The Michigan primary elections are exactly two weeks from today.
Stateside is finishing up a second round of gubernatorial candidate interviews. Today, we turn to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer.
Whitmer served in the state Legislature from 2001 to 2015, including four years as minority leader of the Michigan Senate. She joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss her ability to talk across the aisle, education reform, and campaign donations.
I was struck by a response you gave to MLive's Emily Lawler — when she asked how you would run Michigan if you're elected governor. And you pointed to Republican William Milliken as your inspiration. Why was that?
“I think that right now in an era where we’ve got so many politicians that are quick to demonize one another, demonize anyone, who doesn’t see the world the same way, we really have to get back to building bridges here in Michigan. And Bill Milliken was someone who I think had great leadership skills, worked with the Legislature, worked right over them when he had to, but was a professional and an optimist and was not beholden to a party but was beholden to the people of Michigan. And I think that's really important, and that's what I find so appealing about the work that he did as governor.”
Whether November brings a blue wave or not, many believe the state Senate will remain in Republican hands possibly because of the way the legislative district maps are drawn. If you become governor, how will you work with a chamber that, in all likelihood, will try to stop your agenda?
“I think that it's crucial that we have got the ability to cross the aisle in order to get things done. When I was in the Legislature I was, you know, an ardent advocate for the real things when my values were on the line. But when I have the ability to cross the aisle, when it was time to put the votes together to expand Medicaid or anti-bullying protections for kids, I really worked very well with the Republicans, and I think that's something that's important.
You know, I’m beholden to the people of our state, not to a campaign donor, not to a political party, but to the people of our state. I'm a proud Democrat, but I'm also a woman who is a mom and doesn’t accept excuses in my household, and I don’t accept them from our government either. We’ve got to work together to solve problems.”
How would a Whitmer administration deal with struggling, low-performing schools? What would you do differently?
“I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t threaten to close down schools that don’t meet our expectations. I would wrap them around with the support they need so they can be successful. States that have turned around struggling districts are states that have made a greater investment, whether it's in our teachers and our para-pros and the dedicated public servants who go into education, all the way to the foundation allowance for kids in high poverty districts, a weighted foundation allowance.
But also ensure that our young people have the wrap-around services that they need. The philosophy in Lansing right now out of the Republicans is that if you're not reading by the end of third grade, you get punished by being held back. All the research in the world shows that's the worst thing that you can do for that student and that student's family. What we should be doing is having a no-excuses philosophy that we’re gonna wrap our students around, we’re gonna make sure every student is successful, not punishing when our system fails to meet their needs.”
How would you, as governor, lead in efforts to improve public transportation, not just in Southeast Michigan, but throughout the state?
“I support the RTA. I voted in favor of, you know, letting the region move forward on it when we had the chance to vote on it in the Legislature. It's something that is absolutely critical. You're right, when Amazon declined to keep Michigan in the top 20, they cited talent and they cited transit.
You know everyone, in order to get ahead, needs a good job. But you’ve got to be able to get to that job, and our lack of transit is hurting us in competition with the rest of the world, but it’s hurting our ability for families to take care of themselves. And so I believe that once I fix the damn roads that people like Mark Hackel can perhaps find their way to embracing a regional transit. Because I know employers, whether they are in Macomb County, Oakland County, or Wayne County are relying on the workforce to get reliably, predictably, to their jobs, and this is something that is of great economic benefit for not just the families and the workforce that relies on it, but for the businesses who need that skilled workforce to get to work."
Late yesterday, the group Build a Better Michigan — the nonprofit 527 group supporting you — voluntarily released the report it had sent to the IRS that reveals the donors to your $1.8 million advertising campaign. It showed that your father is one of the only Blue Cross-Blue Shield-affiliated donors to donate — that your donors are liberal groups and unions, nothing unusual.
But your rivals have had months to press their narratives that you are accepting donations from corporations who want to maintain the status quo—that you're too tied to Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Could your campaign have done anything differently—or earlier—to counter the criticism?
“You know, I have been running the only grassroots campaign of anyone running for governor. Eighty-four percent of the people that have contributed to me reside within our state, 83 percent have contributed a hundred dollars or less. No one else on either side of the ballot can boast that fact, and that's what a real grassroots movement looks like. We collected petition signatures through a volunteer army in all 83 counties. I'm really proud of the campaign that we’ve run. This Build A Better Michigan is an outside organization. I'm glad that they released the information. I know that they’ve been doing everything by the book, and I am committed to doing that.”
If you do not win the Democratic nomination on August 7th, do you have any reservations about endorsing the winner?
“I’m a Democrat, and I think that the prospect of a Bill Schuette governor would set us back, incredibly far back, as a state, and so I am going to support the Democratic nominee.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry.