A tyrannical queen. An overbearing mother. Like Hitler — with a blowout. These are just some of the ways in which Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been portrayed since enacting a statewide stay-at-home order to keep people safe from Covid-19. Not a week goes by when militia members don’t storm the state capitol in Lansing brandishing assault rifles, Nazi symbols, and Confederate flags, and demanding to “lock her up” for standing between them and the freedom to die. A few days ago, a man who has made credible threats to kill “the woman in Michigan,” as President Trump has called her, was arrested. He now faces a terrorism charge.
Two years ago, when Whitmer won the gubernatorial seat, beating her opponent by 10 points and outperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 turn with pretty much every demographic, her current polarizing political status would have been unfathomable. But, it hasn’t been a totally smooth ride along the way: 2019 saw her battling with Republican lawmakers who didn’t share her number-one priority: “Fix the Damn Roads,” also known as her campaign slogan. Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, and Whitmer was thrust into the national spotlight as deaths began to multiply throughout her state; Michigan is the fourth-most affected state after New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, with almost 53,000 cases and over 5,000 deaths as of May 21. Whitmer asked the president for federal aid, particularly in the form of protective equipment, and was dismissed with gendered comments — which she then used to her advantage, wearing a “That Woman From Michigan” shirt on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah while continuing to lobby for federal help. She even got a Saturday Night Live shoutout when Cecily Strong parodied her.
But that’s not all 2020 has had in store for Whitmer: On top of the pandemic and growing national attention, the governor is now dealing with epic flooding, which has created an ecological disaster in the middle of the state. Whitmer and Trump reportedly spoke on the phone about it on Wednesday, and he said he may visit the flood-stricken areas today. This comes after the president threatened to withhold relief funding from the state, erroneously accusing officials of voter fraud after they sent out perfectly legal vote-by-mail applications ahead of the August and November elections.
Whitmer has said her stay-at-home order was a “gut-wrenching” decision, but emphasized that it has saved thousands of lives. Still, it has riled up the Republican legislature, members of the police force, and, yes, hundreds of members of the “haircut resistance.” While angering right-wingers, her willingness to make strong decisions has caught the attention of key members of her own party. Former VP Joe Biden took notice of her executive style and put her on his short list of potential running mates. She recently said she’s had “conversations” with the campaign. And Whitmer continues to enjoy popularity with the majority of Michiganders; 64% say they approve of how she’s handled the crisis.
In short, this is Whitmer’s moment in ways that are both incredibly trying and profile-boosting. But when we spoke on the phone recently, there was zero stress in her voice to suggest that she is juggling career-changing crises and she sounded almost improbably cheerful. She said she respects protestors’ “right to dissent” and that her primary concern about the demonstrations is they could lead to further Covid-19 outbreaks as a result of refusal to social distance and wear masks. “It’s important that if people are determined to demonstrate, they do so responsibly,” Whitmer told Refinery29. “In a way that doesn’t jeopardize their own health or their families, but also that doesn’t expose their community. We have seen that people have come from around the state and then they return into their communities. We are watching rural parts of Michigan where we have case numbers that have increased, and that is very concerning because they didn’t have cases before and they do now.” Still, she is continuing to relax measures when experts deem it safe to do so: Today, she announced that gatherings of up to 10 people, with social distancing, are again permitted in the state. On Monday, she announced the reopening of restaurants and shops in the northern, less populous, part of the state, but urged people to stay cautious and follow safety guidelines.
While many rural areas have remained largely unscathed, almost half of Michigan’s coronavirus cases and deaths have been in Wayne County, the area around Detroit, which is about 39% African-American. Despite being 14% of the state’s population, African-Americans make up more than 40% of its Covid-19 deaths. This outrageous statistic makes it all the more noticeable that the vast majority of Michigan’s “haircut resistance” protestors are white, to say nothing of the fact that some of them have entered the capitol armed to the teeth, yelling at police and legislators, but faced no consequences. At the same time, stories of police officers killing unarmed Black people across the country are proliferating: In March, 26-year-old EMT Breonna Taylor was murdered in her sleep in a botched operation. The injustice is not lost on Whitmer.
“With the unique situation in Michigan where people can bring their weapons into our state capitol, I think the whole world’s wondering why on Earth that is,” Whitmer said. “I tried to encourage them to change that, and they won’t. And I totally understand when people see that and they know that people of color who show up with arms, or even without them, are treated differently. That’s a reality, and it is a terrible shame, and something that we as a country need to fix.”
This isn’t Whitmer’s first political rodeo — although this time, she has both executive power and wide popular support. She cut her teeth as a State Representative and then as Senate Minority Leader in a state legislature dominated by older Republican men, making a name for herself with fiery speeches and strategic negotiating with her opponents over beers. She often couldn’t stop Republicans from getting their way, but she made sure to make her agenda known. In 2013, she told her own sexual assault story on the floor of the legislature, while arguing against a bill that would require women to purchase separate insurance to cover abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. It was intensely uncomfortable for her to share this story, and when the bill passed anyway, she felt gutted. But then, notes of support started pouring in from around the country. After this it became even clearer to Whitmer that her communication skills, her ability to tell stories and persuade, are her biggest assets on the political stage. With a wagon of experience dealing with dissenting Republicans, and as a woman in an executive position — one of only nine women governors currently serving — she understands how to work with constant pushback.
There's no handbook for this moment. But there's a source of inspiration every day, and I think that's what helps me to stay focused and not get sucked into all of the politics and the ugliness.
Many people outside of Michigan first learned about Whitmer in February, when she was chosen to deliver the Democrats’ response to Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, a role typically assigned to up-and-coming party stars. But it’s her unflinching response to the pandemic that has really put her on the map. It’s no wonder that Biden and his team have their sights on Whitmer, reportedly considering her as a running mate along with more established politicians like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. The fact that she could help Biden win a key state Clinton (narrowly) lost in 2016 would be a huge asset to the ticket, in addition to her proven ability to handle a crisis and relative youth (she’s 48). But that level-headedness, the Gretchen-under-pressure vibe, is the major intangible factor — because Biden knows that if he picks Whitmer, Trump and his supporters will target her even more aggressively.
“I know [my handling of Covid-19] has put me on the national radar, and I’m never going to do anything less than continue to do my job,” she said, when asked about potentially becoming Biden’s running mate. “We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and if doing my job well means that I’m part of a phenomenal group of people that’s being considered for that spot, what an honor. But I’m 100% focused on doing my job, and I’m going to stay that way.”
Democratic strategists have varying opinions on whether she is the optimal choice for Biden. “Gov. Whitmer has risen to the short list for Vice President for two reasons: strong leadership and clear communication,” Jared Leopold, who has worked with the Whitmer campaign through the Democratic Governors Association, told Refinery29. “She is a uniquely talented communicator. She talks to voters like she's their neighbor, not some politician. During the campaign, she had plenty of naysayers, saying that she'd lose Michigan because Hillary Clinton did. That was largely based on sexism. In 2018, she flipped nine Trump counties and she increased turnout among African-Americans and younger voters.”
Others think she needs to continue her focus on the crisis in Michigan. “I think the first rule of picking a VP is ‘do no harm,’ and I think Gov. Whitmer would be a potentially complicated pick,” said Danny Barefoot, a partner at Anvil Strategies. “It would be hard for her to justify campaigning nationally while leading her state through a crisis. I think it would be less than ideal for the Biden campaign and for Gov. Whitmer for her to have to make tough public health decisions for her state in the context of what will certainly be an ugly presidential race.”
No matter what happens, Whitmer is certainly ready for it. And that quality that strikes you when you hear the first notes in her voice on the phone — the level-headedness, the unshakable calm — is what’s going to get her through this crisis and whatever comes next.
When asked how she keeps from breaking under pressure, she said she counts her blessings. It’s the normal, everyday aspects of her life, like the way her family’s labradoodle, Kevin, was following and annoying her during our interview, that let her focus on what’s important rather than becoming distracted by Trump tweets or name-calling. She laughed as she recounted that her children named him after Kevin from The Office and told me that he has his own Twitter account at @MIFirstDog. Whitmer said she is grateful for her family — her husband Marc Mallory, who owns a dental practice, his three sons, and her two daughters — “who keep me grounded,” relationships with colleagues across the country and locally, Zoom calls with nurses and doctors, and young people like a 10-year-old named Lauren who has turned her basement scrunchie business into a mask factory. And in focusing on the positive, she provides yet another needed antidote to Trump’s poisonous discourse.
“There’s no handbook for this moment,” Whitmer said. “But there’s a source of inspiration every day, and I think that’s what helps me to stay focused and not get sucked into all of the politics and the ugliness and all the other stuff that comes my way.”