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Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor

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Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor

Jun 24, 2024 | 5:03 am ET
By Susan J. Demas
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Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks with Michigan Advance at the Michigan Governor's Summer Residence on May 28, 2024 during the Mackinac Policy Conference. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s first book is coming out July 9, and she assured the Michigan Advance that there will be no anecdotes about killing her dog, á là South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.

“I’ve never executed an animal,” Whitmer said.

To wit, Whitmer’s dogs, Kevin and Doug, were present before and after a joint interview with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at the Michigan governor’s summer residence on Mackinac Island late last month.

And while she didn’t write about her experience on President Joe Biden’s vice president shortlist in 2020, the Democrat did share some details from what she called “a very intensive process in a very stressful period of being governor” during the first months of the COVID pandemic. She told the Advance why she asked to be withdrawn for consideration months before the Democratic National Convention, but Biden convinced her to stay in.

But as for any speculation that she might join the Biden administration if he wins reelection this fall, Whitmer shot that down.

“I’m going to stay in my position as governor until the end of my term,” she said.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer pets her dogs, Doug and Kevin Whitmer, after talking with Michigan Advance at the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence on May 28, 2024 during the Mackinac Policy Conference. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

During the wide-ranging interview, Whitmer and Gilchrist talked about negotiations on the Fiscal Year 2025 budget, including possible changes to her free community college and pre-K proposals, as well as long-delayed reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Advance also asked them about Biden trailing former President Donald Trump in most Michigan polls, if Biden is struggling more this election to win over African-American voters, if abortion is still a top issue with voters, if Michigan Democrats’ progressive agenda will hurt their chances of keeping the state House this fall and more. 

The following are excerpts from that interview:

Michigan Advance: So why is former President Trump leading President Biden in most polls in Michigan right now?

Whitmer: Well, I think we’re going to see a very tight race all the way through November. And I’ve told a lot of folks, don’t clutch your pearls when you see us down two points and don’t celebrate when you see us up two points. It’s going to be within the margin the whole time. … I know, though, that our polls leading up to our reelection [in 2022] was a much closer race than ended up being [Whitmer won by 10.5 points]. 

I’m not suggesting that anyone should be taken for granted. Certainly, the Biden administration is very focused on Michigan and delivering on the things that will make people’s lives better. And they’ve done a lot of good work on this. And I know Michiganders care about fundamental rights. They care about job security … and supply chains, and the Biden administration’s got a superior record on all fronts. And so I think when voters start to get focused on this election, I do anticipate that the president’s got a winning agenda. He’s delivered and has got a vision as opposed to running on a campaign of grievance and retribution. People want leaders and that’s what President Biden is.

Michigan Advance: But between polling and punditry, there definitely seems to be an overall sense that Biden is not ahead, whereas it was the opposite in 2020, even in the midst of the pandemic and all of its impacts. What do you think the change has been? Why are people dissatisfied?

Whitmer: I think the cost of living is higher right now. And while we’re seeing inflation coming down and we’ve got historic employment numbers and a president who’s actually gotten more done for this country than many of his predecessors, people are still, I think, working really hard to keep their head above water. And I think that’s the stress that the average person’s feeling. And that comes out I think in anxiety about the state of things. 

All that being said, when you actually take a look at the two choices, the two fundamental choices in front of us, there’s a very stark difference. One, the incumbent president who’s focused on making people’s lives better and another who’s focused on making his own life better.

Gilchrist: I think the president is going to continue to show how much his vision for the future has a place for everybody in Michigan. … When the vice president [Kamala Harris] was here, for example, a few Mondays ago, she had a very forceful economic vision that was focused on growth and inclusion, new business creation, particularly focused on not only the sectors that are important in Michigan, but to Black entrepreneurs. And I think that that’s a vision that again, is not about the past or retribution or revenge, but is about growth and opportunity showing people that they are part of a future.

Whereas I think former President Trump is solely focused on excluding people, is solely focused on finding new ways to articulate how people are not a part of his vision for the future. And ultimately, I think the people of Michigan will respond to that from the Biden-Harris campaign. And I think that’s why they’re going to win. To the governor’s point, it’s going to be close. That is what it is. But we will take our close victory. … They’re [Biden and Harris] the best partners for Michigan, having that alignment with our team here in Michigan has been transformational.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist talks with Michigan Advance at the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence on May 28, 2024 during the Mackinac Policy Conference. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

Michigan Advance: Is there a particular concern about Black male voters and younger Black voters moving away from the president?

Gilchrist: I think there’s an opportunity to continue to deepen that conversation. Black men are like any other group of voters, people; you want people to talk to you. You want people to talk to you all the time. And I think what we’ve seen with the continued, consistent and increased presence of the Biden-Harris administration — Michigan is one the states they’ve been to the most; the Detroit area is one of the places they’ve been to the most in the country. …

And again, what I said about the vice president came to Michigan to talk about — and Detroit specifically — is an emphasis on what Black men are excited about, which is: How do we create that pathway for entrepreneurship for us? And so I think the administration has good answers and they’re going to tell that story and tell it forcefully. And it is completely the opposite of what the Trump administration would be offering for a second term.

Michigan Advance: In the 2022 election, abortion was the top issue. Why is abortion not getting the same billing this election season?

Whitmer: I think it is. I think you’ll see that more and more that one of the things that I’ve been really trying to make sure that no one loses sight of is that while we made great strides here in Michigan enshrining abortion rights in our constitution and taking a lot of the TRAP laws off the books and other barriers, we know that this is all very precarious. Right now, you see what’s going on in Louisiana [which designated abortion pills as a controlled substance], you see what is pending in front of courts across the country, efforts to make it impossible for women to access mifepristone or just simply the abortion drug, which is the way that most women access abortion care in this country.

So if the United States Supreme Court renders a ruling that is brought from one state, it impacts all of us. If a second Trump presidency means more appointments to the Supreme Court, it means there’s a higher likelihood that we’ll see additional barriers [to reproductive rights]. And certainly Congress is Republican-controlled, we know that a national abortion ban is a very real possibility. So abortion rights are front and center, and I think every right that stems from a substantive due process — the marriage rights for a LGBTQ community — are all very much in flux still as a result of the Dobbs decision from the current Supreme Court.

Michigan Advance: Do you expect that the Trump administration would enforce the Comstock Act of 1873 to restrict abortion?

Whitmer: I think that they have told us that that’s precisely what they hope to do. You read the concurring opinions in Dobbs, and they’ve been very clear.

Michigan Advance: You had right-wing activists protest outside your house during your COVID orders. What do you think about pro-Palestinian activists protesting outside your house and the houses of University of Michigan regents?

Whitmer: I’ll say it’s very different being governor of the state. I have got state police that are part of the detail that keep me and my family safe. And even with everything over the last six years, I’ve never personally worried about my safety. [Ed. note: Whitmer was the subject of a 2020 right-wing kidnapping and assassination plot, for which there have been several convictions]. 

Being a public servant in another office, almost any other office, doesn’t have anything like the security that I have. And going to people’s homes in the middle of the night, I think it crosses a line. And I respect and applaud anyone who wants to voice their opinion on international policy, on domestic policy. But I think that making harassing or scaring public servants does cross a line.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, flanked by Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Speaker of the House Joe Tate, delivers her fifth State of the State address on Jan. 25, 2023. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

Michigan Advance: So moving to state government, obviously Democrats have been able to get quite a lot done this past term with a really slim legislative majority. Are there any concerns that Democrats might be overreaching as Republicans work to present themselves this election as moderates trying to hold back activists?

Whitmer: Where are Republicans trying to present themselves as moderates? [Laughs]. I would just submit that what we’re seeing from leadership on the Republican side right now in Michigan is continuing to promote a very extreme agenda that comports with the top of their ticket, Donald Trump. And Michiganders want leaders who are going to do what they say they’re going to do. 

And that’s precisely what this new majority in the Legislature’s done. We ran on leveling the playing field, delivering free breakfast and lunch with students, ensuring that we repealed the retirement tax and quintupling the Working Families Tax Credit. We put a billion dollars of tax relief for families and I’m proud of what we’ve done. I think it would be terrible if we were given this opportunity to lead and we didn’t deliver on the agenda we ran on. So we have; I’m proud of it. And with a slim majority, I think we’re going to have robust contests in the state going forward because we finally have fairly drawn districts. And the party that has been elected to the majority has a duty to live their values and deliver for the people that elected them.

Michigan Advance: Just a followup to that: You mentioned there are a number of kitchen-table issues, as people say, like free school lunches and bringing Obamacare into state law. Do you expect leadership on these issues and accomplishing these issues will be a boon to Democrats in the upcoming election this fall?

Whitmer: I think so. You look at the fact that we have two legislators [former Reps. Lori Stone and Kevin Coleman] who ran for mayors [in November 2023]. They both got elected. And in both districts, they sent more Democrats back to the Capitol [in special elections in April]. Now these are more Democratic districts; I know that. But I think it, too, tells you that people recognize that this is an agenda that they were expecting to get done and these two candidates, who are now mayors, were elevated to office in their communities. And I think that that’s a very positive sign about what we’ve been doing here in this moment in Michigan.

Gilchrist: I think we’re showing people that Democratic governance is worth voting for and when certainly I spend time with families across the state of Michigan — and not just in what you may consider blue areas. I was in Ironwood talking about the importance of free breakfast and free lunch, and hearing from parents and grandparents saying how important that was. The $850 that they’re saving is real money. The time that they’re saving in the mornings is real time.

And these policies are making a difference. And I think families just want to see that kind of leadership continue. And certainly the Republicans are in the minority — that doesn’t mean they can’t participate in things that are good for Michiganders. They have actively chosen not to do that. And I think that shows you that they are focused on everything but the people that we are trying to serve. But we certainly welcome a chance for them to work with us to deliver the things that are important for our communities.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks with Michigan Advance at the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence on May 28, 2024 during the Mackinac Policy Conference. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

Michigan Advance: Governor, in 2011, I remember sitting in your Senate office when you had a table very similar to this one because you wanted to make sure that all 12 members of the caucus could sit there when you were in a super-minority. Can you just describe what a sea change it’s been for you to have these 18 months of a Democratic trifecta? And back then, when you were in the minority, did you ever dream that would happen?

Whitmer: No. [laughs] To answer your last question first, the system was so rigged against having free and fair and representative government, that … we were in a super-minority many times over the past 40 years. We’ve seen that, with fairly drawn districts, we’re now in a position where we have a slim majority and we can deliver.

And when the election results came in, going into the [2022] election I remember [Sens.] Curtis Hertel (D-East Lansing) and Jim Ananich (D-Flint) saying, ‘If you just win by 3 points, we could pick up the Senate.’ And every candidate thinks, I’ve got to win 50% plus one vote. That’s what I got to do. But when the election results came in and we won by almost 11 points and flipped the House and Senate … I really started thinking about all the things that I tried to get done for my 14 years in the Legislature that now I might be able to get done.

And one of the most, I think, powerful moments for me, personally, was obviously the LGBTQ Civil Rights Act. Signing the Elliott-Larsen bill with my daughter standing next to me was one of the most powerful moments. But I also say that sharing my story of being raped in college [as a senator in 2013] and being able to undo that. I knew that we were in for a long fight. I believed that the majority of people in our state believed in a woman’s right to have her reproductive freedom.

But to have that culminate 10 years later, where I’m the one that could repeal that bill [that barred insurers from covering abortion without a special rider], was really one of those moments that I’ll never forget.

Michigan Advance: So you have a book coming out. And after South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem faced backlash for her book, where she talks about shooting her dog and sundry goats, did you go back and review your book at all just to make sure if there was anything you should take out?

Whitmer: [Laughs]. You know what? I read my book many times, so I know what’s in it. My book is not a memoir. It is really an effort to try to put some light out into the world in what feels like a really heavy, dark time. The question I get more than any other as I travel Michigan, or even beyond our state lines, is: ‘How do you stay positive when so much ugliness has come my way?’ And so this is just my effort to try to share some lessons I’ve learned and give people a laugh or a little inspiration.

So No. 1, I’ve never executed an animal [laughs], but No. 2, there are no stories like that in my book. But obviously, the process is such that, if you’re putting your name on something, you better be able to back everything up in it. And so I take that seriously both as a mom, as a human being, as a governor and as a lawyer.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem speaks at the Calvin Coolidge Foundation conference at the Library of Congress on February 17, 2023 in Washington, DC. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Michigan Advance: Going back to the State of the State address when I asked you: Is it true that you’re going to have a book coming out? And you played that question off quite well, saying, ‘Can’t believe everything you read on Page Six.’ I was wondering, given that you tricked me … kidding … if you have any tidbits from the book that you’d like to share that haven’t been made public yet.

Whitmer: There are some stories in the book that have not been made public that I think some people will be [like], ‘Oh, I’m a little surprised.’ But I don’t think there’s just anything that’s going to create a national firestorm.

Michigan Advance: How about when you were under consideration to be [Biden’s] vice president and you got flown out for an interview in 2020? How about a little something on that?

Whitmer: I don’t talk about that in the book at all but … 

Michigan Advance: But you can talk about it.

Whitmer: It was a very intensive process in a very stressful period of being governor. And I think I have talked about this publicly, but I’m not sure. There was a point where I asked to be taken out of consideration, actually, and it was when the Midland flooding happened. I was feeling very overwhelmed that I needed to lead through a pandemic and then through this incredible challenge in going through that intensive process, too. I asked to be taken out and the president asked me to stay in. And after 24 hours, I agreed to stay in the process.

Michigan Advance: So that would’ve been May of 2020?

Whitmer: Yes. But I’ll be very clear. It was never something that I was auditioning for, as I was and continue to be very happy to be governor of Michigan. And I can tell you, my whole family was very relieved that he didn’t ask me to be his running mate.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
Former Vice President Joe Biden links arms with Sen. Kamala Harris and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Detroit, March 9, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Michigan Advance: Just to get a little more clarity there, so moving on to another election cycle, if Biden is reelected, would you consider joining his administration if he offered you a cabinet post?

Whitmer: I’m going to stay in my position as governor until the end of my term. 

Michigan Advance [to Gilchrist]: Are you disappointed?

Gilchrist: No! [Whitmer laughs]. 

This has been awesome, though. … I think that we’ve been a team that’s more reflective and representative of Michigan than any administration’s ever offered. We’ve been able to build a team that’s been more reflective and representative of Michigan than any administration in the state’s history. And I think the results speak for themselves. The record investment in public education, the fact that we actually set a statewide housing plan and are ahead of schedule in achieving it. The way that we have been able to secure the kinds of investments in economic opportunity projects that position Michigan as a leader in some of the most important industries moving forward. That’s what this team has been able to deliver and it’s been great to be part of it. And I’m proud to finish this job with the governor.

Advance reporters Kyle Davidson and Anna Liz Nichols contributed to this story.

Whitmer talks about being considered for VP in 2020, vows to finish her 2nd term as governor
Doug and Kevin Whitmer look for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer after she spoke with Michigan Advance at the Michigan Governor’s Summer Residence on May 28, 2024 during the Mackinac Policy Conference. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)