Jacques: Ex-Buttigieg PR aide guides Whitmer's spotlight

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

In a recent New York Times article featuring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, she claimed, “I’m not thinking about politics.”

But that’s not what it looks like to everyday Michiganians observing their governor become the latest national media darling, even as the state faces the coronavirus and the devastating economic effects of Whitmer’s stay-home lockdown.  

Since March 17, the governor has done about 30 high-profile TV appearances on channels such as CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC, PBS  and Comedy Central. Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Chris Wallace and Trevor Noah are among the celebrity media figures who’ve interviewed her. NPR had her on a national program, and she’s appeared on podcasts with Joe Biden and with David Axelrod, former adviser and strategist for President Barack Obama. 

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appears on Fox News Sunday on Sunday, April 5, 2020.

That’s not to mention all the national — even international — newspaper and magazine attention. Politico, Vogue, BuzzFeed, the Atlantic, New York Times, the Washington Post and the Times of London have all featured Whitmer, to name a few.

It’s not by accident that Whitmer’s profile has escalated so quickly. The governor’s rise in media attention coincides with the hiring of Chris Meagher, who served most recently as press secretary for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign. 

Meagher is a Michigan native who attended Michigan State University. He then went on to law school and to work for General Motors and a variety of Democratic campaigns and organizations before landing with Buttigieg. His LinkedIn profile doesn’t yet include his current stint.  

Whitmer’s spotlight began in February when Democratic leaders chose her to offer the party’s response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, fueling chatter that she was a contender for vice president. 

That attention continued ahead of Michigan’s presidential primary in early March, when Whitmer and candidate Joe Biden looked very chummy. 

Speculation over whether she’ll get the vice presidential nod, combined with Michigan’s high numbers of COVID-19 fatalities, have made her a go-to governor in recent weeks. 

Trump has also helped raise her profile in slinging various insults at Whitmer (who has returned barbs), including calling her “the woman in Michigan” during a White House press briefing. 

That’s like catnip for progressive media outlets, and they’ve pounced. 

But it is Meagher that is guiding the spotlight. 

It’s straight out of the playbook Buttigieg’s communications team used so effectively to turn the unknown mayor of South Bend, Indiana, into a major player in the Democratic presidential contest. 

In a 2019 Politico profile of Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s communications director and aide, she makes it clear what the strategy was from the beginning. “I want him on everything,” Smith told Politico. 

Now Whitmer is everywhere. 

While the governor is super accessible right now to the national media, Meagher is not. An attempt to reach Meagher directly through Twitter was ignored, as was a request through the governor’s office.

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Whitmer, says the office was “getting slammed” with national and local media interest last month, which is why Meagher seemed a good fit. He’s working for both Whitmer and the Department of Health and Human Services.   

“We decided to bring Chris on as a temporary (1099) employee to assist us with national press and work with MDHHS on messaging,” Brown said in an email. “He’s not a full-time state employee at this time and doesn't have a title.”

Brown said Meagher started working with the state on March 18, shortly before Whitmer declared a hiring freeze, and that he will be working with the governor for “at least another few weeks.”  

It’s unclear how much Meagher is making, since the governor’s office is exempt from FOIA, and the Health Department is warning that FOIA requests may be delayed until June, thanks to Whitmer’s order temporarily loosening information request deadlines. 

But the real question for Michigan taxpayers who are footing the bill is whether Meagher is on board to serve their interests or the governor's political ambitions. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques