Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer says partisanship is complicating the response to the coronavirus pandemic, at least in part because President Donald Trump changed the “tenor of political discourse” when he first began criticizing her. The situation overall, she acknowledges, has “become politicized.”
In the last several weeks, Whitmer has seen her political star rise as she’s led the response in her state to one of the country’s worst coronavirus outbreaks. She’s been commended by Democrats for the way she’s handled the crisis, juggling a flooding emergency at the same time. She’s been the target of insults and threats by President Donald Trump. And she’s emerged as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“I think it’s so critical that everyone with a platform, whether it’s at the federal level or at the state level, is talking about what the science is, and is promoting best practices — not mocking mask wearing when we know that wearing masks is what we all need to be doing until we have a vaccine or a cure, and that’s months if not longer off,” Whitmer said as part of the TIME100 Talks, in answer to a question about ensuring that people safely follow guidelines while gradually reopening.
The latest curveball Trump has thrown her way is a tweet he shot off last week about Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jocelyn Benson. Trump incorrectly said Benson, who he referred to as a “rogue Secretary of State,” had sent out mail ballots to voters, when in reality she had sent out applications for absentee ballots. (Some of Benson’s Republican counterparts in other states have taken similar action.) Alarmingly, Trump threatened to withhold funding from Michigan over the matter on May 20, inaccurately claiming it would increase voter fraud.
“I spoke with the President that day, later that same day, and he didn’t mention anything of that, and so it is my hope that perhaps that was a focus of the moment and not a long-term plan,” Whitmer said. Whitmer said the President’s threat came as she was visiting Midland, where flooding caused by two failed dams resulted in a massive evacuation in the midst of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Whitmer ordered the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to investigate why the dams had failed. Asked by TIME whether she would support an independent investigation into the matter, Whitmer did not commit. “We have to have the people who understand the issue be the ones that investigate it,” Whitmer said. “That’s how these things are done and done well. If it appears that we would need to have additional eyes look at it, that’s certainly something that I’m open to, but the regulation of dams happens in that department, and to ask another to do it that doesn’t have that expertise I think would not be a fruitful endeavor.”
With her growing national profile, Whitmer has also come under attack from the right in her own state, by armed protestors complaining of government overreach to an uncooperative state legislature.
After a local docking business reportedly posted on Facebook that Whitmer’s husband had asked whether being the governor’s husband would move him up in line to have his boat put in the water by Memorial Day weekend, Whitmer has come under fire from Republicans. The Governor, who has apologized for the comment on her husband’s behalf, said it was meant as a joke.
In her conversation with TIME, she highlighted the importance of bipartisan messaging during this critical moment, noting that she regularly confers with Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. “We are thinking about things in similar ways even though we might be tackling them at different cadences. And I think it’s important that people see their leaders on both sides of the aisle take this seriously and take actions that we know will protect life,” Whitmer said.
“I think right now in this hyperpolarized moment everyone is looking for fault in one another, and it’s unfortunate. I’m hoping that as time goes by we can get back to a place where we give each other the benefit of the doubt. Where we don’t seek to find faults with one another immediately, where we try to all rise to the occasion,” Whitmer said. “That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to implore people of our state to do, and certainly something that is incumbent on all of us.”
Whitmer has acknowledged that she’s had a conversation with the Biden campaign on being a potential running mate, but demurred when asked whether she would pick herself as Vice President if she were in his position. When asked about Biden’s pledge to pick a woman, she said simply: “That was his pledge, you know, and I think, for a lot of reasons, that was the right thing to do.”