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Could Gretchen Whitmer govern?

Jun 1, 2017

Gretchen Whitmer, currently the leading Democratic candidate for governor, told me something yesterday at the Mackinac Policy Conference that caught me by surprise: “You know, when you look at all of the candidates in the race, I’m the one that looks most like John Engler.”

That made for a jarring image. Whitmer’s a trim woman who’s usually ranked as Michigan’s most attractive legislator - at least by bored reporters who like to make lists. Governor Engler is a very large man who no one has ever compared to Pierce Brosnan.

When Engler was elected governor in 1990, he had spent 20 years in the Michigan House and Senate. He knew the process and the players, how to work the levers of power with both the carrot and the stick, and most of his agenda got accomplished.

That wasn’t the case with former Governor Jennifer Granholm, who had no legislative experience. Rick Snyder, with no government experience of any kind, has also failed to get his agenda enacted, even though his own party has overwhelmingly controlled the legislature.

Whitmer alone of all the announced democratic candidates has spent time in both the state House and Senate. She left office as Senate Minority Leader in 2014. Most of the time, she was in the minority and acknowledges that because of gerrymandering, Republicans are certain to control at least the state Senate after next year’s election.

But she said she’d had some success in negotiating compromises in the legislature – and believes that experience would make her far more effective. My feeling is that it certainly couldn’t hurt – and it would be nice to have a governor who came in understanding the process. 

However, it should be noted that thanks to term limits, most of those she worked with will no longer be there in 2019.

Whitmer may also be underestimating the determination of Republicans to derail any Democratic governor’s agenda.

What interested me was just why she wants to be governor. Whitmer, who turns 46 this summer, has two teenage daughters, a fairly new husband, and is an accomplished lawyer.

She’s already spent years in public service. Last year, she spent six months as interim Ingham County prosecutor after the longtime incumbent was destroyed by scandal.

However, she told me she wanted to do this because she loves Michigan, adding “it is no longer the state I grew up in.”

To her credit, she doesn’t claim to have all the answers yet – though she knows education is a big part of any solution. She thinks schools in poorer areas need to become community centers, if they are to have any hope of reaching students.

Whitmer also thinks we need to start early childhood education pretty much from birth.

She knows all this will cost money. She promises to eventually tell voters how she proposes to raise it, once she has a comprehensive plan.

There’s more than a year before the primary, and anyone who claims to know how this will play out is a fool.

But it might be interesting to have a governor who has some experience with governing. Not to mention someone in power willing to speak hard truths to the citizens they serve.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.