How the pandemic turned Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer into an unlikely firebrand

Gretchen Whitmer has been called a lot of things in the last few weeks.

The Michigan governor is a “rising star for Democrats,” according to the Washington Post, and a potential vice-presidential pick for presumptive nominee Joe Biden. According to President Donald Trump, though, she’s “the woman in Michigan” or “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.” And if you ask right-wing protesters, she’s a tyrant trampling on Michiganders’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic.

The thing is, though, Whitmer has never been a political firebrand. The Lansing native ran for governor in 2018 on a platform of fixing the state’s roads and cleaning up its water, and while she’s taken progressive stances on some issues, she’s typically portrayed as a centrist by opponents and supporters alike.

So how did Whitmer become the subject of nationwide controversy? It started with Michigan’s coronavirus crisis — the state is among the hardest hit, with nearly 34,000 cases and more than 2,800 deaths as of April 22. In March, Whitmer called out the Trump administration for failing to help Michigan and other states get tests and protective equipment — and Trump responded by insulting her. Soon Michigan became one of the most visible sites of conservative protests against social distancing rules — protests encouraged by Trump’s tweets.

Amid all this (and perhaps to some degree because of it), Whitmer is reportedly being considered as a possible VP candidate this November. And she’s become one of the most visible Democratic faces in the fight against coronavirus, leading a group of governors in calling on Trump for more aid to states and writing a New York Times op-ed about the need for social distancing measures despite the economic toll they take.

Whitmer insists she’s not seeking the national spotlight. “I was thrust into this moment because of this pandemic,” she told Vox. “I’m going to take every opportunity I can to help people understand how serious this moment is, so we can save lives.”

But whatever her intention, the national spotlight has found her, and now Americans across the political spectrum are watching to see how she handles the current crisis — and President Trump.

During the pandemic, Whitmer has emerged as a foil for Trump

Whitmer’s nationwide profile started rising before the current crisis hit. In February, she delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address, shouting out the work of Democratic governors around the country to expand health care and boost working people’s pay. “I’d need a lot more than 10 minutes to respond to what the president just said,” she told Americans. “So instead of talking about what he is saying, I’m going to highlight what Democrats are doing.”

Getting picked to deliver the State of the Union response is typically a sign of party favor, and Whitmer “occupies an important position” in Democratic politics right now, Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist, told Vox. Michigan is key for Democrats because of its electoral votes and the way it’s been hit by recent economic crises — and because Trump won there in 2016. Meanwhile, there’s an increased admiration within the party for the leadership experience that comes with being governor, Sefl said.

“Governors are executives,” she explained. “That’s a distinguishing characteristic from being one of a hundred senators or one of hundreds of members of Congress.”

And when the coronavirus pandemic hit the US, governors became more visible than ever. With the Trump administration slow to act and inconsistent in its messaging, it’s often been up to state governments to decide how best to keep their residents safe.

Michigan emerged early as a hotspot of the virus, becoming the fourth hardest-hit state in the country by the end of March. And on March 20, Whitmer expressed a frustration shared by many governors when she said, in a CNN interview, that she had sought help from the Trump administration in getting tests and protective equipment and had not received it.

“I don’t want to be in a sparring match with the federal government,” she said. “But we are behind the eight ball because they didn’t do proper planning.”

Trump seemed to take that as an invitation to, well, a sparring match. He complained about Whitmer on Fox News, saying, “I don’t know if she knows what’s going on, but all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” And on March 27, he said in a White House briefing that he had told Vice President Mike Pence, who’s in charge of the federal coronavirus response, not to call “the woman in Michigan.”

“If they don’t treat you right, I don’t call,” he said. The same day, he called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” on Twitter and said she “likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude.”

Meanwhile, Michigan continued to grapple with a growing number of coronavirus cases and deaths. And on April 9, Whitmer extended the state’s stay-at-home order and added additional restrictions, including requiring large stores to close sections devoted to gardening supplies, paint, and furniture.

This requirement, in particular, incensed some conservatives, who viewed it as arbitrary when other goods, like lottery tickets, could still be purchased in the state, Vox’s Jane Coaston and Aaron Rupar reported. “I can’t go to the hardware store and buy grass seed for my lawn, buy a gallon of paint so that I can find myself doing a home project so I don’t go absolutely insane being locked at home,” Matt Seely, spokesperson for the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told Vox. “I mean, none of that makes any sense.”

On April 15, about 3,000 protesters, led by the coalition, descended on Lansing, Michigan, to oppose Whitmer’s order in what they called “Operation Gridlock.” While protesters were told to stay in their cars, some got out and stood close together, breaking social distancing guidelines.

“People coming together, congregating without masks, within six feet of one another, and then going back out to other parts of the state is exactly what threatens to continue the spread of Covid-19,” Whitmer told Vox. “I know every one of us wants to reengage our economy when it’s safe to do so, and each time this happens, it makes it less likely that we can take those additional steps.”

Trump, however, praised the protesters, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” on April 17. He also called for the “liberation” of Minnesota and Virginia, states with Democratic governors that had been the site of protests.

The protesters seem to represent a small minority of Michiganders, and Americans as a whole. As of April 15, 81 percent of Americans wanted to maintain social distancing for as long as necessary to curb the spread of coronavirus, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll. As Whitmer put it, “People understand the severity of the issue.”

But the protests have been highly visible, in part because of Trump’s encouragement. And now, Whitmer has emerged, in some ways, as Trump’s antithesis — the sober, reasonable voice advocating social distancing while Trump sows chaos and talks about injecting disinfectants.

Whitmer also stands out on the national scene for another reason. She’s “a woman governor with a very hard-hit state,” Sefl said. “That alone makes her stand apart from the coverage.”

Her gender has certainly colored Trump’s response to her — it’s hard to imagine him talking about “the man in Michigan.” It’s also influenced the tenor of the Michigan protests. Demonstrators in Lansing carried signs comparing Whitmer to “a tyrannical queen and an overbearing mother,” according to MLive, and some chanted “lock her up!” in a callback to the perennial Trump-rally attack on Hillary Clinton.

Press coverage of Whitmer has also taken on a gendered tone. The governor “might seem like a pushover,” Tim Alberta wrote at Politico magazine on April 9. “With the suburban-mom hairstyle, the high-pitched giggle, the nasally accent straight out of ‘Fargo’ central casting, she looks like the type of person—OK, the type of woman—that Donald Trump would chew up and spit out.”

It’s not clear that Trump is better at “chewing up” women than men — in fact, his record with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggests that at times, he’s afraid of women in power. But it’s certainly true that, if Whitmer does join Biden’s ticket in November, she’ll be a target of sexism from the president and likely from his supporters as well.

When asked if she’s been treated differently because she’s a woman, Whitmer just laughed — for a long time. “The reality of being female on the political stage in the United States of America is, of course, we confront that,” she said finally. “I don’t focus on it because I’ve got a job to do, but yes, of course, it’s there.”

She could have a national future — but she’s still battling the crisis at home

Given her very public back-and-forth with Trump, it’s perhaps no surprise that Whitmer has been getting more attention as a possible running mate for Biden in recent weeks. The former vice president hosted her on his podcast on April 6, calling her “one of the most talented people in the country.” She’s also made made frequent appearances on television and in the press. “She’s become somewhat familiar in the political spotlight, she’s embracing that role,” Sefl said.

When it comes to the vice-presidential race, Whitmer told Vox that “I have an incredible amount of respect for Joe Biden” and that it’s an honor “to be included in the names of candidates that I know they’re thinking about.”

Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer join Joe Biden onstage at a campaign rally in Detroit on March 9.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

But she says the goal of her public appearances is to educate the public about the virus and get aid for her state, not audition for bigger things. When she gives interviews, she said, “it’s because I want people to know what’s happening here so that I can get some help.”

Still, the vice-presidential race is, of course, connected to Whitmer’s performance in Michigan. Perhaps this year more than ever, what happens in the run-up to the nomination will matter a lot, Sefl pointed out. Because of the pandemic, there may not be a Democratic convention. And Trump may not agree to debates.

“We might be absent those traditional opportunities to view and judge a candidate,” Sefl said. For Whitmer, that means “the persona that she’s really solidifying right now will become that much more important.”

It’s not just about persona — it’s also about what she actually does. Michiganders have generally approved of Whitmer’s handling of the crisis, but the state has also seen enormous racial disparities in the impact of the virus, with black residents getting sick and dying at much higher rates than white Michiganders.

Whitmer has established a task force to address those disparities, led by Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II. And some have praised the governor’s efforts to help the communities hardest hit by the virus, like a moratorium on evictions and an extension of SNAP benefits. “Those are really important policy measures that the state and the governor have taken to mitigate the impact of Covid on black families and all of those who are impacted economically,” Afton Branche, strategic projects manager with the Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility at Poverty Solutions, told Vox.

But the disparities in Covid-19 deaths also point to systemic problems in Michigan that some say the governor has been slow to tackle. One is a lack of access to clean water. Tens of thousands of people in Detroit have had their water shut off in recent years, thanks to high poverty and a lack of programs to make the utility affordable, Justin Onwenu, a Detroit-based environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, told Vox.

Activists were telling the Detroit and state governments before the Covid-19 crisis that lack of water was a public health hazard, but their requests were denied, Onwenu said. Then when Covid-19 started, families across the city had no water to wash their hands.

The governor announced a statewide moratorium on shutoffs on March 28. “This is a critical step both for the health of families living without a reliable water source, and for slowing the spread of the Coronavirus,” she said in a statement at the time. “We continue to work to provide all Michiganders — regardless of their geography or income level — the tools they need to keep themselves and their communities protected.”

But the moratorium came “after weeks and weeks and years and years of pressure,” Onwenu said.

Since the crisis hit, “Gov. Whitmer has been getting a lot of attention, but things are not going well when you look at the racial data,” he said. “I’m a little bit frustrated that the conversation is all around the optics of how things are being handled, and I definitely think that there are a lot of systemic things that have gone unaddressed for far too long.”

Whitmer is pledging to address some of those systemic issues with the task force. “We have to acknowledge the disparities in outcomes that have long plagued the United States of America and the individual states but that now more than ever are front and center,” she told Vox. “It’s got to drive a lot of the work that happens not just in this moment but well beyond it, because this is holding up a mirror to inequities that have been generational and historical in this country.”

Whitmer’s ability to take on those inequities in her state will determine how effective she is in responding to the current crisis — and could have implications for the kind of running mate, and the kind of vice president, she would be. So could the way she continues to respond to Trump.

But Whitmer says she’s not thinking about the national stage yet: “Right now 100 percent of every waking moment is focused on doing what I’ve got to do to help Michiganders get through Covid-19.”


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