When the coronavirus pandemic slammed into Michigan in mid-March, Gretchen Whitmer had been governor of the state for just over a year. As total cases doubled to more than 1,000 in 48 hours, she made what she calls the most difficult decision of her time in office: issuing a March 23 order to shut down the state.
The federal government, she realised, was not going to help. The Midwestern state was low on N95 respirator masks and she had asked President Donald Trump on a conference call with other governors if he could supply it with any from the national stockpile. He refused.
At this point, state governors were competing against each other for personal protective equipment. When a shipment that was supposed to go to Michigan went to the federal government instead, Whitmer took to television to fault the national response. Trump responded later at a press conference saying he had told vice-president Mike Pence not to call “the woman in Michigan”. “No one likes to be criticised,” Whitmer says. “For whatever reason, when women do it they get a harsher backlash when it comes to this White House.”
Whitmer doesn’t just stand out for drawing presidential ire. This year, she has also dealt with a massive dam collapse, a historic reckoning over racial justice, armed protests at the state capitol, more than 350,000 cases of coronavirus and a foiled plot to kidnap her allegedly conceived by gun-toting men infuriated by her Covid-19 restrictions.
“If you had told me we would be confronting all these things in 2020 I might not have believed you,” she says in a matter-of-fact way. “Especially if you’d told me we’d be confronting them all at the same exact time.” Whitmer is talking to the Financial Times from a library-turned-studio at her official residence in the state capital, Lansing, partly decorated by gifts from supporters, including a Michigan car licence plate stamped with the word “RESPECT”.
The governor was born and raised in Michigan, the daughter of lawyers who both spent part of their careers in government, and she is a product of state-run schools. When she attended Michigan State University, she wanted to be a sportscaster, but she found her way to the law instead. While volunteering on other people’s campaigns, a state representative seat opened in her area in 2000. She looked at the other candidates and thought, “You know, I can do as good a job as the people running. Maybe better.”
She won that race and spent the next 14 years in the state legislature, championing causes such as abortion rights and a $15 minimum wage. When she ran for governor in 2018, she campaigned on infrastructure. Voters in the carmaking powerhouse state, home to Detroit, liked the pragmatic punch of her “Fix the damn roads” slogan so much they sent her to the governor’s mansion with 53 per cent of the vote. “I was just today in Grand Rapids where we were opening up a new road that’s been built, so we’re still fixing the damn roads,” she says with just a whisper of irony, “but no one’s talking about them because we’ve got so much else on our minds right now.”
Women of 2020
From politicians and novelists to scientists and activists, the FT profiles this year’s game-changing women. Here are some to watch out for:
December 2: Jane Fraser, next Citigroup CEO
December 3: Prof. Sarah Gilbert, Oxford vaccinologist
December 4: Miuccia Prada, fashion designer
December 4: Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
December 5: Hilary Mantel, author of the Wolf Hall trilogy
As well as Covid-19, the public glare has focused on the chaos in Michigan born of rightwing opposition to the governor’s pandemic restrictions. Whitmer began receiving death threats following Trump’s public attacks.
In April, armed protesters showed up at the Michigan State Capitol to demonstrate against the stay-at-home order. They entered the gallery above the legislative chamber, frightening lawmakers. Whitmer did not have the authority to ban guns in the Republican-controlled legislature, and the commission that runs the Capitol grounds declined to do so. The day before protesters arrived for another confrontation, the legislature’s leaders adjourned.
Facebook groups, often used by extremists as an organising tool, sprang up with threats against Whitmer and her family. People began showing up on her front lawn with automatic rifles, then in October federal and state authorities announced that a group of men had planned to kidnap her before the November presidential election, transport her across state lines and put her “on trial” for treason.
Whitmer had been briefed on this two months earlier by her security detail. Fourteen men were charged with a mix of state and federal crimes, including conspiracy to kidnap, assisting terrorism, gang membership and possessing a firearm while committing a felony.
How much attention has Whitmer given these developments? “I don’t read all the affidavits,” she says. “I have too much work to do, and I just don’t know that that’s a really good idea for me in this moment.”
That work this year has also included her role as co-chair for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign; in fact, she was even considered as a vice-presidential pick. Biden’s victory has made her feel more optimistic than she has been for a while, she says, and watching Kamala Harris, who is a black-south Asian woman, be elected to the vice-presidency was “a beautiful moment”. (She says she will not accept a position in Biden’s cabinet if it is offered.)
Seeing racial minorities and women in high-profile positions is important, she says, noting that when she was growing up, dreaming of being a sportscaster, “there were no women back on [sports TV network] ESPN”. Her teenage daughters now live in a world where they know that is possible.
Whitmer watched election night returns in the residence, then kept the television on “24/7” until Biden’s victory became clear four days later. She shared the joy of the president-elect’s supporters as they danced in the streets afterwards but “all I could think about was Covid-19 and how I don’t want people to get sick”.
The governor has a mantra that she has relied on during the pandemic: what is the next right thing to do? She began using it when she was in her late twenties, trying to manage a newborn, a new job as state legislator and caring for her mother, who was dying of brain cancer, all at the same time. So she focused on one decision, one action at a time. “That’s how I learnt to manage through a lot of really stressful things that hit at once,” she says. “That keeps you from getting overwhelmed.”
The mantra remains handy. The next right thing for Michigan, she says, is getting the state’s rising number of Covid-19 cases — as high as 16,700 a day in mid-November — under control; more than 9,400 people have died so far. Six days after this interview, Whitmer’s health department issued an order shutting down high schools, universities, restaurants and entertainment venues. In response, a Trump White House coronavirus adviser, overlooking the armed protests and kidnapping plot, tweeted that people should “rise up”.
“I’m not going to be bullied into making a decision that isn’t in the best interests of the people that I serve,” she says. “Whether it is coming from a Twitter feed out of the White House, or a Facebook group, or people on the front lawn, I’ve got a job to do.”
Claire Bushey is the FT’s Chicago correspondent
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