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Gretchen Whitmer says she accomplished more than her record shows.

November 6: Gretchen Whitmer projected winner in Michigan governor race

At two gubernatorial debates this month, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette tried to convince voters that his Democratic rival, Gretchen Whitmer, did not accomplish as much in her time in the state legislature as she claims.

“Gretchen Whitmer only passed three bills in 14 years,” Schuette said of Whitmer's time in the House and Senate, her last four years as Senate Minority Leader.

The attack is intended to cast doubt on Whitmer’s effectiveness as a leader ‒ skills that will be critical for Michigan’s next governor, particularly if she’s elected and one or both chambers of the legislature remain in Republican hands.

Related: Fact-checking Michigan’s second, and final, governor’s debate
Related: Fact-checking the first Michigan governor’s debate

So Bridge examined Whitmer’s legislative record, including some significant policy achievements she has cited on the campaign trail as evidence of her quiet, bipartisan work ‒ expanding Medicaid, negotiating the “grand bargain” that helped the city of Detroit exit bankruptcy, and protecting students from bullying.

It’s impossible to quantify whether Whitmer is a champion of bipartisanship or if she’s embellishing her role, since the question is subjective and people from both major parties have varying opinions.

But on the major policies she named, mostly legislation led by Republicans, the public record indicates, at the least, that the measures likely needed Democratic support to pass ‒ even if some in the GOP suggest they didn’t require much effort from Whitmer.

Her bipartisan contributions were a factor cited by the Detroit Regional Chamber in recently endorsing her candidacy, breaking with most other Michigan business groups that offered their support to Schuette.

Whitmer flicks away Schuette's criticism with two arguments: First, that she was in the minority party while in Lansing, which made it difficult for any Democrat to pass their own bills. And second, that she did in fact accomplish quite a bit, working behind the scenes and in a bipartisan fashion to move legislation, and not worrying whether her name was attached.

“You can get a lot done,” Whitmer said at one debate, “if you don’t care about credit.”

Outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, along with Republican legislative leaders, publicly credited Whitmer's leadership for helping with passage of Medicaid expansion and supporting the plan to raise public and private money that allowed Detroit to exit bankruptcy.

She also stood with Snyder and Republicans as the governor signed the bill intended to protect students against bullying. Whitmer credits her caucus with forcing Republicans to drop a controversial religious exemption in the anti-bullying bill.

“It’s incredibly difficult when you are in the minority, particularly when you are the minority leader, because in many ways your job is to be the voice of the opposition,” said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit chamber, which hadn’t endorsed a Democrat for governor since 1990.

“To do it successfully, you have to do it in a way that allows you to not sever any relationships, because there are going to be times in the minority when you do have influence and the ability to advance an agenda and shape your own agenda,” Williams said. “I think she did that very well.”

Yet some Republicans who served with Whitmer, even those who offered her credit, question whether a Whitmer administration could avoid the bitter budget fights and government shutdowns the last time Michigan had divided party control in Lansing, under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Others are outright pessimistic.

“She never has been bipartisan,” said term-limited state Sen. Rick Jones, a Republican from Grand Ledge who clashed with Whitmer on the bullying bill. “She’s been a Democrat attack dog.”

Other GOP lawmakers took aim at Whitmer’s most notable bipartisan achievement: Working with Snyder to narrowly pass Medicaid expansion. They contend the Medicaid bill was not as heavy a lift for Whitmer and Democrats as it was for Republicans, since most Democrats overwhelmingly supported expansion while Snyder had to sell it to fellow Republicans. 

“When she says that she worked with Gov. Snyder (in) getting health insurance for (680,000) people, well, that was tailor-made for her,” said Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a Republican from Macomb County’s Harrison Township. “I voted against it. But that particular piece of legislation, she really didn’t have to work too hard.”

About those three bills 

As Schuette noted repeatedly, Whitmer is listed as the lead sponsor on just three bills that earned the governor’s signature two while she was in the House, from 2001 to 2006, that increased construction permit and license fees for campgrounds and public swimming pools, and easing sanctions against mail-order pharmacists in some circumstances.

The third bill that bears her name, adopted during her last year in the Senate in 2014, would have increased the Earned Income Tax Credit from 6 percent to 20 percent and also raised the homestead property tax credit. It was adopted, but never enacted, because it only would have taken effect if voters approved a ballot initiative in 2015 to pay for road repairs. (That measure went down in flames.)

The $1.2 billion road-funding plan ultimately shepherded by GOP lawmakers materialized in 2015, after Whitmer had termed out of the Senate.

But Schuette’s attack ignores the fact that Whitmer spent all of those years in the minority party ‒ and never was in a position to drive Michigan’s policy agenda. To accomplish anything as a Democrat required Republican support.

But the record shows she tried. Whitmer is credited with introducing 180 bills, plus several more resolutions, from 2001 until 2014, according to state legislative records.

Related: 2018 Bridge Michigan Voter Guide: Links to our relevant election coverage

Whitmer joined the House in 2001, when it was under Republican control. Democrats took the House in 2007, but by then Whitmer had moved to the Senate, which has been led by the GOP for more than 30 years.

She says she remains proud of her 2013 role in passing Medicaid expansion.

“It shows I can cross the aisle and I can deliver, and I don’t get caught up in credit the way that some people do,” Whitmer told Bridge after the first gubernatorial debate. “Bipartisan work is what we need to strive for in this state, and (Schuette) shows he’s not able to do that. And I have a record of getting things done.”

Williams, of the Detroit chamber, said counting how many bills a legislator gets passed is one way to measure effectiveness. But there are other ways to be effective without sponsoring bills, he added, from introducing the right amendment at the right moment, to holding a conversation in private that advances negotiations, to rounding up votes for a bill someone else introduced.

“Those are less-tangible ways to measure it,” Williams said, “but it certainly points to her effectiveness.”

Whitmer told Bridge via email that it was often difficult for Democrats to get their bills taken up by a committee. The majority party controls all House and Senate committees and decides which bills will be given a hearing and votes.

“The majority party would often take bipartisan bills that were sponsored by Democratic members, make minor revisions and then re-submit the bills with Republican sponsors prior to a floor vote,” Whitmer said. “On rare occasions when our bills would get a hearing ‒ like we did with the Senate Democrats’ ‘Michigan 2020 Plan’ in 2012 ‒ Republicans made it clear they wouldn’t vote to advance the legislation to the floor.”

Introduced in 2012, the Michigan 2020 plan would have awarded high school graduates grants to attend community colleges or public universities in the state, to be paid for by eliminating some corporate tax credits. Whitmer was not the lead sponsor on bills in the package, though she supported them along with all other Senate Democrats.

The bills were given a hearing in the Senate finance committee, but never sent to a floor vote. The committee chairman, Brandenburg, said at the time he didn’t believe the bills had Republican buy-in, and he personally wouldn’t support them.

Brandenburg told Bridge that then-Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville told him he and Whitmer were negotiating separate legislation and Whitmer wanted the finance committee to take up the Michigan 2020 bills in exchange for Democrats’ support on the other legislation.

“(Richardville) gave me the option to say yes or no. I said yes because it was a subject that I thought worth talking about,” Brandenburg said. “We did have the hearing, but it was understood beforehand that there would be no voting.”

On bipartisanship, Brandenburg said: “I would never give her an A, but I would not give her an F, either.” 

Expanding Medicaid

Exhibit A in Whitmer's bipartisanship claim is adoption of the Healthy Michigan Plan, which expanded Medicaid to nearly 680,000 low-income adults.

Gov. Snyder considers Medicaid expansion one of his signature policy achievements. He pushed for lawmakers to take it up, and signed the bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Matt Lori, into law in September 2013.

In a news release about the signing, Snyder highlighted the roles both Richardville and Whitmer played in its passage.

Richardville, of Monroe, said that while Republicans enjoyed a supermajority in the Senate, there were some issues ‒ like Medicaid expansion ‒ on which he couldn’t count on enough votes from his caucus to pass legislation.

Just eight Republicans in the Senate voted to expand Medicaid, which passed 20-18 in the upper chamber.

While Whitmer brought the Democratic votes, Richardville said Snyder was in the driver’s seat to get Medicaid expansion done and that Richardville spent more time negotiating with fellow Republicans. The governor flew home early from a trade trip to Israel and pressured lawmakers to vote

At one point, Richardville recalled, Whitmer approached him seeking a better deal in exchange for Democratic votes. He was in no mood to accommodate her.

“I’m going to have two-thirds of my caucus upset about this for years to come,” he said he told her. “I’m not adding any icing to your cake.” He said Whitmer “stood off and let the Republicans get the votes necessary to supplement hers.”

Tupac Hunter, a former Democratic state senator who served as minority floor leader at the time, acknowledged the pressure they faced to push for Democratic priorities in exchange for their votes. Whitmer pressed Democrats on the importance of working with willing Republicans to expand Medicaid, he said, even if they couldn't get any Republican promises in return. As it turned out, more Senate Democrats voted for passage than Republicans.

Truly, we want to see health care get expanded, but the Republicans aren’t willing to put up the votes at all, so why should we carry the water?” Hunter said Democrats wondered at the time. “How much heavy lifting did they do?

“It’s laughable," he said, "to suggest that somehow the Medicaid expansion was going to be an easy lift, because the governor couldn’t depend on the Republican caucus in the Senate so we had to put up Democratic votes for it to happen.

Bill Ballenger, longtime Lansing political analyst and former Republican legislator, dismisses that interpretation of Whitmer's work. “The idea that somehow she’s this great dealmaker, reaching across the aisle, is just absurd," he said.

On Medicaid expansion and Detroit's grand bargain, Ballenger said: “Snyder won on those. But he didn’t win because of Gretchen Whitmer. Gretchen Whitmer did not go to Republicans and say, 'You know what, you really got to help your governor out here.'”

For her part, Whitmer commended Republicans on the Senate floor while also acknowledging business groups, health care providers, patients and others with an interest in the issue for working together on expansion.

“People who are often on opposite sides of issues agree that this is the right way to move forward for Michigan,” she said. “So what we have here is a unique Michigan product, and it has reforms that are considered the holy trinity in health care: cut cost, increase quality and improve access.”

Detroit’s ‘grand bargain’

Among other issues highlighted by the Detroit Regional Chamber in its endorsement of Whitmer is her position on the so-called “grand bargain” in 2014 that brought Detroit out of the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.

Foundations, donors and the state of Michigan together pooled $816 million that helped preserve the Detroit Institute of Arts collection and reduce cuts to city pensioners.

Snyder, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Republican and Democratic legislators all noted the bipartisan effort it took to get legislation adopted ‒ especially among lawmakers who don’t represent the city of Detroit and surrounding region.

“We didn’t know that Detroit would have the comeback that it’s had in the last five years. It was not a slam dunk,” Williams told Bridge. “It was absolutely the right thing to do, but politically, it was a harder vote than I think people get credit for.”

Whitmer did not sponsor any of the bills, since they originated in the House. But again, Snyder mentioned Whitmer and other legislative leaders in a news release in noting the “hard work from people across party lines as well as across the state.”

Richardville told Bridge that Snyder took the lead and “Gretchen and I were willing partners in getting things done.”

“The thing that brought Democrats and Republicans together was the fact that there were people involved,” Richardville said in remarks during the bill signing event in 2014. “We went across the aisle, we worked together and it was about people. It wasn’t about politics. And I’m proud to be a part of that.”

Richardville told Bridge that because Whitmer spent her legislative career in the minority, bipartisanship is “not a natural for her. But when she’s forced into it, she knows how to play the game. She would rather be in charge. Who wouldn’t?”

It's hard to know unless she's elected “whether she becomes a leader in reaching out and trying to get things done to satisfy both sides, or if she tries to get more and more for her side and stalemates.”

Anti-bullying bills

Whitmer was a proponent of bills to toughen anti-bullying laws in Michigan schools. Her advocacy on one of the bills earned the enmity of Rick Jones.

Two bills she introduced in 2011 that would have required school districts to adopt policies against harassment, bullying, intimidation and cyberbullying never made it out of committee. A similar effort failed to advance in 2010.

Then in December 2011, Snyder signed an anti-bullying bill that was introduced by Republican state Rep. Phil Potvin of Cadillac.

A similar version in the Senate, sponsored by Jones, of Grand Ledge, added language that would have created an exception for “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” That version passed the Senate without Democratic support.

In a floor speech that would gain national attention, Whitmer blasted the religious amendment, calling it a “Republican license to bully.”

Jones would vote for Potvin’s bill in the House, telling Bridge that leadership opted not to move his version once it became controversial. Whitmer appeared alongside Potvin and Richardville when Snyder signed the bill.

Jones, who’s now term-limited in the Senate, told Bridge that Whitmer never approached him privately and asked him to remove the religious exception before taking to the floor to deliver her speech.

Instead, he said, Whitmer made a public political move that attracted national attention and misrepresented what he said was the intent of the provision to protect someone who expressed a religious or moral belief, such as opposing same-sex marriage, from being accused of bullying.

“I honestly don’t believe there’s a bipartisan bone in her body,” Jones said. “She’s been an attack dog.”

But Hunter, who now serves on the board of Build a Better Michigan, a federal 527 organization that supports Whitmer's campaign, said Whitmer did not stand in opposition for the sake of it. Rather, she opposed Republican priorities that Democrats didn’t agree with, he said, from right-to-work laws, emergency managers and differences on education and health care policy goals.

Feb. 2019: Pro-Whitmer group broke Michigan campaign finance laws, Benson finds
July 2018: Group tied to Michigan governor candidate Gretchen Whitmer reveals donors​

“She was a strong leader, and just because you voice strongly your opposition to what the other side’s doing, that doesn’t just make you this person that’s hyperpartisan and impossible to get along with, as the Republicans are trying to paint her now."

"That’s not true," he said. "I was there.”

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