From coronavirus to unrest, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shaped by crises
LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on a pledge to fix Michigan’s roads and schools. Now, she’s trying to fix damn near everything.
Just as the coronavirus pandemic was slowing in Michigan, historic floods prompted mass evacuations in mid-Michigan last month. Now, as those waters receded, protests over police brutality erupted into violence and destruction in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Detroit and other cities, as they have nationwide.
“There’s so much pain right now,” Whitmer told a local reporter Monday morning as she surveyed damage in downtown Lansing after late-night protesters had smashed windows of the governor’s executive office building and vandalized small business storefronts, including her husband’s dental office.
“We’re working our way through a global pandemic, add a 500-year flood on top of it and of course this” — mass protests over police violence against African Americans — “is years in the making of abuse and sadness.”
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Experts say Whitmer’s policy agenda is now largely an afterthought after the last few months, as the first-term Democrat confronts a projected $6.2 billion budget deficit prompted by the coronavirus pandemic — and an increasingly combative relationship with Michigan’s Republican led-Legislature.
Whitmer testified Tuesday on her coronavirus response before a congressional panel, and her national profile has grown amid the pandemic as she is under consideration as a potential running mate for her party’s presumed presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
“In my lifetime, no Michigan governor has had to deal with this many things,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political consultant for the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest firm in Lansing.
“Her core agenda at this point has to be triage. There are not going to be the opportunities for bold new initiatives, because we’re broke. We’re broke in the current year. We’re broke for the coming year.”
Whitmer had already struggled to enact her agenda in her first year in office, when her plan to fix roads by raising gas taxes 45 cents per gallon was abandoned by some members of her own party.
But her first term will be remembered in two phases: before COVID-19, and after, said John Sellek, a Republican consultant and founder of Harbor Strategic.
“She didn’t initiate any of these problems, but her legacy is going to be determined by how she responds to them and how effective she is in responding to them,” said Sellek, who worked for her Republican opponent in the 2018 campaign, Bill Schuette.
“She is facing something unlike any other Michigan governor has in modern history.”
Racial strife, COVID-19 converge
Whitmer has faced criticism and protests over her aggressive restrictions on businesses and social gatherings amid the pandemic, but she’s been nothing if not visible.
Unlike former Gov Rick Snyder, who limited his media exposure as the Flint water crisis made national news in 2014, Whitmer has held regular press briefings and televised town halls in Michigan.
Whitmer has also been a frequent guest on national television, fueling critics who say her vice presidential ambitions are a distraction. Whitmer, however, says she uses the attention to promote Michigan needs.
With racial tensions mounting nationwide, Whitmer in recent days has urged Michigan protesters to wear masks, practice social distancing and keep the peace in demonstrations prompted by the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died after a white police officer was filmed kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
She’s also sympathized with peaceful demonstrators, calling their response “understandable” while highlighting a “convergence” between the racial strife and the COVID-19 crisis, which has had a greater impact on African Americans who tend to have less access to health care and live in areas with more exposure to environmental pollutants. In Michigan, African Americans comprise about a third of the state’s 57,000 COVID-19 cases, despite making up 14 percent of the population.
“The health crisis and the social crisis will be felt by those who can bear it the least,” Whitmer said Monday: “Communities of color that paid a dear price for a virus that exposed chronic disparities in health outcomes; the poor who will surely struggle to overcome these crises, and black businesses… that will be destroyed in the wake of people coming into communities under the guise of support but who are instigating violence and vandalism.”
Jonathan Kinloch, a longtime Democratic activist and chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party’s 13th Congressional District, called Whitmer’s “measured approach” to racial tensions “absolutely appropriate.”
Whitmer needs to “listen” to the African-American community, Kinloch said. But then she and other leaders must “come up with some tangible reforms, where its’ front and center, that chokeholds are illegal.”
“The whole reason for this environment to have been even created is because of absence of any serious conversation on police brutality against blacks,” said Kinloch, who previously worked for Whitmer as a community liaison.
“Every few years, we’re right back here.”
Trump, who has clashed with Whitmer amid the pandemic and called her “that woman from Michigan,” on Monday lashed out at her and other governors for failing to quell the violence, telling them they have to “dominate” activists or “look like a bunch of jerks.” Whitmer chided Trump in response, arguing he is “determined to sow the seeds of hatred and division.”
Whitmer said Monday she is reviewing legislation introduced by state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, that would require all new law enforcement officers in Michigan to complete training on “implicit bias,” de-escalation techniques and mental health screening.
“There are a lot of people of goodwill who want to solve this problem, and that it probably looks like a multi-faceted agenda,” the governor said.
Whitmer is leaning in part on her lieutenant governor, Garlin Gilchrist, the first African American to win election to that post in Michigan history. She had already tapped Gilchrist to lead the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities, whose work takes on new significance in light of protests.
Gilchrist also headed up a criminal justice reform task force that rolled out 18 policy proposals in January.
“To all of the people who are screaming for justice and equity… I hear you,” Gilchrist said Monday. “To everyone who feels silenced, I will use this position to help uplift your voices.”
Whitmer has mobilized the National Guard to assist police in Grand Rapids and Lansing, where local leaders have implemented curfews to avoid riots.
Hemond, the Democratic consultant, said she’s done a good job attempting to ease tensions.
“That’s the sort of things we should be seeing from the president and from other governors right now: calling for calm, calling for people to engage with the ideas being expressed and not to participate in violence,” he said.
“This is a huge national issue that has been with us since before the official founding of the country. There’s not much that an individual governor can do to make it a ton better on their own, but they can make it worse.”
Protests pose risk amid virus
Republican legislators, along with state and national party leaders, have criticized Whitmer for her response to the coronavirus, including extended business closures that have shuttered large sectors of the economy and driven more than 1.3 million Michiganders onto the unemployment rolls.
The governor has also faced scrutiny over a contact tracing contract awarded to a Democratic political consultant, which she quickly canceled after it became public, along with nursing home policies and reporting delays.
Activist groups, including organizations aligned with Trump and the anti-vaccination movement, have led a series of large anti-Whitmer protests at the Michigan Capitol.
Whitmer has criticized activists who ditched masks but brought rifles, confederate flags and sexist displays to those demonstrations. She called the protesters dangerous, suggesting attendees may have spread COVID-19 and warning that they could “ironically” force her to extend restrictions.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, Whitmer on Monday lifted her stay-at-home order and announced plans to open restaurants, bars and retail shops across the state within the next week.
The governor said Monday she also has a “high level of concern” that recent protests against police brutality could also spread of COVID-19.
“Not wearing masks and projecting [voices,] which is what was happening at the demonstrations, is precisely how this passes,” Whitmer said.
Despite some controversy, polls have shown more than 60 percent of Michigan residents approve of Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic.
“I’m frustrated — everybody in the world is frustrated — by not being able to do certain things, but you don’t want this thing to come roaring back,” said Bill Rustem, a Republican political adviser who worked with Snyder and former Gov. Bill Milliken.
Battling floods, Legislature
As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough, the failure of two dams in the Midland area last month prompted Whitmer to declare a separate state of emergency to mobilize a response to floods that forced some 10,000 local residents to flee their homes.
Republican officials that represent the area thanked her for the quick response but bristled when she refused to allow restaurants in the region to immediately reopen to serve displaced residents beyond carry-out.
In a Monday press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic, after fielding questions on the coronavirus and racial strife, the governor defended her decision to ask the state environmental department to investigate the flooding even though it was the agency that was supposed to regulate the failed dams.
“We think it is important that we have the expertise in this area to do the initial investigation,” she said. “I have confidence that we will be precisely that, and it will be above reproach.”
Trump last month approved a national emergency declaration requested by Whitmer. That will position the state for financial assistance to respond to the flooding, which the Whitmer administration estimates impacted 5,745 parcels with a total building value of $878 million in Midland County alone.
Any additional costs borne by the state will only complicate pending budget discussions. Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature face a $6.2 billion shortfall over the next 18 months and are constitutionally required to adopt a balanced budget by Oct. 1.
Without a federal bailout, which Trump has so far resisted, major spending cuts are expected in state governments around the country.
Those hoping for productive negotiations should pin their hopes on Whitmer and House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said Hemond.
That’s because the relationship between Whitmer and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, is “poisonous” right now, he said.
Shirkey has blasted Whitmer’s slow pace for reopening businesses as coronavirus case counts decline and erupted when her communications director leaked a private email in which his office had proposed a related deal.
Tensions came to a head last week when Shirkey accused Whitmer of lying and attempting to “cover up” her husband’s decision to name drop her while trying to get an Antrim County marina to put their boat in the water for the summer season.
Whitmer called her husband’s comment a bad joke, described Shirkey’s remarks as “incredibly inappropriate” and jabbed back at the Senate GOP leader by saying she hopes his “emotions will stop getting the better of him.”
Sellek described Whitmer’s relationship with the GOP-led Legislature “one of the worst, if not the worst” in Michigan history.
Republican leaders and Whitmer had already clashed her first year in office, and the governor largely sidestepped them since, enacting her own bonding plan to fix highways and then responding to the coronavirus through executive order.
“That’s caused a deeper split, and that’s going to make coming back together to fix these budgets even harder than anything we’ve seen before,” Sellek said.
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