Governor Granholm's Rise to Politics

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009; 3:43 PM

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is a darling of moderate Democratic politics who would become the first justice in nearly four decades without experience as a judge--and the first since the Great Depression born outside the United States.

Granholm, 50, is in her second term of a governorship that has been defined largely by the persistent economic troubles of her state, the heart of the U.S. automobile industry with unemployment that remains highest in the country.

Since she was elected in 2002, Granholm has focused on trying to lure other employers to Michigan, strengthening education, revising taxes, and ideas such as a "cool cities" initiative to deter talented young residents from moving away.

Her path to political power runs through Hollywood, Harvard Law School and a series of public-sector legal jobs of relatively low visibility until she catapulted to her first elected office as Michigan's attorney general.

Granholm is a Catholic who favors abortion rights. As attorney general, she supported a change sought by gun rights advocates that made it easier to carry concealed weapons. She also expanded the office's consumer protection work and created a unit to pursue internet crimes.

She grew up in a Republican family, and the first president for whom she campaigned, while still a teenager, was GOP candidate Gerald R. Ford. But she has long displayed strong Democratic loyalties and a sensitivity to civil rights.

"I occupy the radical center," Granholm has been quoted as saying. "That's where the sensible policy is made."

Born in British Columbia, she moved with her family to California at age four when her father, a son of poor Swedish immigrants, got a job as a bank teller, eventually becoming a bank manager. At San Carlos High School south of San Francisco, she was chosen as a mediator during a period of racial tension. She also was selected "foxiest" in her graduating class and won the Miss San Carlos pageant.

After high school, she moved to Los Angeles to become an actor. She graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but was not chosen for roles. Her sole television appearance was as a contestant on "The Dating Game."

She has portrayed that phase of her life as ill-conceived. "Ronald Reagan once said you have to be a good actor to be a good politician," she has been quoted as saying, "but the reality is that I was a lousy actress, and I can't sing, and I can't dance."

She was the first in her family to become a U.S. citizen and eventually enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, becoming her family's first college graduate--a Phi Beta Kappa member with a double major in French and political science.

She entered Harvard Law, where she protested for divestment of the university's holdings in then-apartheid South Africa. She edited the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and wrote, among other things, an article advocating government openness, even on national security matters. In law school, she also ran across Dan Mulhern, a Michigan native a year ahead of her, who proposed 15 weeks after they met. They have three children.

From Cambridge, the couple moved to Michigan, where she clerked for an appellate court judge on the Sixth Circuit, Damon J. Keith--whom she still calls a main mentor--known for landmark rulings: against school segregation in Pontiac, Mich., and against wiretapping without a warrant during the Nixon administration.

Granholm went on to two legal jobs in the office of the Wayne County Executive, an influential Democrat, interrupted by a four-year stint as a federal prosecutor. When she ran for attorney general in 1998, her first election campaign, she became the only Michigan Democrat that year to win a statewide race.

Political friends and opponents alike cite her charisma and keen listening skills--the kind of common touch Obama has said he would seek in his first nominee to the high court. "I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles as an essential intredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes," the president said the day Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter announced his retirement.

Just before the gubernatorial primary the summer of 2002, in which she defeated two more veteran Democrats, Granholm was quoted as saying in the Detroit News: "The Republicans have this Horatio Alger view, that people ought to pull themselves up by their boot straps. Well, some people were not issued boots."

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