Bankole: Paradox of Whitmer’s first six months in office

Bankole Thompson
The crisis of Benton Harbor hangs over the neck of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s regime like the sword of Damocles, Thompson says.

In her first six months in office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer presided over the biggest and the single most consequential policy change in decades by making drastic changes to the state’s no-fault auto insurance law, which allowed people to opt out of personal injury protection. The Democrat chose to formally sign the law at the Policy Conference on Mackinac Island, a gathering of the power elites, instead of in Detroit, the epicenter of the cries for reform.  

The changes came at a very steep price. The deal is not a slam dunk for the working poor, including those who have been laboring under the weight of paying high auto premiums in Detroit.

Though the law promises rate reduction and prohibits the use of some non-driving factors in rate determination, it still leaves one major issue unsettled: the elimination of the practice of redlining, which largely drove the calls for reform. Redlining hasn’t gone away under the new law because insurance companies can still use territory to set rates.

That’s a sharp contradiction from candidate Whitmer, who in June of 2018 tweeted, “We need to eliminate redlining,” and then added, “This is a priority of mine that I will focus on in my first 100 days as governor.”

Democrats have repeatedly used redlining as a whipping post to win the black vote, and then done nothing to end it after election. 

“The new insurance law does not reflect the efforts I thought were going to be set for the community," said 22-year-old Detroiter Kyetta McKinney, who voted for Whitmer. "They did a poor job not representing the disability community and those who face catastrophic accidents. I’m more frustrated with this insurance issue. I know people who may be affected by it.”

McKinney was among those who attended a town hall Monday night at Romulus High School organized by U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, where a panel tried to unravel the implications of the new law for poor people. The meeting frustrated many who had voted for Whitmer, who were worried and scared about how the new law would impact their lives.

But the controversial insurance reform is not the only issue that’s creating legitimate discontent among Democrats about their new governor. The crisis of Benton Harbor hangs over the neck of Whitmer’s regime like the sword of Damocles. After an ultimatum to shut down the only high school in that tiny black city, Whitmer has swiftly backed down from the threat of closing the school in the wake of backlash and social media trolls branding her as a third term of former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

People close to the governor’s office told me the administration did not expect Benton Harbor to blow up in their face so fast. The fact that the administration won’t discuss who is handling the governor’s urban agenda is a sign that it was caught flat-footed on Benton Harbor.

Added to the conundrum is the fact that after publicly vowing to appoint a poverty secretary during the campaign as one of her first official acts, Whitmer has remained mute on the issue.

“Michigan citizens deserve leadership that will deliver on the promises to ensure all citizens have access to community resources, health care, housing and jobs," said former state Rep. Mary Waters, who strongly supported Whitmer and took her during the campaign to many black churches in Detroit. "Too many communities were negatively impacted and are still struggling as a result of state emergency management decisions that did not yield positive results."

Waters added, “It is my hope that Gov. Whitmer will continue to work with and support distressed communities in order to empower them.”

Mike McCurdy, who led a grassroots campaign that guaranteed Attorney General Dana Nessel the Democratic nomination, reluctantly voted for Whitmer after his candidate, Abdul El-Sayed, did not make it. He is worried about Whitmer’s administration.

“Demanding students (the majority of whom are living in poverty) achieve better test scores as criteria for keeping their school gives the impression that she is blaming the children for the lack of opportunity,” McCurdy said. “Gretchen Whitmer desperately needs to appoint a poverty secretary as she promised. Benton Harbor High School could be lifted up and at the center of the fight against poverty and not looked upon as a liability.”