Whitmer set to push gay rights in State of State speech

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to supporters.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will use her first annual State of the State address to propose new anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents through expansion of the state’s main civil rights law.

The East Lansing Democrat will urge action by the Republican-led Legislature as part of a broader speech that will lay out her agenda for the coming year, according to a source within the Whitmer administration who is familiar with the Tuesday evening address she plans to deliver.

Speaking to both lawmakers and the viewing public, Whitmer will make the case that a gay rights law would help the state attract talented workers. A business coalition began pushing for protections in 2014, and Whitmer has consistently argued that no one should ever lose their job or be evicted from a home because of whom they love.

Whitmer’s public advocacy in a statewide address to a joint session of the state House and Senate will be the most direct statement of support for gay rights from a Michigan governor to date. Former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, had asked the Legislature to consider anti-discrimination protections but did so in a more reserved fashion.

But Whitmer’s call to action may not be enough to spur legislative changes. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have each already expressed reservations, suggesting an expansion of gay rights could threaten religious liberties.

Chatfield has also questioned how widespread discrimination is, prompting criticism from the gay rights community and Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is reviewing the legality of a Michigan Civil Rights Commission interpretation that allowed the Civil Rights Department to begin investigating bias claims.

As of last month, the department was investigating eight cases of alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation and five based on gender identity or expression.

Whitmer in January signed an executive order strengthening workplace protections for state government employees and those at companies who contract with or receive grants from the state, proclaiming that Michigan “must be a model of equal opportunity.” Snyder had signed a similar directive in late 2018 but included an exemption for religious organizations that Whitmer eliminated.

Fixing roads

Whitmer is also expected to use her first State of the State speech to reinforce the need to “fix the damn roads,” ensure clean drinking water and improve the state’s poor K-12 education performance. Detailed proposals are not expected until she unveils her first executive budget plan in early March. 

“I’m hopeful that Republicans and Democrats alike can find a way to fix these problems, because we’ve got kids that aren’t getting the education they need,” Whitmer said Saturday in a radio interview on WABJ-AM, discussing her pending speech.

“Those aren’t Republican kids or Democratic kids. They’re Michigan kids who need a great education. Potholes are not political either, and you know what, drinking water is something none of us can live without.”

Infrastructure and education issues continue to resonate with voters who helped elect Whitmer last fall, said Josh Pugh, a Democratic strategist with For Our Future, which has spoken to 94,000 voters since May 2018.

Whitmer’s first State of the State address could be “unique,” Pugh said, “because over the last eight years, we’ve heard a lot of happy talk from the former governor about how great things are, and I don’t think that reflects a reality that many people across the state of Michigan are living right now.”

Michigan's unemployment rate in December was 4 percent. Snyder advocated for road funding, education spending and water infrastructure spending increases during last year's State of the State speech.

Any push to raise taxes to fund road repairs could face resistance in the GOP-led Legislature, and bipartisan negotiations will be a major test of the governor's ability to work across the aisle and utilize negotiating skills she developed as a legislator. In her campaign, Whitmer suggested increasing "user fees" or bonding to increase state infrastructure spending by $2 billion per year. 

“I think all sides in this debate are going to be pretty pragmatic in the end, but she has to do something about the roads,” said John Truscott, a Republican public relations specialist.  “When you build your whole campaign around it, you have to deliver.”

Poor roads and problems with the state’s K-12 education system were consistently the most common issues raised by voters who talked with For Our Future during a statewide canvass, Pugh said. There were some regional differences, however, such as auto insurance being the top issue in Detroit.

“I expect some bracing honesty from the governor,” Pugh said. “I expect her to spend a lot of time talking about the challenges we face, and hopefully some ambitious proposed actions to tackle those challenges.”

Building bridges

Officials across Michigan’s newly divided government have spent the past month stressing the importance of bipartisan cooperation. But Whitmer and the GOP-led Legislature are currently at odds over her executive order reshaping the state environmental department to focus on clean water and fighting climate change.

Republicans are fuming over the order because it would eliminate business-friendly panels they created late last year to oversee environmental rule making and permitting processes.

The House last week voted to overturn Whitmer’s order, arguing she usurped their authority by abolishing panels created through law, but the Senate is taking a more deliberative approach. The Michigan Constitution gives lawmakers 60 days to reject executive orders or allow them to take effect.

Whitmer has not backed down, saying Saturday she wants “scientists making decisions” on environmental issues, not corporations. She suggested House Republicans are “taking their marching orders from the Chamber of Commerce.”

Despite that dispute, Whitmer’s first State of the State address comes in what is still largely a political “honeymoon period,” Truscott said.

“That’s the first skirmish, and there will be more, but I think she’ll use this speech as a way to lay out how she intends to govern,” he said. “I don’t get the sense she’s going to necessarily back down on anything. I think she’s going to lay out some pretty aggressive actions going forward and also challenge the Legislature.”

Whitmer expanded her administration Monday by naming former state commerce director and U.S. assistant labor secretary Doug Ross as her new “senior advisor for Michigan prosperity.” In that role, he’ll focus on analyzing future business trends and work with the governor to improve workforce talent and educational attainment to meet the needs of businesses, her office said.

First state of the state speeches are especially important opportunities for governors to set the tone for the year ahead and for budget talks in the spring, said Truscott, who helped work on the annual addresses as an aide to Republican former Gov. John Engler.

Preparing for the closely watched statewide speech “is a grind,” he said, and Whitmer’s planning has been complicated by a series of winter weather events that have prompted government office closures and emergency declarations. “It’s a lot of late nights and a lot of weekends."


What: Gov. Whitmer's first State of the State address
Where: The Michigan Capitol in a joint address to the state House and Senate
When: 7 p.m.
Watch live: WKAR on Facebook