Finley: Whitmer flunks her freshman year

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
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The very thing that most recommended Gretchen Whitmer to the governor's office — her claim of a deep familiarity with the Legislature and skill at working its politics — was non-existent in her first year in office.

That's why she flunked her freshman year.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer discusses the ongoing budget impasse on Aug. 28, 2019.

Whitmer was derailed by an inability to build a working relationship with the Legislature, and unless she fixes that, 2020 will be no better. 

Yes, Republicans control both the House and Senate and are in no mood to sign on a Democratic governor's agenda.

But Whitmer hasn't even bothered with the process.The governor has largely chosen to avoid lawmakers, standing on her side of the political barrier and hurling insults across to the other side.

That's what happened in her most epic failure —  the budget fiasco. Whitmer greatly miscalculated the reaction of Republican leaders to her $1 billion in spending vetoes, which she aimed at  programs dear to the GOP — charter schools — and precious to the public — autism assistance. She bet Republicans would buckle under pressure. Instead, they celebrated a $1 billion reduction in spending and called it a budget. In the end, it was Whitmer who had to capitulate.  

Similarly, the governor was outmaneuvered on no-fault auto insurance reform, an issue she'd hoped to stall. But when Detroit business mogul Dan Gilbert threatened a ballot initiative, Republicans drafted, passed and put on her desk a reform bill, daring her to veto it, which she dared not do.   

On difficult policy matters, Whitmer chooses to work around the Legislature and instead issue executive orders. That's how she handled the measure that got her the most national attention — the ban on flavored vape products. 

But the vaping industry sued, and a state Court of Claims judge set aside the order. 

Whitmer urged the State Supreme Court to rule on the case without it first going to the Court of Appeals. Last week, the court on a 6-1 vote refused, as it nearly always does when asked to bypass the appellate court.

Instead of recognizing the request was a long shot, Whitmer's lawyer, Mark Totten, took to social media to criticize the justices. Not smart to rip on the same refs who may be calling this game again in the near future. But typical of the confrontational tone Whitmer has set for her staff.

Had the governor took the vaping issue to the Legislature, where it stood a good chance of passage, this particular legal challenge could not have been brought.

Whitmer spent 14 years in the Legislature, serving in both chambers and leading her party's caucus in the Senate. She ought to be doing much better than this. 

I've heard some blame her advisers. But really, she should be her own best counsel on handling the Legislature. It's also possible that since she spent all of her legislative career in the minority caucus, she became much better at criticizing than leading.

But she's got three more years of governing with at least the Senate being in Republican control. Hopefully, she's learned ignoring that reality is not a winning strategy.

Catch Nolan Finley on “One Detroit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.

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