LANSING, MICHIGAN—Gretchen Whitmer had her #MeToo moment before it was even a movement. Back in 2013, Ms. Whitmer, as the Democratic minority leader of the Michigan Senate, stood up and told her colleagues about surviving a sexual assault –as a freshman at Michigan State University (MSU)—when a bill was put before the legislature that would require separate insurance for women who are raped (the bill, dubbed the “rape insurance” bill unfortunately was made into law). Ms. Whitmer, 46, who is the leading Democratic candidate for governor of the U.S. state of Michigan, has continued to be a vocal supporter of reproductive rights and the overall empowerment of women, both of which are prominent parts of her campaign platform.
The mother of two teen daughters and three stepsons (her campaign office is above her husband’s dentist practice in the Michigan capital), Ms. Whitmer has also been a prosecutor—her opponents claim she was not aggressive enough in pursuing charges against former USA Gymnastics and MSU sports doctor Larry Nasser back in 2016—a legislator and a university professor. Though she was featured in a front page Washington Post story about the record-breaking number of women running for office in U.S. elections this year, she still has low name recognition. However, a recent poll done by the Detroit News and WDIV-TV showed she was up seven points from Republican frontrunner Bill Schuette, the state’s current attorney general who also has been tarred by the Nasser case, at 40-33.
Ms. Whitmer, who fondly recalls childhood summers fishing for perch in the freshwater lakes near her childhood home, would not be the state’s first female governor (that was Jennifer Granholm) but she certainly energized many supporters in recent months; according to her campaign, after headlining the Women’s March in Lansing in January, 7,000 people signed up for the campaign that day. The Michigan gubernatorial election is considered to be one of the most important races of the year in the U.S. and Ms. Whitmer, who at over $3 million in campaign contributions has raised more than any other candidate, is one to watch. She sat down with she-files.com’s Ginanne Brownell Mitic at her campaign headquarters to talk about why she decided to run, the integral role of women in U.S. elections and her plans to tackle issues from failing schools to human trafficking. EXCERPTS:
I am tired of politicians politicizing problems instead of fixing them. It is that simple. Maybe it is partially inherently female to just see a problem and wanting it fixed as opposed to seeing a problem and wanting it to fester to benefit someone politically. I just want things to work. I want my home state to be a place where my kids want to make their lives. I chose to stay here because I love this place and my family was here. I had opportunity and that is not the case for a lot of people right now so I want to fix the world for my kids.
There are record numbers of women running for office in this country this year. How does it feel to be a part of this movement and what has taken so long?
It feels great. There is energy and an enthusiasm that I have never seen before. Whenever there is a big setback there is always a strong, if not stronger, reaction and after the Anita Hill hearings [who testified in front of a U.S. Senate panel that the then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her], more women ran and got elected in the next election cycle. I think this is a reaction to the environment that we are in: the Trump administration and the [Hillary] Clinton loss, the different standards, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. What has happened at MSU [the] whole world has seen a colossal failure of women who were victimized for decades and so I think all of this has created an environment where women are awake and ready to run.
You mentioned Anita Hill and there being bump up of women running but then it obviously fell again. How do we keep that momentum this time?
Women have a tendency to hold ourselves to higher standards, to have that self-talk like, “I have to do this or I have to accomplish this or I have to do this or part of my background is going to hold me back.” We hold ourselves to a higher standard and because of that, it has been a barrier for a lot of us [and] you look around and think, “if [Trump] can get elected to the highest office in the land, then the things that I think are holding me back are not real.” So I do think it has been a moment where women have now seen [that] you should not let all this self-talk keep you back because this guy didn’t and look where he is now. And the issues are so serious that we cannot not lead the conversation, much less be absent from it.
I remember on election day in 2016 there was an interview on the BBC where the journalist asked a woman somewhere in the Midwest why she was not voting for Hillary Clinton and she said that she did not think that a woman should be president. What would you say to a woman like that, implying a woman’s place was not in politics?
That is a tough one and I’m not sure I have an answer other than [I] would guess the woman you heard was from an older generation and younger generations do not have that baggage, which gives me great hope. These young people speaking out on gun violence, these women who spoke out about sexual abuse, they see the world totally differently so it is a matter of time before a lot of those older barriers fall. But I do not write anyone off so if a woman had said that to me I would explore and say, “Why? Why do you think that? Who makes the decisions in your household? Why do you trust to be making all the financial decisions?” Because women run most households, women take care of people at the beginning of their lives and at the end of their lives. They are not women’s issues, they are issues that impact all of us and our voices have to be at the table. And her life would be better off with more women at the table and maybe she does not realize that and that is why we seek to understand.
There are not only a record number of women running for office this year but also more and more stories of more women being mobilized to campaign and being a force behind election victories. One of the most powerful examples of this was last autumn’s special U.S. senate election last year in Alabama where African-American women were said to be the real power behind Doug Jones’ victory of Roy Moore.
It takes a concerted effort to reach out. Women are busy, we are trying to figure out how to arrange daycare, get the groceries, put the dinner on the table, get to work, get everyone to bed, get up the next morning and do it all over again. And I think when you are so focused on just getting by it is hard to spend your extra energy on changing the national conversation because you are just trying to keep your head above water. But I think that this climate, people understand why it is important, why elections matter, that they have consequences. Everyone has a role they can play no matter how much time you have, whether it is simply voting or helping get other people registered to vote or getting on the phones and calling to encourage people to vote or hosting a fundraiser or running for office yourself. We all can play a role in making the difference in this election. So the environment helps but it is on us to keep reaching out. I think the average woman candidate has been asked or encouraged seven times before she seriously starts to consider [a run for office]. I do know that we do not come out of the womb ready to run for president. It often takes others suggesting it and encouraging that for the seed to take root.
Human trafficking in Michigan, as is the case across the U.S., is a major problem. How would you tackle this, especially in relation to training police, teachers and those in emergency services to recognize the signs of a young person who has been trafficked?
Our leaders have to first recognize that people who are trafficked are from vulnerable populations. They are kids who have been neglected or abused. They are young people in households where parents are not able to spend as much time with them, they are trying to hold down jobs or they have a drug problem or they are absent, period. It starts with vulnerable populations so it is so critical that we have education that meets the needs of our students. That we have social workers in the schools and nurses and literacy coaches who can be the front for protection but also help meet those needs of vulnerable populations. We have to train our police forces, our general public to recognize signs so they can help the people who are being trafficked but also to hold [those responsible] accountable. When I was the legislature I supported the Safe Harbor legislation that stopped punishing the victims of trafficking. [So] I think that was an important step but unless you have the financial commitment to really do something on the front end, you are not fixing the problem.
We are seeing public education in this country being decimated, in large part because of the steps Secretary of Education Betsy Devos— who happens to be from Michigan— has been taking. How do you as governor try to improve the situation at least in your state?
Michigan used to have the best public education system on the planet and that was true of every community in Michigan; no matter where you lived your kids were going to get a stellar public school education. [For] 25 years the Devos family has pushed legislation to undermine the public education of our kids by attacks on people who go into education, in terms of their benefits and their pay and their retirement, to the per- pupil foundation laws [and] the proliferation of charter schools that are not held to same standards as public schools are. And because of it, we are now in the bottom 10 in our country where we used to lead the world. [In the U.S.] we are 48th in literacy for 4th graders. So you remedy that by investing in education. And starting a lot earlier with universal early childhood education. Right now the policy is to hold kids back and punish them for not being literate without giving them the support they need. I think that is the absolute wrong attitude; you do not make a child feel inadequate, you give them the support they need to meet your expectations. We have to treat educators like professionals again, we have to pay them enough that it is a profession that people will choose to go into again.
All photos courtesy the Gretchen Whitmer for Governor campaign: 1) Endorsement; 2) Profile; 3) At rally; 4) Speaking to daughter on FaceTime