An earlier version of this column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on Jan. 10, 2019.
Tonight’s State of the State Address marks the 21st I will have watched since first becoming a legislator. Counting Governor Whitmer, I have had the privilege of working closely (sometimes with, sometimes against) our state’s last four governors. I have seen all kinds of personalities, leadership styles and political strategies—and have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t.
But this is my first time watching someone forge and hone all of those things firsthand.
I was proud to serve in the Legislature with Governor Whitmer for nearly a decade, including serving side-by-side during her first term in the House and again in the Senate from 2006 to 2010. And it is that relationship and experience that has me just as excited professionally as I am personally about her taking over the state’s highest office.
Governor Whitmer was only 29 when she and I first served in the House together—one of the youngest lawmakers at that time. Her legislative career and policy perspectives were shaped by the life changes that impact us all. During our term together in the House, Governor Whitmer unexpectedly found herself in the sandwich generation, caring for her own kids and her ailing mom at the same time.
The birth of her daughters and the loss of her mother gave her a new, albeit difficult, perspective on the struggles so many Michiganders around the state face, and galvanized her appreciation for the role lawmakers and public policy play in helping our fellow residents. I saw firsthand as she drew from those experiences, and they shaped her stances on policies that support new moms and promote equity for women in all regards, the value of healthcare and the many hurdles that lie within our insurance system.
The League has been around since 1912 and has operated under 23 governors. Many of the policies expected to be discussed tonight are issues the League has been working on for years or even decades. In conjunction with the start of a new legislative session and a new governor’s term, the League has released a people-driven proactive policy agenda entitled The Owner’s Manual for Michigan. The Owner’s Manual contains policy briefs on child care, preschool, PFAS, lead and other public health threats, and healthcare and the Healthy Michigan Plan—all topics likely to come up in tonight’s speech.
In the Senate, she continued to gain important experience and learn some valuable and very different lessons. She found her voice as the Senate Democratic Leader, becoming the first female caucus leader in the Senate. Her incendiary, sometimes highly personal speeches and sharp criticism of political gamesmanship made her a hero to many around the state. She conveyed a level of authenticity, courage and conviction never seen in the Capitol before.
But it also came at a personal cost. As the state’s biggest defender of progressive values and the thorn in the Republican Senate Majority’s side, the future governor faced major opposition. Lawmakers in the majority rarely took up her legislation and stymied her accomplishments any way they could. And 99 percent of the time, regardless of her brave and passionate stances, her Republican colleagues had the votes and passed many of their harmful, hyperpartisan bills any way. But with her work on the successful Healthy Michigan Plan and an expansive roads package, Governor Whitmer also saw what could be achieved with bipartisanship.
These are some of the experiences that have informed Governor Whitmer’s work, and will certainly shape her policy goals and approaches now that she is governor.
Staying true to her word, the new governor is building bridges … not just to cross partisan divides, but to connect all Michiganders. For too long, many in our state have been left behind. They’ve been on opposite shores, and the gulfs that separate them go far beyond political leanings—they’re gaps in income, education, values, basic rights…
Over the last several years, as Michigan’s economy and employment rate have slowly recovered, the Michigan League for Public Policy has been trying to draw attention to the widening moat between our residents. It has been a tale of two Michigans.
The League has put out countless reports about how your standing in our state—your education outcomes, your health, your employment opportunities, your income and more—varies dramatically by the color of your skin, where you live and how much money you make. And in every category, kids and people of color and people living in poverty are at the bottom of the scale. In fact, Michigan is one of the worst states in the nation to be a kid of color. Our state’s rural residents are struggling significantly as well.
These are the things that have to change if we want Michigan to thrive as a state. It is clear that Governor Whitmer understands that. She is committed to building bridges, not just between parties but between people.
In her short time in office, she has already used her executive power to address government bureaucracy and threats to public health, encourage the state to direct more investment to low-income communities, and provide protections for the LGBTQ community and ensure equal pay for female state employees. Since she took office, she has been taking the time to meet with state employees across the departments and talk with constituents from around the state to learn more about their concerns.
This is the Gretchen Whitmer I know. This is the kind of governor Michigan needs. And tonight she will lay out her plan for Michigan. I am excited to listen to her speech tonight and to work with her in the years ahead as we reconnect our government and public policies with the people—all the people—they are meant to serve.