Whitmer rallies women at MSU: We won in 2018 and 'will not stop'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at an MSU women's march on Jan. 20, 2019.

Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer celebrated a strong 2018 election cycle for female candidates and encouraged more to run for public office during a speech Sunday at a women’s march and rally at Michigan State University.

Pratiksha Boinapally, 17, a senior at Grand Ledge High School, was among hundreds who braved single-digit temperatures to attend the student-organized MSU march, where she carried a homemade sign reading “If I were president…”

Speaking on the steps of the Hannah Administration Building, Whitmer saw Boinapally’s sign in the crowd and twice encouraged her to make it happen.

“We must continue to run,” the East Lansing Democrat told the decidedly liberal crowd. “So yes, I hope maybe you are president one day.”

Boinapally attended the march with friends who delighted in the possibility she would “be famous now” and told The Detroit News she was personally moved by Whitmer’s encouragement.

“My mom and I had this obsession with her the entire election cycle,” she said of Whitmer. “She’s everything. That just confirmed why I’m here.”

Whitmer noted major wins by female candidates in the two years since she spoke at an inaugural women’s march at the Michigan Capitol in 2016, one of many organized across the country in the wake of Republican President Donald Trump’s election over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“We wore our pussy hats, and we marched,” she said, referencing pink hats worn by activists in response to 2005 comments by Trump, who had bragged that his celebrity allowed him grope women without repercussions.

Whitmer won election last fall, a strong cycle for female candidates, particularly Democrats. For the first time in Michigan history, women hold the statewide elected offices of governor, attorney general and secretary of state, she noted, and a woman now is chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

“We have seen such great strides — strides I never would have imagined would happen from one election,” Whitmer said. “But we have work to go, change to be made, whether it’s right here on this campus or across our state, in private workplaces as well as in public workplaces. We are on the march, and we will not stop, right?”

The governor pointed to a viral video that surfaced Saturday appearing to show a series of high school students in Trump “Make America Great Again” hats heckling a Native American drummer in Washington, D.C. The drummer, Nathan Phillips, is a Michigan resident and told the Washington Post he felt threatened by the teens.

“That is a reminder we must stay engaged," Whitmer said. "We must continue to march. We must continue to press on the Legislature. We must continue to run."

The women’s march movement has been rocked in recent months by accusations of anti-Semitism by national leaders, prompting organizers in some states and cities to cancel events or re-brand them. Still, thousands rallied Saturday in Washington  and cities across the country, including Detroit.

Whitmer did not address the controversy in her remarks at MSU, but student organizers told the crowd they would not tolerate anti-Semitism at the Lansing-area march, even if it came "from people who allege to be on the same team as us.” They invited a member of the MSU Jewish Union to speak.

Republicans had called on Whitmer and other Democrats to denounce the women’s march because of the anti-Semitism allegations and have complained that organizers exclude Republican and conservative women from the events.

"Only by working together can we ensure better outcomes for all women, not just those on the political left," Michigan GOP co-chair Amanda Van Essen Wirth said this week in a statement.

The MSU march came just days after former Gov. John Engler resigned as interim university president amid outrage over a series of controversial comments he made about the Larry Nassar sexual assault scandal, including a suggestion that Nassar’s victims were “enjoying” the spotlight.

The MSU Board of Trustees, which was preparing to fire Engler if he did not step down, replaced him with university researcher and administrator Satish Udpa.

“I’m so glad Engler has resigned,” Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said to applause. “He should never have been appointed in the first place. I’m thankful to every student who lifted their voices, who didn’t back down when they told you to stay in your place.”

The Nassar scandal made it a “hard year” for anybody who cares about MSU, and it’s been an especially hard year “for the army of survivors who banded together to take down their abuser,” said Natalie Rogers of the activist group Reclaim MSU, which had called for Engler’s ouster.

“Over the past year at MSU, change has felt impossible,” she said. “Our challenge has been fighting with the seemingly apathetic set of leaders who appointed John Engler.”

Many activists carried signs bashing Engler or Trump. They led chants referencing his past comments about women. "Love trumps hate,” they chanted.

Gay-Dagnogo, a former teacher, criticized Trump and encouraged him to “build schools, not walls,” referencing his ongoing push for border wall funding he’s trying to negotiate amid the longest partial federal government shutdown in United States history.  

“We know that when we unite, as we’ve done for three years in a row, we can advance change,” she said. “That’s the reason we had a blue wave in Michigan.”