Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on How to Lead Through a Crisis (or Three)

Flooding, protests, a pandemic. “Big Gretch” is being put to the test.

Gretchen Whitmer was in a great mood the evening of March 10th. Joe Biden, whom she’d endorsed, was in the middle of sweeping all 83 counties in Michigan’s primary. A relatively low-profile state legislator before she beat her Republican rival by 10 points to become governor of Michigan in 2018, Whitmer’s name was already floating in some circles as a potential VP pick. But within the space of a few hours, everything changed. That night, Whitmer was notified that two cases of coronavirus had appeared in Michigan. Within days, the state had the third-highest rate of COVID-19 infections.

As the coronavirus hit Michigan hard, Whitmer experienced an especially fierce backlash to the measures she took to contain it. President Trump singled out Whitmer — “that woman in Michigan” — for criticism, saying “all she does is sit there and blame the federal government.” Demonstrators brandishing AR-15s showed up at the capitol to protest her stay-at-home order, and the Republican-controlled state legislature sued to overturn it. (They lost.) In May, just as the cases of COVID-19 were starting to decline, the state was hit with a massive, catastrophic flood. All of that was followed, in early June, by widespread protests against police brutality and a new round of threats from the president that he would send the military in to put down demonstrations

Whitmer’s detractors are loud, but polls show Michiganders overwhelmingly approve of her handling of the coronavirus crisis — and one Detroiter, the rapper Gmac Cash, has written a song, “Big Gretch,” in which he imagines bestowing a pair of iconic Cartier sunglasses on the governor in appreciation of her emergency response. (A GoFundme to buy a pair of Buffs for Whitmer raised $3,000 but was donated to a community group that has been delivering essential supplies in Detroit.)

Popular on Rolling Stone

Big Gretch! How do you feel about the nickname?
You know what? It’s ironic ’cause I’ve never liked being called Gretch, and certainly no woman I know likes to be called big. Putting these two words together, though, in this nice way — the music and the message — I appreciate it a lot.

When you look back on the last few months, what moments stick out to you as key points in the coronavirus crisis?
We literally pivoted in a matter of hours from being in the middle of our Democratic primary for president to having our two first cases reported that same night. The feeling in my gut went from happiness to all of a sudden realizing everything was going to change. 

Another glaring moment was early on when we did not have enough masks. They had supplies for, like, a shift’s worth at our hospitals — doctors and nurses were wearing [the same] N-95 masks for days. The sobering moment was when the nation’s governors were informed on a call with the White House that it was going to be on us to procure all these things. 

You’re told on a call with the White House that you’re going to have to find your own supplies — what’s the next move that you’re making?
I got on the phone with my executive team and told them we have to find every mask we can. Start contracting, start doing everything — and that’s when we really started doing more national media because I needed to ask for help.

I shared in one of the interviews that our contracts were being delayed or diverted to the federal government. That got me crosswise with the White House, but I said the same thing that a lot of other governors had said. A lot of people thought that I was accusing the Trump administration of taking Michigan’s supplies. That was not what I was communicating. The whole world was bidding against one another, and the federal government has superior contracting ability over the states, and so as things were supposed to be coming in, we would frequently get notice it’s going to be delayed, or they’re canceling it altogether because it’s going to the federal government. We had hours-worth of PPE at that time — not days-worth even. We were told to go out and [procure] this [equipment], so we went and did it, and then we were undermined. It was maddening. 

What was it like being called out by the president — referred to as “that woman in Michigan” — as you’re trying to manage this crisis?
Well, it was really disappointing. Every time I’ve done a national interview, especially in those first days, people were reaching out and saying, “I’ve got N-95 masks,” or “I’ve got gloves.” So doing these interviews was really important for trying to save lives in Michigan. When the tweets happened, I can tell you, I was not relishing this limelight. I was very worried that the state of Michigan might not get the help that we need because of a perceived disagreement with the White House. 

Was that fear — that the White House might not help because of a perceived slight — confirmed?
We redoubled our efforts to stay close to FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Vice President’s Office, and I think we had a quite cordial relationship. We found the vast majority of people we worked with at the federal level to be great, hardworking public servants, just like at the state level. 

The president was in Michigan yesterday. I take it you spoke with him about the catastrophic floods that just hit. What are those conversations like?
It was a short conversation. We reached out because I wanted to make sure the federal government appreciated the seriousness of this issue. I had done a fly-over [of flooded Midland] and I wanted to describe my firsthand account of the extent of the damage. He asked a few questions, and asked if he went to Midland, if I might consider meeting them. I said of course I would. He came to Michigan yesterday. I was not included in the meetings that he had, and that was fine — I had a very busy day. He signed the emergency declaration, and I’m grateful for that. 

You’ve been releasing a breakdown of the state’s COVID cases by race — something the federal government has not done — why was it important to you to release that data in Michigan?
The spread that we were seeing in metropolitan Detroit, the fact that there was a racial component, meant that it was really important that we enlist the help of our ecumenical leaders and our black churches, that we reach out and have a campaign that is focused on educating communities of color because of the unique threat. Why the federal government hasn’t, and why not every state is doing this — I can’t tell you. 

Can you tell me about the challenge of communicating the dangers of this virus when it’s being felt differently by different groups — when you have communities in Detroit that have been devastated, but protesters at the capitol who are saying, “I’m not seeing this at all in my community”?
When not everyone has lost a loved one or had someone close to them on the front lines battling COVID-19, it’s hard for them to really understand the seriousness of it. It’s a struggle when you’ve not been impacted by something to learn the lesson from someone else’s experience. And yet, that’s exactly what we have to keep doing.

That’s why we’re enlisting the help of our frontline medical providers to explain that ICU bed capacity is so much smaller in rural communities and if COVID-19 shows up in that area, it could quickly overwhelm everyone’s ability to get medical care. If COVID-19 has taken over your hospital system, everyone is hurt by it. 

You’ve experienced some of the most visible backlash to your shelter-in-place order. Have you worried for your own safety at any point?
No. I think some of the violent rhetoric and the threats are very concerning, and I’m not dismissing them, but the state police is an incredibly professional organization. I’ve always felt that my security was not in question. 

What about the recent protests against police brutality — are you concerned about the possibility of another spike in COVID cases following those demonstrations in Michigan and around the country?
While I have a high level of concern about protesters who are not taking appropriate steps, a lot of the early-in-the-day events, where it really was a peaceful protest, people were wearing masks. They appeared to really be taking the practices seriously to keep themselves safe. And I think that’s important. We have to be working the best data and making the best decisions we can, in the moment. We can’t just drop our guard and resume life as it was. We’ve got to continue to all work together to observe best practices.

I know you’ve had conversations with Joe Biden’s team about the VP slot — how are you feeling about the prospect of being considered as a potential vice president?
I have talked to the former vice president a number of times — he calls to check in on Michigan because he cares. And I really appreciate that. And it’s genuine. I just can’t really engage in more than focusing on this moment.

What advice would you have for Biden for winning Michigan back in the fall?
When I ran, I never talked about Donald Trump. I didn’t criticize him. I didn’t take gratuitous jabs. I contrasted [my] positions around health care, focused on helping people get into good-paying jobs and fixing the damn roads. That was the call to action. It was about trying to bring people together as opposed to divide us and tear someone else down. And I think that’s something that people like — they want to hope. They want to be able to see a future. And right now, with this hyper-partisan, ugly rhetoric that is becoming the norm, I think that that’s something that Joe Biden can do very well. 

When you think about “back to normal” what is your hope for what that looks like in Michigan? I know that “back to normal” is going to look different for a while. I’ve got a daughter who’s 18 and today was going to be her last day of high school. We should be celebrating her graduation next week, and we’re not doing that, and it stinks. She’s not sure if she’ll be attending classes in-person in the fall. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like. And I’m not saying that because “woe is me.” I know that there are a lot of people who are struggling with much tougher things because of COVID-19, but my hope is that we avoid a second wave and can start to have more normalcy in our lives. We’re going to be wearing masks, we’re always going to know that we’re safer at home. And that’s certainly going to be true for people that are medically vulnerable, but I would love to be able to get kids back in some form of in-person instruction — even if it looks very different. Ultimately, I’d love to go to a Big 10 football game again — but it’s probably not going to be this fall.

Rolling Stone spoke with Whitmer as part of a series interviews with governors about the challenges of leading amid the coronavirus pandemic. See our interviews with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.