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Biden passes over Whitmer, taps Kamala Harris for vice presidential nod

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was a top contender for the Democratic vice presidential candidate on the November ticket, but Joe Biden passed her over Tuesday for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, with whom he's had a longer personal history.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee's pick averted a possible reshuffling of Michigan's top offices and drew praise from his supporters in the state. If it wasn't to be Whitmer, they were happy with the senator from California, they said.

"Gretchen is still going to be a major force," said former Michigan Gov. Jim Blanchard, whose top choices for Biden's running mate were Whitmer and Harris.

"I think he knew Kamala a lot better," Blanchard added of Biden.

The former vice president decided against picking Whitmer, a battleground state leader who has drawn praise for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden, Whitmer and Harris appeared together March 9 at Renaissance High School in Detroit before Biden defeated U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont the next day in the Michigan presidential primary.

"I am extraordinarily proud to support @KamalaHarris and @JoeBiden! They will be a fierce team to Build America Back Better. #WeHaveHerBack," Whitmer tweeted Tuesday after the announcement.

Former Vice President Joe Biden gets a photo with Samantha Green and daughter Ava Green, 2, during a visit with Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer and running mate Garland Gilchrist to Leo's Coney Island in Southfield, Michigan on September 12, 2018.

Whitmer is slated to speak Monday at the Democratic National Convention with Harris scheduled to speak two days later on Aug. 19 — the same night as former President Barack Obama. The four-day convention that starts Monday will be based in Milwaukee, but most speakers will attend virtually.

The run-up to the virtual Democratic convention has forced would-be speakers to scramble for suitable venues to deliver their remarks, and even Michigan’s governor has been told no by a least one Detroit automaker.

A request by Whitmer to use a General Motors Co. facility as a backdrop to her scheduled Monday speech was denied by the automaker, according to two sources familiar with the situation. A primary reason: GM doesn’t want to be perceived as throwing its corporate heft behind partisan political statements amid what’s shaping up to be a particularly heated general election campaign.

Joining Whitmer on Monday's speaker list are Sanders and former first lady Michelle Obama. The theme of Monday's festivities is "we the people."

Sanders managed to pull the United Auto Workers, a reliable Democratic Party stalwart, into the maelstrom of back-drop politics this week by asking that former UAW President Bob King be permitted to use Local 600 in Dearborn as the site to formally nominate the self-declared democratic socialist — despite the union’s formal endorsement of Biden for the Democratic nomination. UAW President Rory Gamble said no, a union spokesman confirmed Tuesday.

“It would be disrespectful — and a bit confusing to members — to have a candidate put in nomination who was not endorsed by the UAW in a UAW union hall,” UAW spokesman Brian Rothenberg told The Detroit News.

Whitmer, 48, an attorney and a former state lawmaker who was elected governor in 2018, has been the national spotlight since March as she's taken aggressive action to combat COVID-19. Her criticism of the federal response has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump, who derisively referred to her as "the woman from Michigan" in March.

Whitmer was passed over after pressure built within the Democratic Party to select an African American woman as police brutality and racial equality emerged as national issues in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

Some of Michigan's Democratic Black elected officials said this week Biden needs to pick an African American woman, citing a handful of Black female contenders for the job and the heavy support the former vice president received from Black voters in the primaries.

It's important for Michigan to keep Whitmer as its governor to continue her administration's work, said state Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, who argued that failing to select a Black woman for the vice presidential nomination would be "a slap in the face" that might alienate some voters. 

Blanchard noted Whitmer is facing a pandemic, a recession and budget woes as governor that she would have to deal with as she ran for vice president. Harris, who's a senator, wouldn't face the same balancing act.

Harris and Biden have also had a longer relationship, Blanchard said. They ran against each other for the Democratic nomination. And Harris served as California’s attorney general at the same time as Biden’s son, Beau, was serving as attorney general for Delaware.

State Rep. Brian Elder, D-Bay City, said Biden made an "outstanding pick" in Harris. African American voters were decisive in making Biden the Democratic nominee, said Elder, chairman of the Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus.

"It’s entirely possible that our governor winds up in a national role," Elder said. "As a Michigander, we’ve been damn lucky to have her as our governor during this COIVD-19 crisis."

Whitmer has "great things ahead of her," said Gerald Acker, an attorney from Huntington Woods who participated in a virtual fundraiser earlier this summer for the Biden campaign featuring Whitmer.

But Acker said he was "thrilled" with Biden's pick of Harris.

"She’s smart. She’s tough. She’s ready to lead," he said.

In recent weeks, Democratic insiders had said Whitmer had been fully vetted as a potential running mate, and she met with Biden on Aug. 2 in Delaware. Supporters stressed her high approval ratings and rise in the national spotlight since COVID-19 ravaged the state this spring. 

Whitmer, who is a national co-chair of the former vice president's campaign, leads a state that's key to Biden's chances this fall. Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes in 2016, his smallest margin of victory nationally.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris smiles as she is greeted by fourth graders at Miller Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan on May 6, 2019.

Some Democrats had been skeptical of a Whitmer nomination because it would require her to spend time campaigning away from Michigan.

Some in the party also have noted Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, who would have become governor if Whitmer were tapped for vice president and Biden won, was relatively untested as a headline candidate. He narrowly lost a race for Detroit city clerk to incumbent Janice Winfrey in 2017.

Whitmer in April praised Biden for committing to pick a woman to be his running mate but told MSNBC at the time, "it's not going to be me."

"I think it's important that he has a woman running mate, to be honest. I think that there are a lot of phenomenal potential running mates for him," Whitmer said. 

Whitmer's rise in national politics

Whitmer surged into the national spotlight after winning a competitive governor's race in 2018. She is a former interim Ingham County prosecutor who served a combined 14 years in the Michigan House and Senate before defeating Republican then-Attorney General Bill Schuette two years ago for the governorship by 9.5 percentage points.

Running with a slogan of "fix the damn roads," Whitmer defeated Schuette in a year when Democrats made gains in the Michigan House and Senate and took back the governor's office, attorney general's office and secretary of state post from Republicans.

In 2019, she struggled to make good on her promise to improve the state's crumbling roads. She proposed a 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase that 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.

From left, Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden, Gov.  Gretchen Whitmer and Cory Booker at the Joe Biden campaign event at Renaissance High School in Detroit on Mar. 9, 2020.

But Whitmer drew headlines for signing bipartisan legislation to overhaul the state's auto insurance system — a change that had eluded lawmakers for 40 years — and for making Michigan the first state to declare a ban on flavored vaping products. The ban was halted by the courts amid a challenge from vape shop owners.

In January, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, picked Whitmer to give the Democratic response to Trump's State of the Union address. She gave her Feb. 4 speech from East Lansing High School, the schools her two daughters were attending at the time. 

About a month later, Whitmer formally endorsed Biden for president, became one of his national campaign co-chairs and stumped with him in Michigan on March 9 — the day before Michigan's presidential primary. Biden scored a decisive victory on March 10 over Sanders in Michigan, and the state confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19.

Michigan was among the states hardest hit by the virus in March and April. But Whitmer responded aggressively, closing down the K-12 school buildings on March 12 and issuing a stay-at-home order on March 23.

While Whitmer's moves drew praise from health experts, Republican lawmakers slammed her, arguing she overstepped her authority by using emergency powers to issue orders without their input. They challenged her use of two state laws to declare emergencies in court, a legal battle that's ongoing.

Whitmer's restrictions also drew protesters to the state Capitol on multiple occasions for large demonstrations. After a protest on April 30 that saw hundreds of demonstrators chanting outside the Michigan House chamber, Trump tweeted that Whitmer should give "a little" to "put out the fire."

The pandemic appeared to help raise Whitmer's profile and fuel a bid for higher office.

From March 15 to May 17, Michigan's governor made more appearances on national Sunday morning television news shows than any other politician, according to a Detroit News review of weekly Associated Press reports. With nine appearances, Whitmer tied White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, for the most televised interviews.

Whitmer has argued that her every appearance has benefited the state by attracting offers of help with the COVID-19 response and helping educate people about the seriousness of the virus.

The heavy dose of media exposure — from a stop on ABC's "The View" to the cover of Newsweek to a 7,000-word profile in Politico — followed the temporary hiring of Chris Meagher, former press secretary for Pete Buttigieg’s Democratic presidential campaign who now works at the Democratic National Committee.

The governor has also faced heavy Republican criticism over her handling of nursing homes during the pandemic. Whitmer decided to care for elderly individuals with COVID-19 inside isolated areas of existing nursing homes instead of setting up separate facilities to care for them.

Republicans and some Democrats have said the policy and problems getting personal protective equipment inside nursing homes have helped the virus spread among vulnerable populations. About one-third of Michigan COVID-19 deaths have been nursing home residents, according to state data.

But the governor's politics have earned applause from public health experts such as Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

"I think the governor has taken a lot of pressure from people who are not thinking about this very smartly," Jha said in May. "And I think she’s really held strong and done what’s good for the people of Michigan.”

cmauger@detroitrnews.com