Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, "That woman from Michigan"
The shooting last month at Michigan State University, killing three people and injuring five, was the wrong kind of right moment to catapult gun control to the top of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's agenda. She told a rally on March 15, "We are done only offering 'thoughts and prayers.' It is time for action."
Whitmer may be days away from signing what she calls common-sense gun measures ("universal background checks, safe storage, and extreme risk protection orders") into law.
MSU was the second mass shooting on Whitmer's watch. In November 2021, a fifteen-year-old killed four and injured seven at Oxford High School north of Detroit. Nothing changed.
The difference between then and now?
Now, in her second term, she has the power to act, and is in a hurry to use it. Passed already this year: tax breaks for the working poor and seniors; protections of LGBTQ rights; and a rollback of restrictions on labor unions.
How did it happen? Whitmer pulled off a big, blue trifecta in last November's elections. She beat a Donald Trump-endorsed MAGA Republican. Democrats, riding her coattails, took both houses of the state legislature, something that hasn't happened in Michigan in nearly 40 years, albeit by slim margins. And Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment Whitmer championed protecting abortion rights.
"I do try to live my values every day so I can sleep at night," Whitmer said. "But I also can't take anything personally, and can't afford to throw the counter-punch, even though I'm pretty capable of doing that if I want to. I don't do it, because it's not constructive and it doesn't help the people that I serve."
Teichner said, "I read one description of you as an example of grit and grace."
"That's a high compliment!" she laughed.
This is the same Gretchen Whitmer who spent a first term from hell as then-President Trump's punching bag over her handling of COVID, calling her "Gretchen 'Half' Whitmer, or "That Woman from Michigan."
She started wearing T-shirts that read "That Woman."
She said, "The best way to disarm a bully is to take their weapon and make it your shield."
Whitmer's supporters had their own name for her: "Big Gretch." She even has a theme song.
"Grandma Gretchen always said, 'Don't let people call you Gretch. Your name is Gretchen.' And I don't know many women that want 'big' in the front of whatever their nickname is. And so, my friends and relatives, you know, people have known me my whole life are like, 'Are you good with this?' I'm like, 'I love it!'"
Whitmer became a household name, but also a target. Armed demonstrators, opposed to pandemic lockdowns, took their grievances against Whitmer to the Michigan State Capitol in the spring of 2020, in what looked like a rehearsal for January 6 at the U.S. Capitol nine months later.
She said, "I was stunned to see the images coming out of our Capitol, and armed gunmen with masks standing outside of my office. Fortunately, I wasn't in there, but yeah, it was shocking."
Teichner asked, "Do you think that would have happened if a man had been governor?"
"I don't know. I know this, that all the ugliness that's come my way, some of my colleagues have felt it to one degree or another, but not as hot as I have. And it started once I was singled out by the former president."
Then came "the plot" in the fall of 2020, the foiled attempt to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Whitmer. Last December, one of the conspirators was sentenced to nearly 20 years in prison, another to 16 years.
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Whitmer said, "While I have really grown as a leader in the last four years, I have to get back to the table and negotiate budgets with people who have shared stages with plotters who wanted to kidnap and kill me. I still have to negotiate and get a budget done. Governors can't just take positions, and we can't throw, you know, bombs at the other side. We gotta get things done."
Whitmer's steeliness comes at a cost. Her husband, Marc Mallory, retired years early from his dental practice, he says, due to multiple threats to his patients and staff.
Sydney, one of Whitmer's daughters, recalled the threats: "There was one morning, back in 2020. There were like a bunch of protestors outside of our house. They brought guns to our property, and it was just crazy, because I was 16 at the time."
She and sister Sherry are now students at the University of Michigan. Sherry said of her mom, "I am so thankful that she is on the frontlines and fighting these battles. I want her to be a voice, and I want her to fight for my rights."
Fifty-one years old, Whitmer spent 14 years in the state legislature before running for governor. She was practically born into Michigan politics. Her father worked for two Republican governors, her mother for the Democratic attorney general. Both were lawyers. So is she.
"Fix the damn roads" was what Whitmer ran on in 2018, when she won the governor's office for the first time. She sounds like a progressive, except when she sounds like a non-confrontational pragmatist, and more and more, she sounds like the Democratic Party's woman to watch.
Dane Morris, a retired teacher from Brighton, Michigan, told Whitmer, "I'm the first one to, you know, raise my hand. I support you if you run for President, Governor Whitmer."
And he's not alone.
Teichner asked, "A lot of people think you're going to run for president."
"A lot of people think a lot of things. I could just tell you what I'm going to do," Whitmer replied.
"You're going to serve four years?"
After that? "Big Gretch" has ruled nothing in, and nothing out.
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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Carol Ross.
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