The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The turbulent rise of Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Romney Building, where her office is located, in Lansing, Mich., on May 18. (Brittany Greeson/for The Washington Post)

Then the faulty dams burst, the city of Midland flooded to record heights and a quarter of its residents evacuated their homes.

President Trump threatened to withhold Michigan’s federal funds over its plans to send every voter mail-in ballot applications.

And Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faced yet another surreal, television-primed protest of her stay-at-home orders — this time with demonstrators giving free haircuts on the Capitol lawn.

So, a Wednesday.

“In the midst of a 100-year pandemic, we’re confronting a flood that’s the worst in 500 years,” Whitmer, 48, said the following day, during a series of phone interviews from the governor’s residence.

At that moment, Trump was visiting a Ford plant producing ventilators in Ypsilanti, where he defied Michigan orders by not wearing a mask for part of his visit.

“I think it’s unfortunate that all of this is so hyper-politicized,” Whitmer said of the ongoing conflicts. “It’s a public health crisis.”

But this is the state of her state these days.

Michigan was already a presidential battleground. Now, it’s become central to the ongoing clash between public safety and individual freedom. Politics has infiltrated almost everything.

Last week, Whitmer’s husband, Marc Mallory, got her in hot water after trying to get his boat on the lake before Memorial Day at their second home, telling the dock company, “I am the husband to the governor, will this make a difference?” It did not.

His request, posted on Facebook by the dock firm, went viral not Michigan-viral but nation-viral.

“I asked my husband, ‘Did you say something like this?’ ” Whitmer said in a subsequent interview. “He really hadn’t thought anything about it because he thought it was funny. I did not think it was funny.”

It was another Wednesday. It sounded as though this was the umpteenth time Whitmer had relayed this story in 24 hours.

“I think he was genuinely surprised that this not only wasn’t funny,” she said, “but then someone took it to social media and it became a thing.” Including, naturally, a Trump tweet.

These days, almost everything involving Whitmer becomes a thing. A year and a half after becoming governor, she is a news magnet. She is one of three governors who testified before Congress Tuesday on how states have handled the crisis. A day earlier, after Trump called governors “weak” for their handling of the protests after George Floyd’s death, she called his comments “dangerous.”

Before the coronavirus, besides those who saw her deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, few people knew Whitmer’s name outside of Michigan, where she spent 14 years in the legislature, every day of them in the minority.

That changed in March. Whitmer attracted the president’s pique after criticizing the federal government’s pandemic response. Trump dubbed her “the woman from Michigan” and “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer,” the sort of sobriquet he reserves for national rivals.

Now, she is Governor Everywhere.

While she is mostly restricted to the three miles between the governor’s residence and her office, her profile has soared — cresting with a spot on Joe Biden’s vice-presidential shortlist.

Such attention finds her caught between her natural bent toward candor and fulfilling her state’s needs. Be diplomatic, or speak out against the federal government’s actions? Keep a low profile, or accept all those interview requests, from Glamour to Seth Meyers? That she is a telegenic, Democratic female governor in a Midwestern swing state ravaged by the pandemic is key to her ascent — but also the ferocity of her opponents. She demonstrates how challenging it is to become a national political somebody in a matter of weeks.

Whitmer has received multiple death threats on social media. In protests, she has been compared to Hitler.

She was parodied by Cecily Strong on “Saturday Night Live,” cut for time but flourishing on the Internet. Did this happen to Ohio’s Mike DeWine? No, it did not. She hired Pete Buttigieg’s former presidential campaign press secretary, a move Republican adversaries never fail to mention.

And oh, the many lawsuits. From GOP legislators over her extended emergency powers (tossed but pending appeal). From a Democratic state rep alleging defamation (touted by Trump). From small businesses (with a statement of support from the Justice Department claiming her restrictions were “arbitrary and irrational”).

The nation's 10th most populous state, Michigan was walloped early by the coronavirus, suffering the nation's fifth highest number of deaths (more than 5,500) and a staggering 22 percent unemployment rate. It's confronting a projected $3.2 billion budget shortfall.

In April, GOP state lawmakers challenged Whitmer after her administration designated a Democratic-linked firm to manage coronavirus contact tracing. She canceled the contract the next day and denied granting approval. Two independent firms were hired instead.

Republicans charge her executive orders have been too strict, bewildering and, at more than 100, too numerous. “A lot of the orders have been vague and confusing, and sometimes even mistakes,” said Republican state Sen. Ed McBroom.

Why canoes but not motorboats? Why couldn’t people travel to their second homes?

I have a lot of respect for this governor. We have disagreements on how this has been handled,” said Michigan Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican star at age 32. “I have appreciated her personal style of politics while disagreeing on many points of policy.”

Whitmer has benefited from being a governor at a moment when they enjoy unprecedented prominence and power due to the very Trump administration policies she criticized.

“I never anticipated that we would be here in a moment that governors are taking the lead,” she said. “I really believe it would be better for our nation if there was a national strategy.”

The media attention and veep consideration have “made it harder to do my job,” she said. “I’m pretty blunt. I didn’t go looking to be thrown in the national spotlight by the first tweets and criticism by the president. I certainly haven’t looked for national attention for myself. I needed masks. I still need swabs.”

Yet, she believes the constant exposure on TV — her pandemic second home — is working for her state’s nearly 10 million residents. “I want people to understand how devastating this has been for Michigan,” she said. “I know some people criticize this, but the irony is if I wasn’t doing it, I wouldn’t be doing my job well.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has garnered both positive and negative attention on a national level for her state’s handling of the coronavirus. (Video: The Washington Post)

There’s notable restraint when she speaks about national policy. In her criticism, Whitmer rarely mentions Trump by name.

“It’s definitely an added layer of complexity,” she said. “I don’t want to run the risk of insulting someone if that means they might withhold aid to my state when lives are on the line.”

Then again, the day after the dams were breached, she appeared on “CBS This Morning” calling Trump’s efforts to withhold Michigan’s federal funds over mail-in ballot applications “ridiculous,” “scary” and “unacceptable.” On her April “Daily Show” appearance, she sported a T-shirt that read “that woman from Michigan.”

All of which has made many Republicans, who control both chambers of the state legislature, apoplectic.

“She’s on every talk show. She’s touting her wares to get the attention to be the veep for Joe Biden when we’re in the middle of a crisis,” said state GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox, who called Whitmer “highly political and partisan,” likening her “to being the queen of Michigan. It’s her way or the highway.”

Consultant Greg McNeilly, of the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund, said, “Whitmer’s remarkably similar in disposition to the president. Both are incredibly thin-skinned to insults or negative comments, which goes with the territory.” He added, “She’s very stubborn. She can’t admit she’s wrong.”

Despite the lawsuits and raging Facebook groups, 72 percent of Michigan adults approved of how she was handling the coronavirus outbreak in a May Washington Post-Ipsos poll.

Pollster Richard Czuba said that except for Republican men, “she’s got the voters with her.”

Whitmer has lived her entire life in Michigan, attending Michigan State for college and law school. Mallory, her second husband, is a dentist. Together, they have five children from previous marriages: her two daughters and his three grown sons.

Her parents were prominent lawyers who divorced when she was 6. It was a mixed marriage — her father was a moderate Republican, heading the state Commerce Department under Gov. William Milliken before becoming president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; her late mother was a Democrat and an assistant attorney general.

“It was less about politics and party and more about civic responsibility,” Whitmer’s sister, Liz Gereghty, said. Their parents “gave us this sense that there should be meaning in your lives. There should be some good that you’re doing in the world. Some jobs are more important than others.” Whitmer had first dreamed of being a sports broadcaster. Both parents encouraged her to run for office.

In 2000, Whitmer ran for the state legislature and won. She has never lost a race since.

“Fourteen years in the minority keeps you humble and helps you focus on opportunities to seize on when you know you can make a difference,” Whitmer said. One of her key accomplishments, she said, was helping former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder implement Healthy Michigan, the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which was opposed by many Republican legislators.

Her initial years in the legislature were the most trying of her life, she said. Whitmer launched her political career while pregnant with her first child and moved into a new home while caring for her ill mother, who died in 2002. “The way that I got through that period of time was not thinking about the 100 yards down the road but looking at the next five,” she said. “That’s a skill that I developed during that period and staying optimistic.”

In the legislature, Whitmer’s most notable moment came in 2013, as Senate minority leader. After several minutes condemning a proposed bill that would require women to purchase supplemental insurance to cover abortions, even those in the case of rape and incest, she broke from prepared remarks.

“Over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape. And thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy, because I can’t imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker,” a visibly shaken Whitmer told her colleagues. “And as a mother with two girls, the thought that they would ever go through something like I did keeps me up at night.”

She had told almost no one other than family about the assault, which occurred in college.

“We were the closest of friends. I found out about it watching on television,” said Michelle Haghani, who has known Whitmer since fifth grade. “She’s a very public person, but she has a private side.”

The bill passed. Whitmer was despondent until other assault victims contacted her office to share their stories and support.

With a prized block of independent voters, Michigan was one of three critical states — along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — that Hillary Clinton was projected to win in 2016 but lost by thin margins. Two years later, Whitmer won by nearly 10 percentage points.

During the campaign, she intentionally tried to avoid criticizing Trump, she said. In Michigan, swing voters deliver victories.

Her campaign pledge, her mantra, was to “fix the damn roads.” After she won, Whitmer proposed a whopping 45-cent-a-gallon state gas tax that she said was meant as an opening salvo to negotiate a funding solution. Republicans balked. It went nowhere.

“It was an ugly first year,” she conceded. Still, “I never thought I’d say this but, yes, I miss fighting about the roads.”

In late May, Michigan’s coronavirus cases were gradually decreasing. This brought Whitmer some comfort.

“I’m worried about people dropping their guard,” she said. But “I know that the tough work that we’ve done and the hard decisions that I’ve had to make have really made a difference.”

The added challenge, she said, has been the lack of a united national strategy.

“How would this have worked in another era?” she asked. “I think of Barack Obama being greeted by Chris Christie, supporting each other’s efforts” after Hurricane Sandy. “What a different experience. It’s unfortunate. It’s unnecessary. I think there’s a cost to it.”

Other governors have faced opposition to their stay-at-home orders, but nowhere has it seemed as pervasive, nasty and public as in Michigan. It’s Whitmer who is invited constantly on television. It’s Whitmer who is accused of violating her own orders and sneaking out to get her hair dyed. (Not true, she said. One of her daughters touches up her roots.) It’s Whitmer who is subjected to protesters holding AR-15 rifles and hoisting a naked, dark-haired Barbie with a noose slipped around its neck.

And so, the woman question.

“They’re different from what my male colleagues are confronting,” Whitmer said of the attacks. But she cautioned against charging sexism. “There’s hardly ever any benefit for getting in their heads, acknowledging that it’s different.”

Her sister exhibited less restraint. “Straight-out misogyny,” Gereghty said. “She’s the target. She’s always the target. It’s a presidential election year. It’s a swing state. She’s a strong woman. She’s being mentioned as a VP candidate. She’s getting better reviews than the president.”

Her sister added, “There’s not an item on the list that doesn’t terrify the current president.”

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Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

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