One measure of just how long, painful, and exhilarating — but also terrifying — the past year has been for one Gretchen Esther Whitmer is what finally, after more than an hour of interviews over the course of a week, prompts a real laugh. With the more than 12,000 COVID-19-related deaths in Michigan, a horrific alleged plot by right-wing kooks to kidnap her, constant legal and political attacks on her authority, and a wrecked state budget and economy, the 49th governor of Michigan has found precious little to make light of lately.
But then our topic turns to the massive, mostly maskless rallies Donald Trump held across the state in the waning days of his losing presidential reelection bid, events that violated the state’s restrictions on large public gatherings as well as the advice of medical experts. Why were they allowed to take place?
“Uh, Steve, what am I gonna do? Arrest the president of the United States?” When I reply with a deadpan grin, “It’d be fun to watch,” she emits a real guffaw and takes a few seconds to be amused by the mental image before bringing herself back to the point.
“I’m being facetious, but one of the things that’s been hard throughout 2020 is people always want to know, what is the enforcement? What is the punishment? How do we make everyone do the right thing?” she says. “Governors across the country, Republican and Democrat alike, are struggling with that. None of us have unlimited resources and police forces to descend on every violation of every order that we issue. But the orders are important because people understand what’s happening and the majority of people follow them. That’s the most important value in them.”
That’s just one of many paradoxes in Whitmer’s life in the COVID era. She’s frequently accused of turning the state into, as Lions QB Matthew Stafford’s wife, Kelly, put it before apologizing, a “dictatorship” by shutting down sectors of the economy by fiat even as she knows her real influence lies in getting the public to voluntarily obey those orders for their own safety. She’s drawn some of the most virulent, violent, and vicious opposition — armed protesters at the Capitol hanging her in effigy, say — of any leader navigating the pandemic while, at the same time, inspiring a folklore about “the woman in Michigan” that includes a rap nickname (Big Gretch), a Saturday Night Live parody, and a Muskegon-brewed craft beer. And she’s perhaps the most famous new face to emerge on the national political scene in the past year, what with her fending off personal attacks by Trump and forging a powerful friendship with President Joe Biden. Yet, owing to her own personal lockdown at the governor’s mansion in Lansing with her husband, dentist Marc Mallory, and her teen daughters, Sherry and Sydney, she says she only knows of her prominence because people like me tell her about it all the time.
“I don’t know what life is like for me now because I’m staying home to stay safe,” she says early in the first of our conversations, all via Zoom, that nasal upper Midwest twang and cadence that was lampooned on SNL by Cecily Strong in full evidence. “That’s the weird thing about this moment, when people say, ‘Oh, you’re nationally known now.’ And I’m like, ‘Am I?’ I mean, I haven’t been into an airport or walked through a restaurant, even. I wouldn’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t feel like I’m any different. … My life hasn’t changed that much other than that I’m doing all my meetings by Zoom and I’m just not out and about in public like I ordinarily would be, which I miss a lot.”
On April 30, Whitmer peered out the window of her second-floor office at the Romney Building across from the Michigan Capitol to see a sea of angry protesters, most unmasked, some brandishing huge guns, Trump 2020 banners, and Confederate flags — and a nude Barbie doll converted into her effigy, hanging from a noose. “I wasn’t mad. Was I fearful? I was not afraid. Was I sad? That was the emotion I felt,” she says. “It was sad because we’re working so hard to try to keep people alive, to try to keep our hospitals from being overwhelmed.”
Whitmer’s sister, Liz Gereghty, was on the phone that day from her home in upstate New York listening to Whitmer’s description of the scene in similar shock and bafflement. Yet by then the moment was of a piece with a string of stranger-than-fiction events neither woman could quite comprehend. Weeks earlier, the sisters were talking when Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” by which he implied that Whitmer’s COVID restrictions were figuratively, or perhaps literally, imprisoning her residents.
“We were like, ‘What’s happening? Has Canada invaded?’” Gereghty recalls. “It’s ridiculous to think that the head of the republic was calling for the liberation of a member state of that same republic that had not been invaded by any foreign government. There was so much … ridiculousness that she and I just looked at and thought, ‘What on Earth is happening now? Like, how is this real life?’”
Indeed, the path to that surreal existence would have seemed impossible to imagine a year ago, when Whitmer expected 2020 merely to bring continuing economic expansion, more stalemates with the GOP-run Legislature over road funding and other initiatives of her 2018 campaign, and a white-hot spotlight for swing-state Michigan in a sure-to-be-contentious presidential election. The highlight, she figured, would probably be her Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4, an assignment fraught with political risk for many who’ve dared to try it. Whitmer’s aim was to avoid “a big mistake that would be newsworthy.”
She made it through those 10 minutes unscathed — it was a serviceable if unmemorable speech that name-checked Trump just twice and with anodyne criticism — and was feeling good: “I did the State of the State and then I did that, and then I presented my budget and I thought, ‘The hard part of 2020 is over. I can relax now.’ And, of course, life turned upside down, and that’s like a distant memory now.”
Of course. It’s hard to remember now, but Michigan was among the last big states to record official cases of COVID-19, on March 10, after 36 other states. But soon thereafter, the Detroit area became an epicenter for transmission, over-capacity hospitals, and death such that through April and May, only New York and New Jersey rivaled the misery playing out in Michigan. The cascade of unprecedented closures began quickly — public schools and most universities went online by March 12; Whitmer shut down theaters, indoor dining, and casinos on March 16; and then she ordered all nonessential workers to shelter at home starting March 24. She enjoyed an unusual level of bipartisan support, including from Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, a native Michigander, who told the Associated Press, “I am rooting for Gov. Whitmer. I think she’s done good things.”
Then she went public with complaints that the White House was not providing enough equipment and support for Detroit’s besieged hospitals, and that drew her into Trump’s crosshairs. In late March, the president referred to the then-48-year-old on Fox News as “the young, a woman governor, you know who I’m talking about, from Michigan,” nicknamed her “Gretchen Half-Whitmer” on Twitter, and, at a March 27 news conference, said he had told Vice President Mike Pence, “Don’t call the woman in Michigan” because she hadn’t been sufficiently “appreciative” of the administration’s efforts. (Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, nonetheless praised her as “leading her state through all of this with great energy.”)
“Oh, I think [Trump] probably knew my name,” Whitmer told me in early April. “I sat right next to him at the state dinner during my first National Governors Association conference last year. Our interactions have been just fine up until a few tweets and a few remarks from his press conferences. I take it all with a grain of salt because people might not appreciate how dire the situation here in Michigan is and understand why I’m being so persistent.”
Soon, though, that grain grew far heavier and more toxic. In late April, as questions about closures and crowd-size restrictions became contentious, the Legislature refused to extend Whitmer’s executive authority as was required under the 1976 law she invoked to start her COVID counteroffensive in March. Still facing a rampant pandemic, she turned to a little-used 1945 statute that she and Attorney General Dana Nessel believed gave governors virtually unrestricted power in ongoing emergencies such as this. A flurry of lawsuits followed challenging the constitutionality of the 1945 law as well as various specific executive orders, and in October the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Whitmer had inappropriately used the 1945 statute. The high court voided her executive orders, but days later Whitmer found “alternative sources of authority” to reimpose rules requiring masks, social distancing, and reduced crowd sizes by having them issued by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While polls showed her decisions were popular across the state, thousands of Michiganders — from barbers to bar owners — chafed in fury and, in some cases, openly violated Whitmer’s restrictions as the forced interruptions shoved their enterprises toward bankruptcy. Small-business groups called out the seemingly nonsensical contradictions in Whitmer’s edicts — marijuana dispensaries could stay open, but Home Depot was not allowed to sell gardening products? — and spotlighted the crushing impact on families around the state.
Whitmer insists her orders were guided by what public health scientists said would help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and that her family, too, struggled under them. Then she found herself apologizing in late May after the owner of a dock company said on Facebook that her husband had tried to use his stature to get their boat in the water. Whitmer says he was making a “bad joke,” but her critics still routinely cite the incident as proof of hypocrisy and self-dealing.
“She’s being very partisan; she surrounds herself with advisers that are very partisan, and it’s clear she felt that she had this power and she was going to use it and make decisions unilaterally,” says Charles Owens, Michigan director for the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB). “She claims that she’s reached out and tried to include the Legislature. If you discuss that with the legislative leadership, you wouldn’t find agreement on that. This state has been split into two factions — those who have managed to keep their jobs and those who haven’t. What I find is people who are collecting a paycheck support the governor’s policies. People who are on the verge of losing everything, not so much.”
Whitmer says she has called meetings every other week via Zoom with the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to talk about her COVID plans and that she provides texts of her administration’s orders to them before they’re released. House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey skipped many of those meetings and are being disingenuous when they claim to be surprised by her orders, the governor says.
“No one was blindsided; no one was left out of the conversation,” she insists. “But the nation’s governors are the front lines because there hasn’t been a national strategy. And moving quickly and being nimble when lives are on the line is crucial, and that’s what the executive office is designed for. The Legislature is important, but they are not designed to be nimble. They are important as part of the conversation, but at the end of the day, the buck has to stop with the governor.”
Chatfield declined to be interviewed for this report, and Shirkey’s office did not return messages seeking comment. But Owens says Whitmer’s approach was lazy and detrimental to the state and herself.
“Doing things unilaterally is a lot easier than trying to get some agreement with other people,” he says. “Acting unilaterally also makes you totally responsible. That is a very heavy burden considering what we’re dealing with here. That is a very heavy responsibility for anyone to bear, and she doesn’t have to.”
All of this took place against an increasingly nasty public debate over the nation’s response to COVID, over the science of wearing masks, and over how to balance economic and civic disruption against who was actually most likely to fall seriously ill or die. Overlay upon that the 2020 presidential race in which Whitmer started out as a national co-chair for Biden’s campaign and by spring had become such a serious vice presidential contender that she appeared on the debut episode of Biden’s campaign podcast.
“Her fight with the Legislature, Michigan being particularly hard hit, and the pretty strong disagreements over how to handle COVID in the state, then her being considered for VP, then the president attacking her — all those things helped lead to a national profile for Gov. Whitmer and a lot of focus,” says Jarrett Skorup, spokesman for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank that has sued Whitmer and voices opposition to her decisions. “You began seeing a lot of media profiles out of that, and I’m not criticizing her for that — it’s obviously notable. It makes sense why she was going to get a national profile.”
The biggest, most bizarre shock of all was yet to come. On Oct. 8, the FBI and state law enforcement announced more than a dozen arrests in connection with an alleged conspiracy by a paramilitary group known as the Wolverine Watchmen to kidnap Whitmer and possibly storm the Capitol to commandeer the Michigan government. Whitmer laid the blame at the feet of her political enemies, especially after Trump refused to condemn the suspects and Chatfield criticized her for not informing him of the potential threat to the Capitol. The Watchmen, she said on CBS’s Face the Nation, find “comfort and support in the rhetoric coming out of Republican leadership, from the White House to our state House.”
Even months later, the incident and the response to it baffle the governor. “The heightened rhetoric and vitriol sent my way increased with Trump’s actions about Michigan or about me,” she says. “Obviously, nobody thinks the natural extension of that is a kidnapping and murder plot, but you also see how that has happened, right? The scariest part of it is that there aren’t more people of stature on both sides of the aisle that are calling it out.”
These moments have been rough, too, on her family, Gereghty says. When she and I spoke in mid-April, Gereghty was tickled by the prospect that her sister could be Biden’s running mate. Now she’s glad it didn’t happen: “This has been such a hard year, and it has been harder on her than so many other governors. And once we inaugurate a new president, it doesn’t mean that all of this stuff goes away. She was so much the focus of so much vitriol, I’m happy that she doesn’t have an even bigger magnifying glass on her.”
Those close to Whitmer say she always seemed bound for leadership. From a young age, Gereghty recalls, the governor acquired a strong sense of bipartisan duty to public service from both her father, who ran the Michigan Commerce Department under Republican Gov. William Milliken, and her mother, who for several years was assistant attorney general under Democrat Frank J. Kelley. After a brief flirtation with the notion of being a sportscaster, Whitmer earned a law degree at Michigan State University in 1998 and won her first elective office, representing a Lansing-area district in the state House, two years later at age 29. After two terms in the House, she won the first of three terms in the Senate, where in 2011 she became the Democratic caucus leader.
Born in Lansing, Whitmer spent her adolescence in Grand Rapids with her mother and two younger siblings after their parents divorced when she was 10. Her mom, Sherry Whitmer, remains a huge, looming presence as a role model nearly two decades after her death from brain cancer. “Gretchen always took charge and figured out how to get things done,” Gereghty recalls, noting how her sister, then a freshman legislator with a newborn daughter, took a primary role in their mother’s end-of-life care in 2002. “My mother was such a good role model for us because nothing stopped her. She could do anything she set her mind to, and she was an inspiration for both of us.”
The governor, who invoked her mother’s memory frequently on the campaign trail in her 2018 gubernatorial run while advocating for women’s rights or expanded access to health care, says she’s been “dreaming about her like every night” during the COVID-19 crisis. “Maybe it’s the touching stories I hear about people losing loved ones or the stories of people saying goodbye over an iPad, but this has really hit a nerve,” Whitmer says. “My mom was a trailblazer, and when her back was up against the wall, she smiled through it. She gritted her teeth, but she had a smile on her face. I’m hopeful that I’m teaching my daughters the same, that you gotta be tough and you gotta get through the hard times, and if you can even do it with grace, it’s really important.”
Nessel, no stranger to sassy tit-for-tats with Trump, says she’s impressed by how Whitmer has kept her calm as much as she has for the good of the state. “Privately, the governor swears like a sailor,” the attorney general says. “That’s nothing that you’ll ever see on her Twitter feed, but she’s hilarious. She’s a really funny person. I’m sure there are things that she would like to say out loud. She’s not because she’s just too smart for that. The things Gretchen doesn’t say, believe me, I say.”
That public restraint was Whitmer’s calling card long before Trump’s insults. This is, after all, a woman who months into her tenure contended with a Detroit TV station airing a story about derisive social media reactions to a tight-fitting dress she wore for her first State of the State address. Five years before that, as the Democratic leader in the Michigan Senate, the married mother of two had to rebuke a fellow senator who sidled up to invite her out on his boat to “sin or swim.” And more than a decade ago, the self-amused (male) wags of Lansing mockingly nicknamed her — to her face — “The Ocho” because Maxim magazine had listed her as the world’s eighth sexiest politician. “She currently serves in four standing committees — Judiciary, Finance, Education, and Agriculture — and could very well add more as soon as we get our Leering Committee finalized,” the laddie rag sniggered.
Virg Bernero, whose state Senate seat Whitmer won in 2006 after he vacated it, says her ability to choose her moments to disarm her opponents with humor or candor is her greatest political talent. Case in point: her handling of the comments about the 2019 State of the State dress. In a series of tweets at the time, wrote, “Boys have teased me about my curves since 5th grade. My mom said, ‘Hold your head high and don’t let it bother you.’” Then, a year later, she opened her State of the State with a withering rebuttal.
“This year, I want to get one thing straight — this is not the red carpet,” she said with a smirk. “So please, I urge you — focus on the substance of my speech. It’s about issues, not appearances. I mean, I don’t care how distracting Sen. Shirkey’s outfit is. I mean, cut him a break.” All eyes then turned to Shirkey, seated in a dark suit behind her, who seemingly had no choice but to stand up and hug his political nemesis.
Still, the remarks continue to come — and not just from random internet trolls. Attorney Geoffrey Fieger, the 1998 Democratic nominee for governor, disparaged her on Detroit talk host Craig Fahle’s podcast in February.
“Who is Gretchen Whitmer?” Fieger asked, more than a year after her landslide victory. “I don’t know who Gretchen Whitmer is, and I’m more knowledgeable than about 99.9 percent of people in the state of Michigan in terms of state government. … I know she was in the Legislature. And I know they said, ‘Well, we’ll get a woman because people will vote for a woman,’ which is true. And so we have Gretchen Whitmer. Now, she’s not bad. She’s not a dumb person. I like her coat. I like the way she wears her leather.”
Whitmer says she can’t respond to all of the slights — and nor should she have to. “It’s a reality for a lot of women that people get distracted by non-substantive things,” she says. “It’s exhausting. You spend a lot of energy figuring out every time something like that happens, do I take it on? Do I educate this person about kind of the flaw in their behavior? Do I pretend that I didn’t hear it? Do I laugh it off like a joke? It’s always the recipient of the aggression that has to do all of these mental gymnastics.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t brought fire and anger when she felt it necessary. Her most significant such moment as a legislator came in 2013 when she came out as a sexual assault victim in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Republican-led state Senate to drop a measure that now requires Michigan women to buy a health insurance rider to be covered to terminate pregnancies even in cases of rape or incest. “There are people in this chamber who have lived through things you can’t even imagine,” a voice-crackling Whitmer said then, veering from prepared remarks. “Over 20 years ago, I was a victim of rape. And thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy because I can’t imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker. … I’m not the only woman in our state that has faced that horrible circumstance. I am not enjoying talking about it. It’s something I’ve hidden for a long time. But I think you need to see the face of the women that you are impacting by this vote today.”
In early August, Whitmer flew to Delaware to meet with Biden as he winnowed his VP list. She was surprised to still be on it — one reason being the popular expectation that he would choose a woman of color — but she submitted to the vetting and showed up when beckoned. “Why do you want to be vice president?” Biden asked her. Her reply: “Joe, I’m here because you asked me to be here. I love my job. I love being in Michigan. There’s nowhere else I want to go. But I’m here because you asked me to be. And if you asked me to do this with you, I will do it, and if you don’t, I’ll be thrilled to keep my dream job in my home state near my family and have a new best friend in the White House.”
Nobody can really know a politician’s truest ambitions, and it’s uncouth for most to be overt about them anyway. But it is believable that Whitmer would prefer to stay in Lansing to see through the recovery from COVID and firm up her political power by winning a second term.
In our interview, as she sits in an ensemble that seems deliberately color-coordinated with the Michigan license plate on display over her right shoulder in front of a library of Michigan-themed books, she goes further, though. “I’ve never been interested in going to Washington, D.C.,” she says. “I’ve said it a million times. I don’t know why people don’t believe me, because I’ve never wavered on that. I’ve been recruited to run for Congress or the U.S. Senate, and I just — Michigan is my home. I’ve got three generations of my family here. I love this state. I’ve always lived here, and I plan to always live here.”
She goes on to say she spurned Biden when he asked if she wanted “to play some sort of role in his cabinet.” Yet, even in this reply she doesn’t quite shut the door to loftier ambitions — which may explain why people don’t quite believe her.
“I want to continue on as governor for so long as I have the opportunity,” she says. “I want to see this through to the end, and we’ll see where life takes me. My husband is 11 years older than I am, and he’ll support me no matter what it is I want to pursue, but we’ll see where I am at the end of all that. I suppose it’s always a possibility, but it’s certainly not something I pine for or that I spend any energy thinking about right now.”