Ahead of Michigan's 2018 gubernatorial election, the Metro Times editorial staff has interviewed the race's top contenders.
Gretchen Whitmer entered Michigan's gubernatorial race as the Democratic party establishment favorite, having served 14 years in the state legislature as well as a stint as interim Ingham County prosecutor — more political experience than her Democratic rivals Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar. Yet despite her experience, it turned out Whitmer hasn't been quite a household name for many Michigan voters, with early polls finding her and Thanedar more or less neck-and-neck after her millionaire rival aired a TV spot during the Super Bowl.
But as her opponents' campaigns were rocked by various controversies, Whitmer stayed largely out of the fray. For Thanedar, those were past allegations that one of his companies abandoned dogs and monkeys in a lab when it went bankrupt; for El-Sayed, it was a question of his eligibility to run that has since been resolved. In June, Whitmer aired her first TV spots, which focused on her resume and accomplishments and avoided mentioning any of her opponents; the only person the spot called out by name was President Donald Trump.
Whitmer's strategy could very well pay off: A new poll released by Michigan Information & Research Service found Whitmer surging well past Thanedar and El-Sayed, and also gives her an edge over Bill Schuette, the GOP's top contender.
"I think the most important thing to know is I'm running for governor because I love the state of Michigan," Whitmer says during a roundtable interview at the Metro Times office. "I'm proud to be a Michigander, but I look around at the Michigan that my kids are growing up in and it doesn't look like the Michigan that I think of when I talk about my pride."
Whitmer laments the decline of Michigan's schools, economic opportunities, and roads. "That's why I jumped in this race, because I'm mad about what's happened to our state, and I know we deserve better, and I know I can deliver," she says. "I've got the skills and the experience to go in on day one and get to work."
That's why Whitmer sees her political experience as a valuable asset. "One of the things about the background that I bring to the table is I served with three different governors during my time in the legislature," she says. "The last two governors didn't have any background in state legislative government. ... I think that it made their lives a lot more difficult when trying to make their agenda become a reality."
As a Senate minority leader, Whitmer says she knows how hard it can be to work with a Republican-controlled legislature. But she also points to her record of being able to reach across the aisle to get things done. "I was always in the minority," she says. "I was the leader of the resistance. The whole damn time."
"This road problem didn't happen overnight. It's decades in the making," she says of Michigan's deteriorating roads, which this year were ranked a "D+" by the American Society of Civil Engineers. "
In April, Whitmer unveiled her plan to "Fix the Damn Roads." Whitmer's plan calls for funding the Rebuild Michigan infrastructure bank at $2 billion, possibly funded by user fees, and drawing another $1 billion from the federal government each year. If she can't get the legislature to take action on funding the bank, she says she'll go straight to the people and pass a bond.
"That's not the easy route, but sometimes you can't go through the legislature," she says. "You go straight to the people. I can tell you, people want it. They're ready."
On education reform and charter schools
Whitmer calls for increased scrutiny of the for-profit charter schools as advocated by Betsy DeVos. "I know that the DeVos agenda has absolutely devastated our public school system in Michigan," Whitmer says. "Michigan's charter school system has perverted a system that other states have because 84 percent of ours are for-profit. The national average is like 16 percent."
Whitmer says she would advocate for shutting down underperforming charters. "It's not about profit," she says. "It's about whether or not the kids are getting the education they need."
At the same time, Whitmer says she would fight against closing down underperforming public schools in Detroit. "We've got to bolster what's happening in our public schools," she says. "You don't abandon the district — you put more resources into it and wrap around services for kids. Kids in high poverty are much more expensive to educate and need much more support. ... When they're packed into a classroom of 40 people, they don't have the support they need, they're lost. Schools are supposed to be the thing that levels the playing field."
Whitmer says she fought the past two governors over withdrawing from the school aid fund to cover the general fund. "It started under Governor Granholm, and Governor Snyder has done it on steroids," she says. "$650 million is taken out of the school aid fund annually to fund the general fund — that's not what proposal A was supposed to do."
On tax incentives for corporations
Whitmer says she would scrutinize the massive tax cuts and incentives for corporations that have become a hallmark of the Snyder administration. "We need to have a real strategy that makes incentives available to small independent developers," she says. "If you're employing someone in Michigan, or you are making investments in Michigan, or you're serving some sort of important public purpose that we all benefit from — those make sense to me, but these big giveaways don't."
She says she also would call for an oversight authority to study the benefits of corporate tax breaks. "I think we need to create an oversight authority that lasts long beyond a governor, because some of these are 20-year commitments, and we'll have three governors between now and when they are fully realized," she says. "Whether it's dollars we don't collect or it's dollars that were appropriated, it needs to be scrutinized in that frame of, 'What does it mean? Does it employ people? Does it confer a real benefit? Is it a worthy public purpose?'"
On health care
Whitmer comes short of proposing universal health care, as her opponents El-Sayed and Thanedar have done. But she does point to her record in the legislature in expanding Medicaid to 680,000 low-income residents through Healthy Michigan.
"I worked my tail off to make Healthy Michigan a reality in our state," she says. "My goal is to get every Michigander access to affordable, quality health care — everyone — whether it's through a statewide expansion of Medicaid or through hopefully some sort of assistance from the federal government at some point. But I can't wait on the Feds. ... We've got to have a Michigan solution. That's exactly what I have done and what I continue to work on to make sure that we've got the ability for everyone to buy into a Michigan plan that gives people real coverage and that it's affordable."
Whitmer says she believes in legalizing marijuana, as well as the expungement and exoneration of cannabis-related criminal histories.
In 2008, Whitmer endorsed the Michigan Medical Marijuana Initiative which allowed for medicinal marijuana, as well as a proposal to allow the use of embryonic stem cells for research. "I endorsed both at the time, and that was long before it was politically fashionable and certainly before it was politically comfortable," she says.
During her first year in Michigan's legislature, Whitmer took care of her dying mother, who died of brain cancer at 59. "I know that stem cell research gives such hope, and I know that medical cannabis gives such relief," she says. "So that's why I embraced both then. We've seen a succession of attorney generals who don't want to make the system work, and they made it so difficult for patients to get their medicine."
As a mother, Whitmer says she endorses a legal system to make sure cannabis is not used illegally by children. "As your brains are forming, access to cannabis is scary," she says. "I just want to make sure we make sure it doesn't get into the hands of kids."
On the emergency manager laws
Whitmer says she has always been opposed to Michigan's emergency manager laws. "This is the benefit of having served in the legislature, because I've got a long record on almost any issue you want to talk about," she says. "I was the Senate Democratic leader when the governor pushed through emergency management, and I fought him, but we were outnumbered 2-to-1 in the state Senate. When we went to the electorate we all voted against it, and then what happened was the Republicans passed it again, and they put money in it to render it an appropriations bill and make it referendum-proof."
"It's had horrifying consequences, and obviously what happened in Flint is the worst government failure in the history of our state, and maybe well beyond our borders," she says of the emergency manager's disastrous decision to switch the city's water supply without treating it properly, leading to a massive lead poisoning of its residents. "I totally support repealing the emergency manager act, but I'm knowledgeable enough to know that I can't go in equilaterally. I need a legislature to send that bill to my desk. So I can tell you as governor I will not use that emergency manager act the way that this governor has, and I will never, ever try to subvert the will of the voters by putting money into a bill so that they can't have the right of referendum. I will fight to make sure that I have a legislature that will send that bill to my desk, so I can sign it and repeal."
On claims that she wasn't hard enough on Larry Nassar during her time as Ingham County's interim prosecutor
In December, MSU police chief James Dunlap told The Detroit News that as prosecutor, Whitmer wanted to focus on the easier-to-prove child pornography cases against Nassar rather than the assault cases. Instead, the assault cases were handed off to the Attorney General's office — who is Whitmer's gubernatorial GOP rival, Schuette.
Whitmer stands by her record. "I'm proud of the work that we did in the prosecutor's office," she says. "My office worked 24-7 to get search warrant requests through the system so they could be executed immediately. Because of the work we did, we were able to get the hard drives that had the child pornography pictures on them. That is what led to Nassar's first 60-year conviction."
Since the crimes Nassar was accused of occured in numerous jurisdictions, Whitmer says she believed the cases were better off going to Schuette's desk. "We all agreed that my limitation was Ingham County, and some of the crimes that took place were outside of Ingham County," Whitmer says. "We got the best prosecutorial result we could, and that's by consolidating the cases in the Attorney General's office."
"Anyone who knows me or knows the work that I've done in my career knows that this is an issue that is particularly close to my heart, I am a survivor myself, and I told that story on the Senate floor," she says — a reference to her headline-grabbing revelations that she had been raped as a freshman at MSU, first made while arguing against a controversial and ultimately successful GOP-led "rape insurance" bill. "I created a special unit to handle sexual assault and domestic violence in the prosecutor's office," she says. "I put my political aspirations aside to do the right thing, and we got the right result there."
Whitmer's Democratic rivals Thanedar and El-Sayed have battled for the title of the campaign's Bernie Sanders-style progressive candidate. But Whitmer brushes off accusations that she is no progressive, and says her record on progressive issues should speak for itself. "I was considered the most progressive person the whole time I was in the legislature," she says. "I negotiated health care, I negotiated a minimum wage increase. I told my story of sexual assault when women's health was on the line. I wrote the Michigan 2020, which was a free college plan, before Bernie Sanders ever offered it on the national level. I am proud to be a progressive."
"When you don't have a record, you can say anything you want," she says of her opponents. "When you do, you stand up for what you believe in. I've got many things that I can point to that show that not only am I the progressive in the race, I'm the one who knows how to get stuff done."
Michigan's primary election will be held on Tuesday, Aug. 7.Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.