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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Gretchen Whitmer: Michigan governor’s issues, biography, controversies

whitmer on the stage
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, is running for re-election against Republican Tudor Dixon.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is locked in a close race with Republican challenger Tudor Dixon ahead of the Nov. 8 general election and largely campaigning on her record guiding Michigan through multiple crises over four years.

This week, Bridge Michigan has recapped what you need to know about candidates for attorney general and secretary of state, as well as candidates for other offices in our voter guide.

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Now, we turn to the race for governor, a four-year position that pays $159,000 per year and is the chief executive of a government with 47,000 workers and a $77 billion budget. The thumbnail sketch of Dixon, Whitmer’s Republican challenger, is at this link.

Here’s what you need to know about the Whitmer:

Biography

Whitmer, 51, is the Democratic incumbent elected in 2018. She lives in East Lansing with her husband and has two daughters and three stepsons.

Whitmer served in the Michigan House from 2001 to 2006 and in the state Senate from 2006 to 2015. In 2016, Whitmer was appointed to serve as Ingham County prosecutor for six months after Stuart Dunnings III pleaded guilty to prostitution-related charges.

Related:

Whitmer beat Republican Bill Schuette in 2018 to become Michigan's 49th governor.  Her running mate is Garlin Gilchrist II, 40, of Detroit, a software engineer and former community organizer.

Like other elected officials, her tenure as governor was dominated by the COVID pandemic, which has killed nearly 40,000 state residents and upended the economy, schools and daily life. 

Whitmer’s four years were also marked by protests over police brutality in 2020 and a historic flood in mid-Michigan. Later that year, the FBI arrested 14 men accused of orchestrated a plot to kidnap Whitmer from her vacation home in northern Michigan.  Seven men have been convicted or pleaded guilty in the case.

Top issues

According to Whitmer's campaign, she's focused “fighting like hell’ to keep abortion legal; improving the economy, roads, safe drinking water; and helping guide Michigan's recovery from the pandemic.

Education

Under Whitmer's administration, the state made the most significant investment in years in K-12 education, $18.4 billion. Buoyed by billions in federal COVID bailout money, Whitmer crafted the plan with legislative Republicans that prioritizes deep financial investments in student learning, mental health support, and more than $2 billion to attract and retain staff. 

In October, Whitmer signed a Michigan Achievement Scholarship program that will provide high school graduates up to $5,500 a year for public universities, $4,000 a year for private colleges and $2,750 a year for community colleges.

The state, at Whitmer’s behest, also invested $55 million in the state’s Michigan Reconnect program, which provides free community college and job training programs for qualified adults 25 and older.

Economy

Michigan’s economy was growing slower than the rest of the nation before the pandemic caused massive disruptions and led to 1 million short-term job losses in the state. Michigan has gained back all but 82,000 of those jobs, but remains in the bottom tier of states in that regard.

Whitmer has worked with Republicans to lure big manufacturing plants into the state, 

Creating the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve (SOAR) Fund, a $1 billion-plus incentive program. In the past year, companies have pledged to build four battery plants and bring more than 4,000 jobs to the state. Whitmer also has worked to develop Michigan into a hub for electric vehicles, including a network of charging stations.

Whitmer pledged as a candidate in 2018 to repeal the state's pension tax on retirement, but it remains on the books because she couldn’t come to an agreement with legislative Republicans.

The governor agreed with the Legislature when approving GOP-backed tax breaks: A $200 million measure to allow small businesses to claim bigger federal deductions and an $80 million change allowing owners to exempt more equipment from local personal property taxes.

Whitmer also has vetoed a number of Republican tax cuts even though the state has a multibillion-dollar surplus. She said the cuts would have required reductions in state services.

Infrastructure

In 2018, Whitmer published a 14-page plan to fix Michigan's water systems and protect the environment. The governor worked with the state Legislature to expedite lead pipe replacement in cities, and replacement projects are nearly complete in Flint and Benton Harbor.

Four years ago, Whitmer's most prominent campaign promise was to "fix the damn roads" with a $3 billion yearly proposal in new state funding. Her efforts to do so by raising taxes failed, so she has borrowed money from billion-dollar bonds and used federal funding.

Michigan's road quality improved slightly in 2021. Still, the Transportation Asset Management Council expects roads to deteriorate, and nearly half could be in poor condition by 2033.

Controversies 

Whitmer ran for office touting her ability as a former legislator to work with Republicans, but she has repeatedly clashed with legislative leaders over the pandemic and economy. 

Double standard?

The governor flew to Florida and back over four days in mid-March 2021 amid the COVID-19 pandemic to visit her father, who she said suffers from a chronic health condition. She was not yet fully vaccinated during the trip, and her administration discouraged out-of-state travel. 

A couple of months later, in May, Whitmer violated her COVID-19 rules when she and others were spotted at the Landshark Bar and Grill in East Lansing.

Her husband became national news in 2020 when he asked a marina owner in northern Michigan if he could get his boat into the water early because he is married to Whitmer. The governor said it was a failed attempt at humor.

COVID orders

The Michigan Supreme Court in 2020 ruled that Whitmer exceeded her authority by continuing to issue business and social distancing orders even though the Legislature had rejected her call to extend an emergency declaration. 

After the ruling, the Whitmer administration continued to issue COVID orders under a separate section of law allowing the state health director to do so instead.

The governor’s performance during the pandemic has been a source of debate: Michigan had a longer lockdown than most other states, which studies show saved lives but did so at significant cost to the economy. 

Nursing homes

In April 2020, Whitmer ordered that nursing homes admit patients recovering from COVID-19 following hospital stays. After complaints from legislators upset that those patients could infect healthy residents in the same facilities, the state changed that rule in June 2020, telling facilities they would only be required to accept those patients if they had a dedicated COVID-19 wing. 

The order was controversial, but it was never actually enforced, according to both the Whitmer administration and officials from the Health Care Association of Michigan, which represents nursing homes across the state.

Overall, more than 5,400 nursing home residents have died during the pandemic, while another 1,800 have died in homes for the aged and foster care. 

Transparency

During her 2018 campaign, Whitmer promised to expand the Freedom of Information Act to include the governor's office and Legislature. Since then, she has not opened her office to such requests. The Michigan House has twice passed bills that would subject lawmakers and the governor to some public records requests, but the Senate has not moved on the policies. 

In August 2021, Whitmer's legal team asked to review any communications from her office before it released them to the public. A top government advocate said the policy was problematic, and a conservative advocate called Whitmer hypocritical, given her 2018 campaign promise of increasing transparency. 

Trying to raise taxes

Also, in a 2018 campaign promise, Whitmer promised to fix the roads and scoffed at the suggestion that she wanted to raise fuel taxes by 20 cents per gallon. T

Three months into her term, Whitmer proposed a 45-cent-per-gallon tax hike that would have generated about $2.5 billion yearly for state and local road repairs. 

Whitmer’s stances

Abortion

Whitmer supports legal abortions, and she's involved in a state lawsuit challenging a suspended 1931 Michigan law criminalizing the procedure unless it saves the mother's life. 

The Democratic incumbent vowed to "fight like hell" to keep abortion legal in Michigan when a U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark case protecting people's right to the procedure. 

Whitmer's lawsuit isn't the only legal challenge against the suspended law, but an Aug. 19 order barring county prosecutors from enforcing it stems from her challenge. 

Guns

Whitmer supports "red flag" gun laws that allow judges to issue an order that seizes someone's guns if they are a danger to themselves or others. 

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In a July executive order funding police departments, Whitmer urged officers to find out what causes gun violence and to "get illegal guns off the streets." She also supports banning assault weapons and strengthening background checks and waiting lists. 

Term limits and financial disclosures

Whitmer supports Proposal 1, a ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to change lawmakers' term limits and require financial disclosures of lawmakers and statewide elected officials. 

In a statement to Bridge, Whitmer's campaign said she supports more transparency and voluntarily disclosed her finances, so she believes other candidates should do so.  Dixon has not disclosed her finances.

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