At times during the lame duck session, Capitol creatures wondered aloud, “Where is Gretchen Whitmer? What is she doing?” For much of December, the Republican-led House and Senate passed legislation chipping away at executive branch power. The Democratic governor-elect wasn’t saying much publicly. She wasn’t making appointments, either. Not to her central staff or the cabinet. Her entire transition team hadn’t met together in person.
Was it possible a wide-eyed Whitmer would put her hand on the Bible Jan. 1 with fewer powers than Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration enjoyed because she didn’t do anything to stop it? Would she walk into her new Romney Building office with a skeleton crew?
We know now the answers to both questions are no. Rather, Whitmer worked under the radar in a savvy, pragmatic way that may be a precursor to what Michigan can expect from their next governor.
If frantic hysteria gripped Whitmer and her transition team, they didn’t show it. By and large, she didn’t spend much time adding verbal fuel to bills that limited state administrative rule-making authority or diluted Department of Environmental Quality powers over wetlands and water contamination standards.
Whitmer isn’t bashful about sounding public alarm. Remember, she played her last card when trying to defeat legislation that requires women to purchase a separate health insurance rider to cover abortions in cases of rape or incest by revealing on the Senate floor that she’d been raped in college.
In this case, holding a Capitol press conference or working the morning radio circuit risked igniting a partisan back-andforth that would only embolden on-thefence Republicans to vote “yes” on bills of questionable policy value. Also, the former Senate minority leader has worked with Snyder before. She knows the One Tough Nerd doesn’t shrink in the face of public shaming. If he feels like he’s being bullied not to sign Right to Work, for example, he’s more likely to do it.
Instead, Whitmer spent time privately with the politics-averse Snyder.
We don’t know the exact words the two exchanged, but at a certain point Whitmer extended the message, “You’ve resisted signing bills that would have weakened executive branch authority before. For the good of the institution, why start now?” Up until at least last week, Attorney General Bill Schuette and his successor, Dana Nessel, hadn’t even shared a telephone call. A couple of weeks ago, Snyder and family had Whitmer’s family over to the Governor’s Residence for dinner.
Likewise, on the appointments front, Whitmer wasn’t about to risk news of one of her picks agitating an in-session Legislature.
Let the outgoing lawmakers have their day in sun. Don’t overshadow them. Don’t divert the news coverage from whatever stuff they’re trying to push through in lame duck.
Whitmer isn’t new to state government.
She’s met a few people since she was first sworn into office in 2001. She’s tapping into some of those relationships for appointments and advice in making appointments.
When Whitmer was the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee in 2005-06, her wingman was Rep. Chris Kolb of Ann Arbor. Her first budget director will be Chris Kolb.
Whitmer’s mentor in the Senate was former leader Bob Emerson. His environmental policy adviser was Liesl Clark, who later became Jennifer Granholm’s renewable energy/energy efficiency guru. Whitmer’s director of the Department of Environmental Quality is Liesl Clark.
Another senate mentor was the Upper Peninsula’s Mike Prusi. They served with a politically moderate Yooper hay farmer named Gary McDowell. Whitmer’s agriculture and rural development director is Gary McDowell.
As the interim Ingham County prosecutor, Whitmer leaned on assistant Lisa McCormick, who will now be the state’s children’s ombudsman.
Whitmer’s other picks showed some political savvy. Her first treasurer, Rachael Eubanks, will be resigning from the Public Service Commission, giving Whitmer a twofor-one appointment. John Engler loved doing that, too.
At the advice of some public safety officials, Whitmer kept Snyder’s corrections director, Heidi Washington, who made strides in inmate work training programs. The other holdover is the apolitical Orlene Hawks, who helped clean up Child Protective Services for Snyder. She’ll lead the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
Longtime department hands will lead MDOT, the state police and military affairs.
It’ll be hard for the Republican-led Senate to cry that Whitmer’s bringing in spoils-system shenanigans. She starts her administration as close to the political center as she can go. At this point, it should ease any troubled minds.
Yup. Whitmer appears to know what she’s doing.