Big Gretch: Genuine, Focused, and Confident
Having earned the nickname of Big Gretch in Detroit and on social media, Gretchen Whitmer has broad statewide appeal. Described by those who know her as a true Michigander, she is a self-described progressive. Born and raised in Michigan, she has spent her entire life in the Great Lakes State, attending Michigan State University, where she received both her B.A. and J.D. In 2000, she was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives, winning re-election in 2002 and 2004, before becoming a state senator in 2006. She subsequently served two terms in the state Senate (and made history as the first female Democratic leader from 2011 through 2015) and left due to term limits.
Shortly afterward, in 2016, Whitmer was selected to serve the remaining six months of the then-outgoing Ingham County prosecutor, Stuart Dunnings III, after he was arrested and charged with prostitution-related crimes and willful neglect of duty. During her tenure, she brought stability to the office and left the position upon expiration of her term on December 31, 2016.
A mere three days later, on January 3, 2017, Whitmer filed paperwork and announced she would run for governor of Michigan. In August 2018, she captured the Democratic nomination for governor, winning all 83 counties in the Democratic primary and securing 52% of the vote – more than 20 percentage points ahead of the next closest competitor. She went on to defeat then-Attorney General Bill Schuette in the general election, capturing 53% of the vote – winning the governorship by nearly 10 percentage points and outperforming then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s 2016 turn with nearly every demographic. “After the 2016 election, I decided I was going to get right into the race for governor. I filed on January 3rd, before Trump was even sworn in,” she shares. “We were reeling from the results in the presidential election, and I was looking around, and I said, ‘I’ve got to show up everywhere, I’ve got to get to all 83 counties and run a campaign that is person-to-person, well, as much as it can be in a state of 10 million people, and stay focused on the issues that really matter,’ because when you show up like that, you do not get distracted by things that maybe are not front and center for voters – you stay focused.”
Everywhere she went, from the Upper Peninsula to downtown Detroit, Michiganders articulated their frustration regarding infrastructure problems. “People would say, ‘I just want you to fix the damn roads,’” she says. “And that became the clarion call of the campaign – we’re going to ‘fix the damn roads.’ It was not poll-tested, it was not something that I came up with, it was what I heard from the people of Michigan. When you show up and show people who you really are – that you care about them, and that you’re willing to listen to them and work on the things that are going to improve their lives – that brings people out and gives them confidence in you and earns their support. Speaking the truth and being genuine, that’s what people want.”
2020 has been a memorable year for Governor Whitmer, making a lot of national headlines. She was selected to deliver the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February. Over the summer, it was rumored that then-presidential candidate Joe Biden was seeking a woman to be his 2020 running mate, and Whitmer was on the shortlist, while serving as a national co-chair of Biden’s campaign. In October, it was revealed that the FBI had uncovered a kidnapping plot against Whitmer by two militia groups. During the month of November, she dealt with some lawsuits filed against Michigan by the Trump campaign and Republican voters in an attempt to contest the presidential election results.
To say that it has been a challenging year for Whitmer would be an understatement. As it relates to COVID-19, she was quick to act. Her initial focus was on limiting the spread by protecting the most vulnerable populations across the state. She took the virus and her responsibility seriously and implemented emergency powers to ensure the safety of all Michiganders. More than 61% of Michigan voters have supported her handling of the pandemic. “Early in our experience with COVID, I was fortunate to have some phenomenally talented people around me. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, our chief medical executive, is also an emergency-room doctor. She is unflappable. I am not an epidemiologist, I am not a public-health expert, I have a lot of experience in various ways, I’m a lawyer, former lawmaker, former professor, so I found the smartest people I could, and I listened to them,” she says. “This is something that was sorely lacking in the White House – understanding where your talents end, where you need to find people, and listen to them.”
She has been vocal about what she sees as a lack of a national strategy. Although Michigan had gone through exponential growth over the last couple years, the state struggled to procure PPE, like most states. “The White House essentially told us, ‘Go find it on your own,’” Whitmer contends. A bidding competition between states, private businesses, and the federal government for healthcare supplies needlessly drove up prices in a time of emergency. “Throughout this pandemic, I’ve built stronger relationships with my fellow governors, as we are all confronting similar situations,” she adds. “I think many of us – both Republican and Democratic – would recognize that the inconsistent, erratic, incorrect information that has come out of the White House has undermined our efforts to keep people safe.”
Michigan was hit hard by COVID-19 early in the pandemic. While New York City remained the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak, other cities like Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago were being monitored as emerging hotspots. With Detroit seeing a flood of cases, Whitmer had to act aggressively. “The most important thing we could do was to minimize person-to-person contact. The virus does not travel, people travel, so we moved quickly to take action,” she recalls. “We have saved thousands of lives in Michigan. Studies have shown that had we waited a week or a month, or not done anything, like some states, the death toll would have been much higher, and the impact on the economy would have been far worse. Doing the right thing and following science were good for saving lives.”
Today, when not focused on the pandemic, Whitmer continues to fight for building equity into the Michigan education system, with an emphasis upon those who need greater support, to level the playing field. In addition, she recently announced a plan for Michigan to be carbon-neutral by 2050 in an effort to reduce the state’s carbon footprint. “That’s really aggressive and something we cannot wait on, we joined the U.S. Climate Alliance in the first days of my administration,” she explains.
This past year, Whitmer has received a lot of national attention, creating a sensation both bitter and sweet, but that has made her a better governor, leader, and individual, to fight for and protect the people of Michigan. “When the president singled me out, I did not like it, and I was very worried about what it would mean for me to get help into Michigan. However, I knew I was elected to do a job, and I speak what I believe to be the truth, I tell it the way it is. This is a moment where governors have been thrust into the limelight, and none of us want to be in a position where we are making the tough pandemic choices we have to make, but we’re doing it because no one in Washington, D.C., was at the reins,” she asserts. “I am always going to step up when there is a need for leadership. The voters will ultimately decide what all of that means, but any attention that I can get onto the state of Michigan – whether it is in my conversations with Joe Biden, or it is on national television, where I can tell the Michigan story and talk about what’s happening here, or it’s giving the State of the Union response to Donald Trump, as Speaker Pelosi asked – any opportunity I have where I can do something good for the people I serve, I’m going to take it, and I’m never going to apologize for it.”
During times of crisis and reinvention, her two dogs, Kevin (named after Kevin Malone from The Office) and Doug (named after Officer Doug Penhall from 21 Jump Street), are constantly underfoot, as she has been working remotely in 2020. The dogs and her two teenage daughters have been her rock through it all. “I was one of the governors that had to cancel my own daughter’s graduation, and that didn’t make me very popular at home,” she laughs.
Writer: Matt Anthes
Photographer & Videographer: Bradley Piri
Editor: Eiko Watanabe
Special thanks to Michigan.gov (@mi_gov - www.michigan.gov) & EPK Media (@myepk & @epkmedia - epkmedia.com)