Michigan Gov. Whitmer says Joe Biden will follow 'science,' not 'ego'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer criticized President Donald Trump's administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic Monday while boosting Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during the party's national convention.

"Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will lead by example," Whitmer said during a four-minute speech. "Science, not politics or ego, will drive their decisions. They know: The health of our people goes hand-in-hand with the strength of our economy."

Whitmer spoke live from United Auto Workers Local 652 in Lansing. She followed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo during Monday night's Democratic National Convention to speak during a section of the program dedicated to COVID-19. The evening's theme was "We the People," and Biden campaign officials indicated earlier that some segments were taped and others would be delivered live. 

"We’ve learned who is essential, too," Whitmer said. "Not just the wealthiest among us. Not a president who fights his fellow Americans rather than fight the virus that’s killing us and our economy. It’s the people who put their own health at risk to care for the rest of us.”

Whitmer touted the efforts of health care workers and other employees who stayed on the job during the pandemic and mentioned 5-year-old Skylar Herbert of Detroit, the first Michigan child to die of COVID-19.

She also called on the country to "heal as one nation."

“From the jump, we took this pandemic seriously in Michigan,” Whitmer said at another point. “We listened to medical experts. We planned. And with a lot of help from the auto workers … and too little help from the White House … we executed our plan. We saved thousands of lives.”

"Just imagine if we had a national strategy."

The governor was referring to efforts by automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. to make ventilators and personal protection equipment during the pandemic.

"President Obama and Vice President Biden saved these autoworkers’ livelihoods," she said. "Then these workers did their part to save American lives. That’s the story of this great country. Action begets action. Progress begets progress. And when we work together — we can accomplish anything.”

The federal government gave more than $80 billion in loans to General Motors, Chrysler and their lending arms while they were forced into bankruptcy and later emerged from it. In 2008, President George W. Bush distributed the first $25 billion in loans.

The four-day virtual Democratic convention opened Monday. Each night speeches will air from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. on television. Actress Eva Longoria emceed Monday night's festivities and said the evening's speeches were meant to focus on three crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn and systemic injustice.

The first hour of the Democratic convention featured a mixture of speeches, discussions with Biden voters, music and video montages, including one set to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.” Biden also moderated a brief discussion on injustice in what appeared to be a taped event.

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

Whitmer introduced herself Monday night as being described by Trump as "that woman from Michigan." A supporter has been selling T-shirts with the slogan "That woman from Michigan" that the governor wore on a "Comedy Central" TV appearance in April.

Whitmer was fully vetted as a potential running mate before Biden selected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California less than a week ago. The first-term governor 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.

Biden is scheduled to speak Thursday, the final night of the four-day convention, which has gone virtual because of the pandemic.

Michigan Republicans ripped Biden and Whitmer during a Monday afternoon call with the media. Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox said she expected a "very partisan" Whitmer to address the convention.

Likewise, U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said the Democratic governor "may be auditioning for a cabinet position" in Biden's administration and has shown no interest in dealing with the Republicans who control the state Legislature.

"She's very smart," Huizenga said. "Now there's a problem with that, though. She believes that she has all of the answers. When you disagree with her on policy, it's very, very personal."

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.

Michigan Democrats, including Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, participated in a virtual watch party before the convention programming began at 9 p.m. Monday.

"We are fighting for the soul of this country," Lawrence said at the end of the event, echoing a statement that Biden has used frequently on the campaign trail.

The first night of the Democratic convention was packaged like a rapidly moving mix of talk show, Zoom conference and music channel to keep viewers interested, said John Sellek, CEO of the Michigan-based political consulting firm Harbor Strategic Public Affairs.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

The first hour of Monday night's programming seemed like one long commercial, said David Dulio, a political science professor at Oakland University. The setup allowed for a tighter, more controlled message than a traditional in-person convention, Dulio said.

Whitmer's speech was a "blistering" attack on Trump's COVID-19 response that also focused on auto manufacturing, which is going to be an issue in the fall's campaign, he added.

Michigan is often won through its economy and blue collar workers, said Sellek, who previously worked for GOP candidates.

That's why Whitmer's speech felt like it was about COVID but was "primarily an appeal for blue collar workers who left the Democrats in 2016 to return," he said.