying, “I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else. There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”

That naturally fueled speculation about Whitmer as a vice presidential pick. But she was already a rising star, with national Dem leaders tapping her to give the party’s rebuttal to Trump. Smart analysts who know that Michigan is a must-win state had observed her strong win over two well-funded Bernie Sanders-style men in the primary — winning 83 of 83 counties — and already had her on their lists.

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And then the coronavirus hit. Michigan now has the fourth-most cases in the country. We’re closing in on 7,000 cases and 200 deaths, with metro Detroit as the epicenter for now. Whitmer just lost her friend, state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit), who had coronavirus-like symptoms and may be the first state lawmaker in the nation to have died of the disease.

Hospitals are starting to hit capacity and doctors and nurses are running perilously low on personal protection equipment (PPE).

“My No. 1 priority is protecting Michigan families from the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer told me Monday. “Right now, me and my team are working around the clock to secure personal protective equipment for our health care professionals and for Michiganders across the state. We’re working on recruiting doctors and nurses to come out of retirement to help out at our health care facilities, and encouraging Michiganders to donate blood, donate money to their local food banks or donate PPE to their nearest hospital.”

To make sure that the state has enough money to battle the pandemic, Whitmer just vetoed $80 million from a bipartisan spending plan — something all leaders agreed to — which included funding for Michigan Reconnect. In times of crisis, that’s one of the many tough choices that has to be made.

Whitmer has taken other bold action that hasn’t been popular with everyone — especially powerful corporate lobbyists — closing schools, shutting most businesses and banning groups from gathering, culminating in a statewide “stay at home” order through April 13. (Anyone who thinks this would have happened under Republicans running for governor two years ago, Trump ally former Attorney General Bill Schuette or former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley — who lobbied against a state shutdown as head of the Small Business Association of Michigan — is fooling themselves).

Whitmer vetoes spending to funnel more money to COVID-19 response

One of the most unbelievable parts of the fight against COVID-19 is that Whitmer has had to clash with and cajole the Trump administration to secure help, be it PPE or a disaster declaration. The president bragged Friday he told Vice President Mike Pence not to take Whitmer’s calls.

“Don’t call the woman in Michigan. It doesn’t make any difference what happens,” Trump declared. “… You know what I say? If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.”

This isn’t the first time that a powerful Republican man pretended not to know Gretchen Whitmer’s name to try and put her in her place. During the ’18 campaign, Schuette smirkingly called her “Jennifer” — a not-so-clever callback to Michigan’s first female governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm.

Whitmer has never personally attacked Trump and brushes off the insults. “I don’t care about partisan fights or getting nicknames from the president,” she told me. “When I ran for governor, I didn’t run against Donald Trump. I ran for working families. For educators like my grandparents. And for people who need quality, affordable health care, like my mom did when she was battling brain cancer.”

Naturally, her tussle with Trump has made national media take notice, from the Washington Post, with columnist Karen Tumulty championing Whitmer as vice presidential material, to the New York Times, where anonymous Trump allies were given space to trash her as “inexperienced” (even though she’s been at this 12 years longer than the fumbling president who last month called COVID-19 a Democratic “hoax.”)

But time and time again, Whitmer has told annoying reporters like me that she’s not interested in leaving for Washington. And after covering her for 15 years, I have no reason to doubt that. She’s spent her entire life in Michigan (earning two degrees from Michigan State), raised her family here and has repeatedly turned down attempts to recruit her for Congress.

Trump brags he told Pence not to take Whitmer’s calls on COVID-19 help for Michigan

What this crisis has done is prove that Gretchen Whitmer is the right person to steer Michigan during these frightening times. We need smart, empathetic leaders who know their way around government bureaucracy and can comfort people losing everything. The contrast to her former computer CEO predecessor Rick Snyder — who incompetently and emotionlessly presided over the Flint water crisis — couldn’t be clearer.

But Whitmer is emphatic that she’s just doing the job she was elected to do.

“Nobody runs for governor expecting a crisis like this. But when it happens, you step up, put partisanship aside, and do everything you can to protect the people,” she says. “We will get through this together, as Michiganders first.”

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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.