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19 May 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:45pm

Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer stood up to Trump. Can she stand up to her own people?

Whitmer has won national attention and praise for forcing her state’s residents to stay at home.  

By Emily Tamkin

“The Woman in Michigan”, says the Atlantic headline from 20 March.

“‘That woman from Michigan: Gov. Whitmer stands out in the pandemic. Just ask Trump,” reads the NBC headline from 8 April.

“‘The woman in Michigan’ goes national,” says Politico’s 9 April piece. 

The woman in Michigan is Gretchen Whitmer, currently serving her first term as governor of her state. Whitmer has won national attention and praise for introducing executive orders to make Michiganders stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the state – and in particular, the city of Detroit – hard.

She’s won additional attention for tussling with President Donald Trump. Whitmer criticised the federal government for effectively leaving states to bid against one another for much-needed lifesaving equipment.

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“It’s a source of frustration that there’s not more of a national strategy on procurement of these critical pieces of equipment that everyone across our country is going to need,” she told NBC News. “And when we’re bidding against one another and the price keeps going up, then we can’t count on the national stockpile to meet our needs, it creates a very dangerous situation.” 

Whitmer previously delivered the Democratic response to Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, and the president, of course, lashed out at her critique. He complained to the press that his administration had had issues with the “young, woman governor” (Whitmer is 48 years old) and, by way of self-defence, declared: “In Michigan, all she does is – she has no idea what’s going on. All she does is saying, ‘Oh, it’s the federal government’s fault’… Mike Pence, I don’t think he sleeps any more. He calls all the governors. I tell him – I’m a different kind of guy – I tell him… Don’t call the woman in Michigan…You know what I say, if they don’t treat you right, I don’t call.” 

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Whitmer, in turn, turned up on The Daily Show wearing a shirt that read, “The Woman From Michigan”. (She is not the only one sporting it: one Michigan woman has turned selling the shirt into both a show of support for her governor and a profitable endeavour.)

Whitmer, whose office declined an interview request for this piece, was born and raised in Michigan. She had previously been a state senator – she was, in fact, that state senate’s first ever female Democratic leader – but she has only been in the governor’s office since last year. To win, she had to beat not only Bill Schuette, her Republican opponent, but also two other primary contenders who tried to paint themselves as progressives and Whitmer as the establishment choice, though some on the campaign object to that characterisation.

“She has lots of experience, but she is actually pretty progressive,” says Noah Arbit, who worked as an organiser on Whitmer’s 2018 campaign. “I don’t know why she… gets lumped in with milquetoast moderates”. 

Still, Arbit says, she has won over conservatives, too – likely part of the reason that she’s one of the names being floated as a possible running mate for the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

Arbit points to conservatives in his own family who backed Whitmer, believing her to be smart and sensible and trusting her to clean up the government and fix the roads. Though they did not know it, they were also voting for the woman who would get them through a pandemic.

“I think she’s a pretty methodical person. I think she listens to experts. I think she has hired really good people in her administration. This is exactly what I expected, you know?”, says Arbit, now chair of the Michigan Democratic Jewish Caucus. “I’m not surprised at all that she’s been taking a really tough but needed strategy to make sure she’s protecting Michiganders.”

Some of those Michiganders, however, have objected to the stay-at-home orders. Whitmer won national attention for her back and forth with Trump, but the president is not the governor’s most vocal and persistent critic. That title is held by certain Michiganders who believe that her stay-at-home orders are an infringement on their rights akin to the Holocaust – and have gone out to attend protests (at least some of which were reportedly funded by wealthy conservative groups).

On 19 April – 10 days after the Politico piece – protesters reportedly chanted comparisons between Whitmer and Hitler, the idea being that their names rhymed and also that the governor is a tyrant who is using the pandemic as an opportunity to strip people of their freedoms.  

It didn’t stop there. Last week, Michigan closed down its capitol building after threats were made on Whitmer’s life. On Saturday (16 May), dozens came together at a Michigan beach to tell Whitmer to “let MI people go” (yet another comparison between Michiganders asked to stay at home and past Jewish suffering, though this time to Moses asking the Pharaoh of the Exodus to free his people from enslavement).

Though the stay-at-home orders have proven effective at lowering the number of Covid-19 cases in Michigan, some want her to lift them and “re-open the economy” as other states have done. Thus far, at least, Whitmer has remained as firm with Michigan’s discontents as she was with the president – arguably a greater feat, since they’re her voters. 

“The more people that stay home, the quicker we can get through this posture and continue reengagement of our economy,” Whitmer said last Friday. 

“We’ve got to take politics out of this conversation. This is about public health. And whether you’re a Democrat or a Republic, if you live in the state of Michigan, everything I’m doing is trying to save your life.” So said the woman in Michigan.