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Whitmer rises to establishment choice in Democrats’ gov race

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Democrat Gretchen Whitmer was a freshman in the Michigan House of Representatives when she had her first daughter. Less than three months after  becoming a mother, her own mom died of brain cancer.

That pivotal first term, full of joy and heartbreak, shaped a legislative tenure marked by resistance and compromise as a perpetual member of the minority party.

“It sharpened my focus in terms of what health care means to people — and daycare," Whitmer told The Detroit News during a recent car ride between recent stops in Lansing and Detroit, echoing a prominent theme of her campaign for Michigan governor.

Gretchen Whitmer campaigns for the Democratic nomination for governor during a stop at Kellogg Conference Center in East Lansing with the Michigan Association of Governmental Employees.

The former state Senate minority leader is now running on — not from — her political experience. She is also running against the grain of a voter climate that has favored outsider candidates such as Republican President Donald Trump and her two primary rivals.

Whitmer, 46, entered the gubernatorial race as the front runner for the Democratic nomination and has secured the endorsements of most traditional unions and party leaders. But her polling lead evaporated as she stockpiled cash while waiting until June to run television ads — a dangerous game of Russian Roulette or a sign of calculated patience, depending on whom you ask.

The East Lansing Democrat left the campaign trail to help her mother recover from a brain surgery in the final weeks before her first election in 2000, which she won by 4,054 votes. When Whitmer returned to work after giving birth to her daughter, she said male colleagues shared articles with her about the importance of breastfeeding but refused to give her a space to pump at the Capitol. Dianne Byrum, House minority leader at the time, let Whitmer pump in her office instead.

“Those two years, as tough as they were for me — and I know I still had it better than a lot of people — eliminated my patience for people who just want to politicize things instead of solving problems,” Whitmer recalled.

Whitmer spent 14 years in the state House and Senate, serving as the top-ranking Democrat in the Legislature for her final four years before term limits forced her out of office in 2015. She worked seven months as interim Ingham County prosecutor before launching her campaign for governor in early 2017.

Whitmer is a divorced mother of two daughters who remarried seven years ago and lives with her dentist husband in East Lansing, about six miles from the Michigan Capitol. 

'Voice of liberal politics'

An attorney by trade, Whitmer made a name for herself in the Legislature as a feisty orator who would battle Republicans on the floor but was willing to negotiate behind closed doors.

She says she witnessed the art of compromise during her first job at the Michigan Capitol. While studying communications at Michigan State University, Whitmer interned and later joined the staff of Democratic former House Speaker Curtis Hertel Sr. during a rare period of shared power in 1993 and 1994.

With the Legislature split between Democrats and Republicans, Hertel and co-Speaker Paul Hillegonds took turns as the chamber’s top leader and rotated committee chair assignments among members.

“It was a really awesome time to get an appreciation for how things should work,” Whitmer said. “It set a very high bar, and it’s something I strive for.”

As minority leader in the Senate, Whitmer went to war with Republicans over policies like the 2012 right-to-work law, which ended unions' ability to mandate dues from workers for whom they negotiate. But she reached across the aisle to help facilitate a state minimum wage increase and expand Michigan's Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“She was, probably more so than any other Democrat in Michigan, the voice of liberal politics, at least in terms of how the state and state government was run,” said former Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe.

Term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder pushed for Medicaid expansion and cites the resulting Healthy Michigan insurance program as one of his signature accomplishments.

Whitmer had little power to spearhead the policy initiative on her own, but she was willing to work with Republicans to ensure Democratic votes eight months after the right-to-work fight divided the parties, Richardville said.

“She could have gone a different way,” he said. “She thought more about the people that would benefit from that kind of Medicaid coverage than about hurt feelings or politics. I give her credit for that.”

Richardville plans to support either Attorney General Bill Schuette or Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in the governor's race, calling them “both respected leaders on the Republican side.”

As for Whitmer, “it’s going to be tough looking at her as a governor because she’s never had to lead from the majority — and that’s a different thing.”

When everything 'clicked'

Politics was not Whitmer's first love. She studied communications at MSU with an eye on a sports broadcasting career and worked in the university’s football office during the tenure of former Coach George Perles. She later went to law school.

Whitmer grew up in East Lansing and Grand Rapids, where she started babysitting at the age of 12 and got her first job at Burlington Lumber at 15. She later worked at Royal Fork Buffet in what is now CenterPoint Mall and at a Target.

"This is the longest I've gone without a paycheck since when I was 13," Whitmer often jokes on the campaign trail after launching her campaign in January 2017. "I'm not complaining."

Her parents, who divorced, also spent time in state government. Her father was Commerce Department director under Republican Gov. William Milliken and later served as president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, the state's dominant health insurer. Her mother was a Democrat who worked in the state Attorney General’s Office.

Whitmer flourished as a college student after surviving significant trauma as a freshman: She was raped at a fraternity party. It was a story she publicly disclosed on the Senate floor in 2013 during an emotional debate over a Republican-approved law prohibiting insurers from including abortion coverage as a standard feature in health plans in Michigan.

Whitmer did not tell police at the time, saying she was scared and did not want the sexual assault to define her. The day she shared her story in the Senate, she said she called her dad to tell him before he heard it on the television news.

Nearly 30 years later, Whitmer was serving as interim Ingham County prosecutor when victims of MSU physician Larry Nassar began accusing him of sexual assault.

Her office approved initial search warrants that led to Nassar’s arrest but did not take the lead on criminal prosecution, which was handed instead to Schuette’s office. Whitmer and colleagues insist the prosecutorial strategy was a collaborative one despite claims by MSU police Chief James Dunlap, who said she wanted to focus on child pornography charges rather than sexual assault.

At least one Nassar victim now volunteers on Whitmer’s campaign.

“What I did has kind of helped me, and I’ve grown through it, but that’s not maybe the right thing for everybody,” Whitmer said. “Everyone’s got to go their own path, but we should support survivors whatever theirs is and believe women and do our best as a state to change our culture.”

Steve McCornack, a former MSU communications professor who now teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, remembers Whitmer as an “extremely bright” student and a skilled communicator who was not afraid to debate him if they disagreed.

McCornack, who describes himself as a registered Libertarian and certified National Rifle Association firearms instructor, said he’d vote for Whitmer “without hesitation” if he was still a Michigan resident even though they disagree on several political issues because she "is a person of integrity."

'Establishment candidate'

Whitmer finds herself the clear establishment candidate in a Democratic primary that features Ann Arbor entrepreneur Shri Thanedar and former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed, a favorite of the progressive left.

Whitmer has locked up endorsements from most union groups and lawmakers who have traditionally influenced the Democratic nominee, but the party is being reshaped by grassroots activists who supported Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for president in 2016.

The Michigan Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus is backing El-Sayed. Chairwoman Kelly Collison called Whitmer “a nice person” but said she is not “strong on a lot of issues that are really important to progressives right now,” including health care.

Whitmer says she would work to expand access but has not joined calls for a state or national single-payer health care system — a government-financed program. She has benefited from a campaign fundraiser hosted by executives at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

Some progressives will likely back Whitmer if she is the nominee, Collison said, downplaying the possibility voters could sit out the election like they did in 2016, helping to sink Democrat Hillary Clinton in a race won by Trump.

“But I do know there are people that are sick and tired of corporations buying our politicians, and they won’t back anybody they feel won’t represent them, regardless of party,” Collison said. “A lot of progressives are independents.”

Public opinion polls suggest Whitmer has struggled to connect with voters in Detroit, the state’s largest city and a Democratic stronghold.

But as she dropped in on union meetings and rallies on a Saturday last month in Detroit, members promised her their vote.

“Absolutely,” said Maurice DuPree, a Detroiter and president of the Communications Workers of America, which was threatening a strike over stalled contract talks with AT&T.

“She says that she’s standing for the fight against right to work, and that’s very important to us,” DuPree said. After eight years under Snyder, “we’re seeing if we can turn back the clocks, at least on stuff that’s important to us.”

While Whitmer was meeting with unions, campaign staffers were huddling with staff for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a powerful ally who tried to recruit alternative candidates before endorsing Whitmer in late February.

Duggan’s campaign team is checking in on the race regularly and helping organize get-out-the-vote efforts, said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party. Whitmer has started making “some inroads” in Detroit over the past month, he said.

But Thanedar’s ad blitz made him the most recognizable name in the primary. He has been competitive and even has led in some statewide polls. Allies first launched TV ads promoting Whitmer on June 12, and her campaign began airing ads June 26. Thanedar had spent an estimated $1.91 million on broadcast TV ads through early June, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, and his campaign began airing three new ads this week.

“There’s no way Shri should even be knocking at her door,” said Democratic strategist and pollster Ed Sarpolus. “This effort is very important for her to make up ground and something she should have done earlier. Her name ID is so low.”

Whitmer was one of the first candidates in the race and could have run ads earlier targeting parts of the state where she is not well known, Sarpolus said. She now “can’t go dark the rest of this campaign” and should be living, eating and sleeping in Detroit for the next two months, he said.

But Whitmer’s “strategy to conserve cash will pay off," said Howard Edelson, a Democratic strategist who managed former Gov. Jennifer Granholm's re-election campaign in 2006.

She'll have "more money to spend per week closer to the primary” when voters are “paying attention and when absentee ballots are going out," Edelson said. “There’s always people who are on the sidelines and question the campaign."


Gretchen Whitmer

Age: 46

Hometown: East Lansing

Family: Husband Marc Mallory, two daughters, three step children

Professional experience: Attorney at Dickinson Wright PLLC in Lansing

Political experience: State Representative 2001-2005; State Senator 2006-2014, Senate Minority Leader 2011-2014; Interim Ingham County Prosecutor July 2-Dec. 31 2016