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Whitmer talks economic proposals, abortion rights and Trump at Detroit conference


Whitmer talks economic proposals, abortion rights and Trump at Detroit conference

Jun 13, 2024 | 10:11 am ET
By Jon King
Whitmer talks economic proposals, abortion rights and Trump at Detroit conference
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) with Emily Ramshaw, CEO and co-founder of the 19th News (left), at the Economic Security Project’s Guaranteed Income Now conference at the Gem Theatre in Detroit. June 12, 2024. Photo by Jon King

For the second time in three days, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was a featured guest at a Detroit conference.

After appearing Monday at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for the Clean Economy and Impact Summit, the Democrat returned Wednesday to Motown for the Economic Security Project’s Guaranteed Income Now conference at the Gem Theatre in Detroit, where she talked about working to pass her economic agenda, prioritizing abortion rights, and dealing with Donald Trump, all while trying to deftly sidestep discussion about her national ambitions.

Whitmer sat down for a one-on-one interview with Emily Ramshaw, CEO and co-founder of the 19th News, who started off by acknowledging the purpose of the conference they were at: to promote the concept of a guaranteed income, in which direct cash payments are made to individuals without precondition as a means to, among other things, address gaps in the social safety net, especially those affecting communities of color. Ramshaw called it a “movement … under siege,” and asked Whitmer how her administration utilized economic opportunity to advance racial equity.

Whitmer recounted the obstacles toward that goal that characterized her first term, including a Republican-led Legislature, a pandemic, 28 recall attempts, and a plot to kidnap and execute her.

“Coming in this term with a Democratic majority. … We thought the people of Michigan hired us, so we’re not going to waste a minute, and so for the first six months of last year, we got an incredible amount accomplished, giving a tax benefit to people who are raising kids and working full-time, the earned income tax credit, which we quintupled,” she said to cheers from the audience.

She also mentioned the initiative to provide free breakfast and lunch for all public school students in Michigan and helping lower the cost of skills training to allow more people access to better paying jobs without having to take on a lot of debt. 

“I think that our policies have really all been around the personal economy for Michiganders,” said Whitmer.

Moving to current negotiations underway on the Fiscal Year 2025 budget, Whitmer said one underlying purpose in her proposal for universal pre-K and free community college is an awareness that the Michigan of yesteryear is not the Michigan of today.

“People came from around the world for an opportunity here,” she said. “So you get into the auto industry and walk right into the middle class and buy a home up north as a vacation place. That was what we offered. And so as we look to how we are going to attract young people and families into Michigan, we say, ‘Universal pre-K and two years after high school? Covered.’”

On that note, Whitmer said with the slim, one-seat majorities that Democrats hold in both chambers, that vision is in no way assured, as both the proposed House and Senate budget plans reduce or alter her educational blueprint.

While lawmakers have passed their initial versions of next year’s budget, they have not approved a final plan yet. Negotiations between legislative leaders and Whitmer are ongoing, with floor action expected to heat up as soon as next week. The next fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

“I’m negotiating right now with our legislators, so if you like the mission here, you can make sure your legislators know,” said Whitmer, referring to the guaranteed income conference. “There’s no guarantee that what I put out there, we’re going to get done, and your voices really matter. I know this is not a shy group. I hope that you’ll reach out to your legislators and let them know how important universal pre-K and the community college guarantee is.”

Whitmer also tied economic progress to social justice, most notably on the issue of abortion, recalling that her comments at the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference championing reproductive rights as a foundational issue that transcended traditional issue politics. 

“If you don’t think abortion is about the economy, you probably don’t have a uterus,” she said, utilizing a tag line that has been deployed to great effect since her 2022 reelection, along with Democratic-majority Legislature being elected for the first time in about 40 years.  

And as she frequently has in the past, Whitmer explicitly laid out the connection. 

“The most profound economic decision a woman and her partner or family will make over the course of her lifetime is whether and when to bear a child, and so it is about the economy,” she said. “It’s about women being able to get into the workforce. It’s about making sure that we are supporting our youngest people so that they can be successful and productive in our economy. I also say the same for LGBTQ rights. Bigotry is bad for business.

Whitmer was asked what she would say to former President Trump, who is slated to be in Detroit this weekend for two events and has consistently trashed Michigan’s economy under her governorship. She used the question as an opportunity to tout the reelection of President Joe Biden, whose campaign she co-chairs, noting his support for the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act, as helping steer Michigan in the right direction.

As for Trump himself, Whitmer saw a silver lining in his visit.

“Every time he comes, I get more press,” she said to laughter from the audience.

Remshaw said she had originally planned to be on a family vacation this week, but rearranged all of her plans to accommodate an opportunity to do the interview as many people see Whitmer as someone likely to become the first female president of the United States.

“What kind of pressure is that like around a prospective candidacy?” asked Remshaw.

“I ignore it,” answered Whitmer, who then told a familiar anecdote. “That’s something that I cultivated from my mother. She was a trailblazer … [as] an attorney at the attorney general’s office. They didn’t have any women back in those days. She was getting ready to go to court one day. Someone said, ‘Sherry, you cannot wear pink to court,’ and my mom said, ‘Fuchsia is my power color,’ and went into court and killed it.”

Whitmer said she learned from her mother to compartmentalize and stay focused on what mattered, and while she demurred from talking about her personal thoughts on a presidential run, she didn’t hesitate when asked if she thought the country was ready for a woman in the White House. 

“I do. I really do. I think it is wild to see what nations have had female leaders and for us to be so far behind,” said Whitmer.

Remshaw closed the session asking about Whitmer’s autobiography “True Gretch,” which will be released July 9.

“This is going to be a hard five months ahead of us going into this next crucial election, and I thought if I can put some light on into the world, right now is a good time to do it,” said Whitmer, who described it as a short book that could be read in a just a couple of hours.

“It’s things I’ve learned in my life that I have applied to navigate a different scenario in these last six years, and the first chapter is ‘Don’t let bullies define you,’ she said. “I embrace Big Gretch [a nickname given to her by Detroit rapper Sada Baby during the COVID-19 pandemic] because it was bestowed on me by the people of Detroit.”

Whitmer said in a reverse manner she did the same thing when Trump called her “that woman from Michigan” in an attempt to berate her for her opposition to his administration’s pandemic policies.

“That was given to me by President Trump as an insult, but we turned it into a cause of action, and it spurred this whole Etsy community, selling T-shirts and hats and coffee mugs,” she said.  “And then I wore it when I did an interview with Trevor Noah. I thought, don’t let another person define you. We define who we are. ‘That woman from Michigan,’ I took it and we made it our own.”

Whitmer was asked what her recommendations were for those in the audience doing the hard work of advocating for marginalized communities. She recalled the moment in 2013 when she gave a speech as Senate minority leader in an effort to stop Senate Republicans from passing restrictions on health insurance coverage under which individuals would have to purchase a separate insurance rider. Whitmer and other critics slammed it as “rape insurance.” 

I decided to share my experience as a sexual assault survivor. It was not through meditating. It was off the cuff. But I thought they’re not even holding hearings, so women can’t even go and testify or medical providers can’t testify. They need to look at the face of a woman that they’re impacting.”

She said that after sharing that very personal story, it didn’t change a single vote and she was as depressed as she’d ever been, but was soon buoyed by the response she got from the public. 

“By the time I drove into my office the next day, people had reached out. I mean, thousands of calls and emails,” she said, adding that on the 10-year anniversary of that speech, she signed the bill that repealed it

“We can win these fights, and I will be arm in arm with you every step of the way,” said Whitmer.