From coronavirus to unrest, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shaped by crises

Experts say Gov. Gretchen 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. (Bridge file photo)

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.”

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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Comments

Anonymous
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 6:10pm

She ran on a promise to fix the roads without raising the gas tax then took office and tried to raise the gas tax by 45 cents. This should have been a sign to all citizens of Michigan that she could not be held to her word or be trusted to speak honestly.

If she had handled the COVID-19 response correctly by not placing infected patients back in nursing homes, the death toll would be far lower (metrics for New York which also placed patients back in nursing homes suggest 40% of deaths were in nursing homes) which would opened the state at two weeks ago similar to other states.

And rather than ignoring the need for repairs since she took office, she should have held the owners accountable for repairs and if needed, left the level lower to avoid destruction rather than raising it for fresh water mussels.

She has said the protests are understandable and she is correct on that but to not deal swiftly with the rioters who are destroying cities for fun is also abhorrent.

She has done a terrible job with the three largest issues she has faced since taking office and I fear what the rest of her term holds for Michigan and it's honest citizens.

Thomas smith
Tue, 06/02/2020 - 8:43pm

Amen to that

Carol Van Drie
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:16am

Amen to that and so much more!

How about not filing the proper paperwork for federal aid at the befinning of the COVID crisis then blaming President Trump for not sending federal aid and the media of course, not doing their job i exposing that?

And in addition, the “science and the data” of her not allowing buying of seeds but we can buy pot and beer and other booze? Or the science and the data of in June now, most all cam be opened up except the Barbor she is feuding with so she is going to pinish 1000k beutixians and barbors because she is a perry turant. This article - whilennot anpuff piece - dis not go nearly far enough. And furthermore ther is no way I believe that poll. Impossible that 60% think she did anything well. She has bungled everything from the roads to handling COVID. No way that poll is accurate.

Wondering
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 10:59am

Bridge, so many articles about the governor. What is the legislature doing?

Jay
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:38am

Amen to that and the 60% agreeing with her are located in southern Michigan. Try poling in northern Michigan.

joey gg
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:22am

Here is a terrible person to try to work with towards solutions. Her way or the highway

Ed Haynor
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:54am

I find your analysis of Governor Whitmer quite disingenuous, since she has faced three incredible emergencies that most elected officials ever face, all at the same time. And she has done this through courage, wisdom and competency. Every elected official makes mistakes, but she’s been in the forefront providing the necessary leadership in getting Michigan citizens through these incredible disasters, not hiding in a bunker somewhere.

Certainly, some malcontents can nitpick their way by criticizing her performance, since no one is perfect, but it’s the “real” honest Michigan citizens who realize that Governor Whitmer has been put in a bad way and fully appreciate her governance in getting us through these tough times. And she’s done this basically through no help from our republican legislature.

And speaking of honest citizens, I see you have yet to identify who you are. So, where’s your honesty?

Anonymous
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 5:51pm

Amen to that, and so much more!

Anonymous
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 8:19pm

Not disingenuous in the least. I don't blindly follow one political party and don't treat elections as a game where each position won is a point scored on some imaginary scoreboard.

Feel free to blindly follow either party as you see fit, but you should probably ask yourself why the states with the worst hit cities, Seattle, New York, Detroit, Chicago are run by Democrats. Then ask yourself why those same area have done nothing to stop the riots that have been taking place. Claiming to stand with the protesters but ignoring what they would like to accomplish by condoning rioters and in some instances having the police stand by while the businesses in those areas are looted in front of them. Then look at the states that have reopened and ask why those places haven't had the large outbreaks that the media said would occur.

Then ask yourself why no one has condemned the rioters and looters for not practicing proper social distancing like they did every other protester with in the previous month. Why was isn't it safe then but it doesn't matter now? Because those who have political power don't want you looking at them and questioning the chaos that has been the norm under their lead.

Put plainly, you are a sheep who is shepherded from crisis to crisis by the media and political leadership in both parties. Maybe pull the wool from your eyes and start asking some hard questions.

Kinney
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 6:50am

That's funnier than sit-coms these days. Wow... "And done this with no help from the (GOP) Legislature." Yeah as bad as they are, they had enough sense to not attempt to trample 1st Amendment rights of the citizenry in the name of "safety"(which apperantly is no longer an issue, considering she was marching right along with the non-social distancing protesters). And they also had enough foreknowledge to realize the massive loss of tax revenue would be debilitating to the state. The Governor seemed surprised by the loss of revenue...that alone speaks volumes. Now she's hoping to get the Federal Government to fund the State. I hope they don't...this is her mess; she is the Executive head of the state (to the chagrin of us all). And then when you consider the gross negligence that has resulted in what thousands? tens of thousands? of deaths in nursing homes, (Michigan does not share the data of nursing home deaths related to COVID; I wonder why?) it's criminal behavior

A yooper
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 11:33am

Get a life ya’ll and be grateful you’re still alive.

Right AGAIN
Thu, 06/04/2020 - 3:49pm

Michigan Supreme Court rejects case challenging Gov. Whitmer's emergency powers

The Michigan Supreme Court has refused to directly take up a challenge by the Michigan Legislature to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency powers, saying the case should follow the normal appeal route to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court issued an order Thursday that said: "We are not persuaded that the questions presented should be reviewed by this court before consideration by the Court of Appeals.

Justice Elizabeth Clement, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, joined the three Democratic-nominated justices — Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Justices Richard Bernstein and Megan Cavanagh — in declining to take the case up directly. Justices Stephen Markman, David Viviano, and Brian Zahra, all nominated at Republican conventions, would have taken the case.

https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/06/04/michigan-supr...

V
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:11am

She's not leaving for DC unless the Dems have an election death wish.

Elizabeth Stafford
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:19am

She is a terrible governor. A liar from day one. You cannot depend on a word she says. And then she turns it all around on President Trump as typical Democrats due. Everything is "his fault". I pray to God she does not win a second term.

Anonymous
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 5:54pm

Can we at least agree she didn't spray peaceful protesters with tear gas for a photo op carrying a Bible in front of a church?

Kinney
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 6:53am

That lie has been refuted so much, I don't even feel as though I need to provide a link. It's Jussie Smolett-level fabrication...

Tania Mitchell
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 6:58pm

Let's just all pray to God "his fault" is voted out in November.

Jim tomlinson
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:22am

Thankfully she was in office to handle the challenges. No one ever said roads can be fixed without new funds. The privately held dam was degraded for all of snyder 8 years. Her covide as response was the same as most responsible guvs. The public prefers he and liberals to handle go t by 60%. Shirkey has no policy other than enriching the wealthy, obstructing policy for benefit of the majority . Trump chaos is ending the 40 year Reagan retreat at last. 60% approval rating.. i am with the woman

Soccer Mom Troy
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 7:00pm

We're in good company, outside of the comment section of Bridge. All polls show Whitmer has high approval ratings in Michigan, not so much for the AWOL GOP legislature.

Happy for COVID
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 9:46am

Whitmer is happy that the COVID crisis happened because it made her a national media darling (despite her ineptness at handling it). Without COVID, she would still be a political nobody. She turned nursing homes into death camps with her policies, but you won't hear any of her lapdogs in the media talking about that.

It's strange that the state wasn't "ready" to be opened up 2 days before the riots, but once they started, she miraculously proclaimed that everything was OK and everything could open again (except for those insolent hair dressers and barbers, they needed to be punished more).

Sad
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 7:04pm

No one is happy for COVID, 109,098+ dead in the US, most likely under-counted, very different from lies Trump told us. Thank you , Gov Whitmer for showing Trump what real leadership looks like.

My intelligence...
Fri, 06/05/2020 - 7:04am

I what way has she shown strong leadership? She's a Democrat? Is that all it takes to impress the Constitutional ignorant? She has done nothing...she is responsible for the deaths of countless elderly patients in nursing homes. Which has undoubtedly led to a substantial increase in the numbers of COVID deaths. When asked about it, she refused to answer and instead insisted all questions be given to some doctor. (Who apperantly is making Executive decisions?) She is inept..the state is teetering on bankruptcy, many small businesses will not be re-opening, and there untold thousands who have yet to receive one cent in unemployment funds they are entitled to. And many will not have jobs to return to. I would conclude by giving her some credit for a good decision she has made, but I can't think of a single one...instead I'll conclude with an honest question: why do Democrats think they're so smart when all evidence seems to prove the contrary?

Blah
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:23am

Our Governor is faced with incredibly difficult circumstances. I think she is doing as well as possible and certainly as good as any other past Michigan Governor could do. There was no game plan for the multiple crises affecting our State and as a result, Governor Whitmore has been forced to be creative in her actions and reactions. I think the results have been very reasonable, considering the difficult and unpredictable circumstances.

Jen
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:33am

Karma perhaps? For the millions of lives she destroyed due to her complete shutdown of our state? It's difficult to feel any compassion for a woman who was okay with people starving, being victims of domestic violence and victims of complete mental breakdowns.

Sarah Smith
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 7:06pm

Same karma as all the other states following the same guidelines.

Jon
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:38am

She hasn't been shaped by this crisis, she has been defined and exposed by it. She has failed miserably in her leadership, her denial, and her understanding of both medicine, economy and leadership. Do as I say, not as I do has been her leadership style and she has caused damage to this state, its families and its economy that will take years to repair.

Dave
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:49am

60 percent approval? I have yet to meet anyone who approves of her handling of this entire thing. She has placed politics over the well being of the state, and frankly I cannot stand the dishonesty. I refuse to publicly bash her as she has a tought job. I understand that. She needs to consider all Michigan citizens, not just the ones who will vote for her. Peaceful protests, she hammers, but is a hypocrite when it comes to these people looting. Is the Coronavirus no longer a thing? Or was that just political BS?

Mi.
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 12:06pm

If the gop are this flippin’ mad at the Governor, she must be doing a lot right for the citizens of Michigan.

Todd Priest
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 12:58pm

She's a one termer, one trick pony. AOC with a different paint job.

Decades of neglect
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 1:11pm

The governor is one person leading a state with a GOP legislature that preaches deregulation and abolition of taxes. We need leaders come November with empathy who will stop neglecting our state, leaders who are Pro Life for the living, leaders who treat everyone with dignity, not just the ideologically radical rich, like the DeVos family, who only seek power to enrich themselves and implement their ideological self-interests, at the expense of the majority of citizens.

Sad
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 1:26pm

“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.”

Meanwhile Snyder gave us emergency managers to usurp power from democratically elected communities, more often than not communities of color, and ended up poisoning their drinking water in Flint by recklessly hoping to save some money.

You get what you pay for. Our country spent trillions of dollars to save wall street during the pandemic to the neglect of the roads we drive on, the dams, and all our infrastructure. Most Americans are hurting financially, but not the Trumper elite. It's no wonder riots have erupted in the USA when all countries of the world were afflicted by the same virus and most did not get the corporate welfare that was given here. Yet we still have the most deaths from the virus. Something stinks here. They say the fish stinks from the head.

james roberts
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 1:46pm

OK we all recognize being in charge during any crisis is a thankless job. But those that have an urge to serve look past that for their commitment and lets admit ego, they know better than us and with power can take care of their priorities which should of course be our priorities. Once elected and it turns out we expect them to follow thru on their promises the game gets to be no fun. Gov. Whitmer touted her experience in the legislature to allow her to get things done, however turns out the legislature expects her to follow thru on promises too. It appears it didn't take long for Whitmer to determine another six years of this is not gonna get any easier and that's assuming an unlikely and very difficult reelection in two years, Thank heavens she found an escape plan and she hopes she has done enough to warrant a position in the Biden administration, afraid VP is no longer an option. Caution though, it didn't work for our previous incompetent governor Granholm. She even had to leave the state.

Billhilly
Wed, 06/03/2020 - 10:57pm

She's been a disaster from day 1 when she started the 45 cent gas tax powerpoint tour. Campaigned on a "new ideas to fix the roads" agenda and promptly turned into a tax a spend liberal. Followed that with line item veto's of popular and emotional budget items (school funding and Pure Michigan cuts) that she expected would force republicans to cave to her budget demands only to be left holding the bag. Covid cases peaked on April 2 yet she insisted on forcing small businesses to stay closed for 2 more months while irrationally enforcing and relaxing rules for various industries at random while other states proved you could safely open back up. Blames Trump for her not having enough ventilators, PPE or testing yet demands Feds bail her out due to the completely predictable economic consequences of dictatorial control of private businesses. She still finds time to go on dozens of national interviews (she found somebody to do her hair and makeup - bet it wasn't Carl the barber) and even gets a prime spot on SNL. She may be relishing the national exposure but there is nothing bold or admirable about her horrible, single minded decisions that so adversely impacted so many citizens in this great state. The only way she's at 60% is because so many people - mostly on the public dole - are still getting paid for staying home and "working" and many others are getting paid by the Federal govt. She's a political neophyte who can't get to DC soon enough - for our sake.

Larry Good
Thu, 06/04/2020 - 5:13am

Governor Whitmer has provided consistent leadership during an unprecedented year of crises. Unlike many other states, our Covid-19 caseloads have plunged- a direct result of her actions. Unlike the president, she has been open and focused on public health and empathy with recognition of the pain being felt by so many across America. I don’t believe the analyst in the piece is right that she will lack the resources to advance a policy agenda post pandemic. I think she and other smart governors and local leaders will emerge from managing spread of a deadly virus to drive solutions to critical problems as we rebuild.

Amne
Thu, 06/04/2020 - 6:54am

So...the looters, rioters and murderers don’t spread COVID 19? Our governor condemns those who speak out for their constitutional rights , but states “I’m with you “ to the anarchists who are using George Floyd’s death as a means to spread terror and destroy the fabric of our nation? I can only hope that people wake up to the truth about Whitmer and other elite liberals. They mean to bring us down.