Among the women to join the chorus of #MeToo over the past two weeks is Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senator from Michigan who is also the likely Democratic nominee for the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race. Whitmer, who served as the state Senate’s minority leader, is a trendsetter. She was inspired to run for Governor even before Trump’s election last fall, and the wave of women for running for office started gaining steam. She cites the Flint water crisis as the “last straw” that pushed her to run. Since January, she has criss-crossed the state fundraising and speaking with voters. She’s built a platform around increasing wages, women’s rights, and education (current education secretary Betsy DeVos used Michigan as a testing ground). Political analysts say that whether voters go for her message in 2018 will shape the future of the national Democratic party.
We caught up with Whitmer at the Women’s Conventions in Detroit, after she spoke at a panel on reproductive rights and at an Emily’s List training for future candidates.
Why are you running for Governor, and why now?
I am a lifelong Michigander. I love my state but I’m looking around at the Michigan that my daughters are growing up in, and it hardly resembles the one that I think of when I talk about my Michigan pride. There was a point in time when a Michigan public education was the best you could find anywhere around and after 25 years of the DeVos agenda here, we lag behind the country now. We rank 41st in 4th grade literacy it doesn’t give people confidence that their kids are going to be prepared and with due reason.
I support raising the minimum wage, and that also means raising the tipped wage, which would overwhelmingly help women make a decent living. But we’ve also got to connect hardworking Michiganders with the skills they need to get a high-wage job, through apprenticeships and access to skilled-trades programs. Then there is the cost of education, so that our young people can attend college or vocational training and not graduate with a lifetime of debt.
There was a time when people packed up their families and moved here, to Michigan, because this was the place that created the middle class, where you could make enough money to take care of your family and retire with dignity. Now there are a lot of Michiganders who haven’t had a raise in 10 years. Right now we have a city full of families who still cannot drink their tap water!
Years before #MeToo, you talked about your rape from the Michigan Senate floor. But the past few weeks, issues around sexual harassment and assault have come to the fore. Do you think this moment is a sea change?
I hope so. I think that every voice that is added makes it harder and harder to ignore or just write off as a moment in time. I added mine when I was comfortable to do so.
I spoke out when one of the pieces of legislation the Republicans brought to the floor, I called it “rape insurance” because it required women to pre-purchase an abortion rider, if they want an abortion in the future. So not only do you have to pre-plan for an unplanned event, you have to buy something that doesn’t actually exist. It’s just another barrier to abortion services.
And they didn’t have a single hearing. They didn’t listen to any women. They didn’t take testimony from any doctors. And so it was actually on the floor during that debate that I shared the story that I had been raped when I was at Michigan State as an undergrad. I thought it was critical, if they were going to impact all these women, they needed to see the face of who they were talking about. Because there were no exceptions even for rape or incest.
But I also talk about it because I don't want my kids to have to. I think any woman who has a similar story, who is willing to share it, can make a big difference for future generations. It’s not an uncommon experience. That’s why I encourage women: if you feel safe, it can be liberating to share it.
We’re here at the Women’s Convention. Do you think we’re seeing a new kind of women’s movement?
As I get around the state, from rural communities to Downtown Detroit, whether it’s science marches or immigration rallies; Black Lives Matter, Pride marches, or the Women’s March, the organizers are often women. The energy is coming from women and it’s from women with different interests and from different walks of life. We’re not all the same of course, but I think there is so much strength there, what we’re seeing is that when we show up for one another’s fights, we are the majority.
You also just spoke at a training for women who want to run. What’s your advice for young women considering throwing their hats in the ring?
Run. Just run. I can tell you, having served in the state government at the highest offices, most women could walk in on day one and do as good a job as a lot of the people there. We have a tendency to wonder if we have enough experience or whether we’ve paid our dues and this, that, and the other thing. Men never challenge themselves that way. I think because of this, it does make us great leaders when we do it. But we’ve got to stop letting that hold us back.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.