Whitmer breaks mold with early, often veto threats
Lansing — Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is lobbing veto threats early and often as she seeks leverage in negotiations with the Republican-led Legislature, breaking with recent predecessors who rarely telegraphed their intentions in public.
In her first five months in office, Whitmer has promised to reject anti-abortion legislation, budget bills she says lack a “real” plan to "fix the damn roads" and sweeping no-fault auto insurance reform she argued would preserve "a corrupt system" allowing insurers to discriminate through rates.
Experts say her aggressive public approach has little precedent in modern Michigan politics. It is a stark contrast with former Gov. Rick Snyder, who vetoed several GOP bills but usually refused to discuss “hypotheticals.” He rarely went further than to say whether a bill was on his agenda.
“I don’t believe in beating around the bush,” Whitmer said last week between tense auto insurance negotiations with Republicans, who are pushing for quick action but working with the governor to craft a potential compromise.
“If I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do. When I tell you what I’m going to do, you should believe me,” she said. “And I think that’s just how I’ve always operated. I’m not good at pretending, and I’m not going to sell you a bill of goods.”
Whitmer is presiding over a state government that is politically divided for the first time in eight years. But Capitol observers do not recall former governors, such as Jennifer Granholm, making as many veto threats under similar circumstances.
“I really don’t think any previous governors I remember — going way back — signaled as forcefully and dramatically as Gretchen Whitmer that they intended to veto a bill if it was sent to them,” said political analyst Bill Ballenger, a former GOP lawmaker in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Maybe they did so behind the scenes — definitely in a couple of cases — but the idea of making so many public statements, that’s a novelty.”
Granholm, a Democrat who served with a Republican-led Legislature for her first four years and just a GOP-controlled Senate for the last four years, typically avoided “using the v-word” publicly until a bill reached her desk, said former communications director Liz Boyd. But Granholm would make her position known privately to lawmakers and offer amendments she could support, Boyd said.
A downside of signaling a veto is it gives lawmakers “a pass on voting one way or another, knowing the end game,” she said.
Whitmer has a different style, “but if people are focused on what she’s saying about vetoes, they’re kind of missing the point,” Boyd said. “Her point is she wants to get things done. Let’s not play games.”
Granholm vetoed 133 bills over her eight-year tenure, but the “vast majority” of them came during her first term when Republicans sent her several bills they knew she would veto just to make a “political statement,” Boyd said.
Republican lawmakers last week approved controversial legislation that would ban the most common form of second-trimester abortion. Whitmer had already vowed to veto anti-abortion legislation and was quick to confirm the advancing proposal would be rejected.
But on other issues, including road funding and auto insurance, Whitmer has signaled a willingness to work with Republican lawmakers to craft a bipartisan solution despite threatening to spike their initial volley.
The governor served a combined 14 years in the state House and Senate before term limits forced her out of office at the end of 2014. Her experience shows, said Jen Eyer, a Democratic strategist with Vanguard Public Affairs who worked on Whitmer’s gubernatorial campaign in 2017.
“She knows how the process works and she knows how legislators are going to approach negotiations,” Eyer said. “I see (her veto threats) as a sign of strength. … She’s showing she’s going to be a strong leader, and they need to come to the table.”
But Whitmer’s threats have irked some Republican lawmakers and prompted criticism from the state party, which recently blasted the governor for what it called a “veto vendetta” on auto insurance.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and House Speaker Lee Chatfield have maintained open lines of communication with Whitmer despite the public confrontations.
“From the outside, it would seem to indicate a broken relationship, but I don’t think that’s the case,” said John Sellek, a Republican strategist with Harbor Strategic who worked on former Attorney General Bill Schuette’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign.
Whitmer, Shirkey and Chatifeld are all “pretty smart politicians” who know how to “rattle their sabers” in public to energize partisan activists without jeopardizing personal relationships that could prevent gridlock, Sellek said.
Whitmer's upfront approach is “reflective both of the confrontational political environment we’re in today but also reflects her personality," he said. “Whitmer wasn’t one to back down in the Legislature, and she hasn’t changed her tune now.”
One veto … and counting
The governor turned heads this month with her first line-item veto, rejecting a $10 million appropriation to compensate wrongfully convicted inmates because it was tucked into a policy bill, which would make it immune from voter referendum. Her administration wants the funding in a separate supplemental budget measure.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, called the veto “disgraceful.” But the governor was honoring her campaign pledge to reject an increasingly common GOP maneuver to make more controversial legislation referendum-proof, Eyer said.
In 2012, Michigan voters overturned a controversial emergency manager law, but Republicans quickly approved a slightly different replacement that included implementation funding. It also attached an appropriation to the state's right-to-work law.
“It’s the principle of the matter,” Eyer said of Whitmer’s veto. “She made it very clear by doing so on a bill that everyone basically agrees on that she’s sure as heck going to do it on a bill that’s more controversial.”
While Whitmer can reject any law proposed by the Legislature, her early threats have prompted two potential petition drives from groups that could seek to cut her out of the equation.
Right to Life of Michigan last week said it plans to collect enough signatures to send the GOP-led Legislature a bill banning dilation and evacuation abortions, which lawmakers could enact without the governor's signature.
Billionaire Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert is also considering a petition drive to reform the state’s auto insurance laws if Whitmer and GOP leaders do not agree on a plan to drive down high rates.
Gilbert’s threat is “every bit as much” of a negotiation ploy as Whitmer’s threat of a veto, Eyer said. “It’s good for everybody to have these discussions out in public so people know where everyone stands.”
After eight years of Snyder demurring, Whitmer's veto proclamations come across as somewhat "refreshing," Ballenger said.
"But whether it's smart politics for the governor to do this," he said, "I think that's really an open question, particularly if she later comports herself in such a way that it looks like she's going back on her word."