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Whitmer says 'workers hurting' in State of Union response

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer highlighted the work of Democratic elected officials and young people throughout the nation in her 10-minute response to President Donald Trump's more than hour long State of the Union address. 

Shortly after Trump touted a "blue-collar boom" in the country, Whitmer said Michigan workers "are hurting" and "wages have stagnated, while CEO pay has skyrocketed."

"When the president says the economy is strong, my question is strong for whom?” Whitmer said from East Lansing High School, where her two daughters attend school. 

"...Michigan invented the middle class so we know: If the economy doesn’t work for working people, it just doesn’t work.”

Whitmer's response to the president's State of the Union address highlighted the important role Michigan will play is in this year's election and the "dinner table issues" that won over voters for Whitmer and others. 

Gains in wages have been eaten away by inflation during the Trump administration and the eight years of Democratic President Barack Obama. But overall U.S. wages grew 2.7% from October 2018 to October 2019, while wage growth in low-wage industries was 4.1% during the same period, according to tracking data by the investment research firm of Goldman Sachs. 

Michigan has gained 12,100 manufacturing jobs overall since Trump took office in January 2017. The state also has added more than 127,000 jobs during his administration and seen its unemployment rate drop a full percentage point to 3.9% in December, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Whitmer, the first-term Democratic governor, spoke on fundamental concerns such as affordable health care and infrastructure. She highlighted the story of a Muskegon Heights boy who started filling in potholes on his neighborhood streets.

"During my campaign, people told me to fix the damn roads — because blown tires and broken windshields are downright dangerous," Whitmer said. "And car repairs take money from rent, child care or groceries. ... And we — the Democrats — are doing something about it."

Whitmer started her time in office with the promise to build bridges among state officials at a time of divided government and through increased spending on state infrastructure. She doubled down on the theme during her response.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer gave the Democratic party's response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on Feb. 4, 2020 at East Lansing High School.

"Bullying people on Twitter doesn’t fix bridges, it burns them," she said. 

Whitmer also touched on the struggle of "holding down a new job" as a state House member in 2000 while caring for her newborn daughter and her mother, who was battling brain cancer.

"It changed me. I lost my patience for people who play games instead of solve problems," Whitmer said. "So, as a state senator, I worked with a Republican governor and Legislature to expand health care coverage to more than 680,000 Michiganders under the Affordable Care Act."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, made a few suggestions for the speech, in particular that it should focus less on Trump and more on Democrats’ “vision for America,” Whitmer said. Pelosi also recommended she choose a location where she feels comfortable, the governor said. 

“I’ve shared my remarks with the speaker, and I think that I’m conveying the message she assumed I would,” Whitmer said. 

In 2013, Whitmer and 11 other Democrats voted for Medicaid expansion, but Republican leader Randy Richardville said then the GOP needed to do a “heavy lift” to get eight Republican senators to help pass the legislation out of the Senate and over to the House. 

The more than 300 people in attendance Tuesday at East Lansing High School included teachers, students, lobbyists and fellow Democratic lawmakers, a group Whitmer said she selected because she wanted to be “surrounded by their energy.”

While Whitmer acknowledged earlier Tuesday that her remarks may elevate her national profile, the first-term governor said she's not interested in moving to Washington, D.C., any time soon when asked about speculation that she was being considered as a running mate for the eventual Democratic nominee. 

"I love Michigan," Whitmer said. "I've run for office in Michigan to be close to the people I represent and to be home, to be near my family. Nothing's changed on any of those fronts."

Even before Whitmer took the national stage, Republicans flooded the Lansing area with digital ads decrying Whitmer’s progress on fixing roads. 

The Republican Governors Association aired the ad, “Broken Roads, Broken Promises,” an hour before Trump gave his address and used geofencing to target Facebook and Instagram profiles within a 10-mile radius of the Capitol building in Lansing. 

The ad features media coverage of Whitmer’s struggle to pass a 45-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase through the GOP-led Legislature and includes a clip from Trump’s December rally in Battle Creek, where he noted “she’s not fixing those potholes.”

“Gov. Whitmer’s pursuit of national ambitions despite her failure to accomplish much of anything may seem laughable, but it’s no joke for the millions of Michiganders still driving on the crumbling roads she promised to fix,” RGA Communications Director Amelia Chassé Alcivar said in a statement. 

The Republican group Michigan Rising Action took to Twitter to harpoon a statement by U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who called Whitmer a "model for public servants everywhere."

The nonprofit organization, which focuses on candidate tracking and opposition research, criticized Whitmer's $947 million in vetoes from last year's budget and her failed bid to raise the gas tax by 45 cents a gallon to pay for road improvements. Much of the money was eventually restored in supplemental deals with Republican lawmakers.

"Whitmer vetoed funds for people with autism, at-risk students, rural health care, veterans and public safety because no one (including her own party) would support a tax increase," the group said in a Tuesday tweet.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com