Whitmer set to deliver Democratic response to Trump's State of Union address

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will give the Democratic response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Feb. 4, six days after delivering her own State of the State speech in Lansing. 

Whitmer will deliver the response beside U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas, who will give a separate response in Spanish.

The response is usually given by an elected official whom opposition party officials tag as a rising star. Trump's speech will come one day after the Iowa caucuses and likely in the midst of the Senate impeachment trial.

Whitmer said the response would serve as an “exciting opportunity” to show Democrats “getting things done.”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer gives a speech after receiving the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award.

“Across the country, Democrats are staying focused on building a stronger, more sustainable country for future generations,” Whitmer said.  “As leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure a safe, healthy future for our children and families, and that’s exactly what we’re working toward in Michigan."

But Republicans hit Whitmer's record as lackluster.

"She’s had ample time to make a difference for our state, but her past year in office has been nothing more than photo-op's and sound bites," said Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox. "Ultimately, Gretchen Whitmer's decision to side with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi makes it that much easier to give our state a new governor in 2022."

Whitmer rode to a 2018 victory in Michigan on a promise to “fix the damn roads,” but making good on the vow has proven difficult with divided government. 

The first-term governor's proposal last year to increase the 26.3-cents-a-gallon gas tax by 45 cents was opposed by GOP leaders and effectively died in late August when House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, declared Whitmer's tax plan an “extreme” that likely wouldn't happen.

The debate over road funding options eventually led to a breakdown in negotiations with GOP legislative leaders. 

When the Republican-controlled Legislature sent the governor a budget that shifted existing funds from other departments for a one-time $375 million payment toward roads, the governor made 147 line item vetoes, slashing $947 million from the state budget and transferring another $625 million within departments.

"Caught in the middle of Whitmer's political budget retribution were at-risk students, people with autism, public safety, and healthcare services," said Tori Sachs, executive director of the Michigan Rising Action political action committee. "Our state and nation deserve better." 

The Democratic governor did slash funding for charter schools, an autism alliance, rural health care and county road patrols, but most of it was restored after negotiations with Republican lawmakers.

Whitmer made Michigan the first state in the nation to declare a ban on flavored vaping products out of concern for youth usage and an uptick in lung injuries, but the ban was halted by the courts amid a challenge from vape shop owners.

But her first year in office included victories, including the signing of bipartisan legislation that reformed Michigan's no-fault auto insurance, changes that had eluded consensus for about 40 years. Some Democrats criticized her for signing the Republican-inspired legislation.

Whitmer has “rolled up her sleeves” during her more time in public service, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a Friday statement with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer announcing Whitmer’s selection. 

“Her decades of hard work on behalf of the people should serve as a model for our nation,” Pelosi said. “She’s a forward-looking leader who is laser-focused on solving problems for everyday Michiganders and is uniquely qualified to deliver Democrats’ message of progress for all Americans.”

Whitmer’s efforts in Michigan are a “model for public servants everywhere,” Schumer said. 

"Whether it's pledging to 'Fix the Damn Roads' or investing in climate solutions, Governor Whitmer's vision for the future is exactly what this country needs, and I'm thrilled she is giving the Democratic response,” he said. 

As a "fierce leader" for Michigan's families, Whitmer will highlight how Trump's "broken promises have devastated our state," said Lavora Barnes, chairwoman for the Michigan Democratic Party. 

"Gov. Whitmer was critical to our party’s success up and down the ballot in 2018, and I look forward to working with her this year as we fight to beat Donald Trump, re-elect Gary Peters to the Senate and turn every corner of Michigan blue," Barnes said. 

Democratic former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin of Detroit appears to be the last Michigan politician to have given a State of the Union response, according to U.S. Senate records. In 1984, Levin was one of several members of Congress on a panel who responded to then-President Ronald Reagan's address in a partly taped and partly live program. 

Then-House Minority Leader Gerald Ford of Grand Rapids, a Michigan native, gave the first televised response to a State of the Union address in a 30-minute rebuttal alongside Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen to President Lyndon Johnson's 1966 and 1967 addresses, according to U.S. Senate records. 

"Today, thanks to the efforts of Dirksen and Ford, the opposition response is anticipated and discussed almost as much as the president’s speech," according to the Senate Historical Office. 

The last sitting governor to give an official response to a State of the Union speech was then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who responded to then-President Barack Obama’s speech in 2016. Haley was Trump's United Nations ambassador until deciding to step down at the end of 2018.

Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, gave the response to Trump’s speech in 2019.