By Marji Wisniewski
I must confess that prior to 2020, the extent of my knowledge about Michigan politics was mostly limited to what I learned while chaperoning my daughter’s class trip to the Capitol. However, since the pandemic and other events of past year have unfolded, I’ve tried to learn more so I can be educated on the current issues our state and country face. On many days, I found myself glued to the livestream of Governor Gretchen Whitmer addressing our state. I noticed that a lot of the time, it wasn’t just her up at the podium. The governor often brought in team members with expertise in certain areas to address and inform the public.
So, when I spoke with her for this interview, I wasn’t surprised to hear her describe her leadership style as one focused on teamwork and listening. She commits to making swift, informed decisions, and practices humility as a way to navigate our state through the most unexpected times and move us forward.
MY MOM WAS “SUPER DELUXE”
As May approaches and Mother’s Day comes around again, I think of my mom more than ever.
My mother was a force of nature, and she had this incredible outlook on life. She could easily find the good in people, even those she didn’t agree with. Her sunny attitude, even in the darkest times, was something exceptional about her that I continue to try to emulate. I’m not always particularly good at that, though — especially if I’m stressed or feeling down. In those times, I try extra hard to be more like her and search for the good.
What I’ve realized is that even on the hardest days, inspiration can be found everywhere among the incredible people of our state. You can see this in the volunteers at the YMCA in Battle Creek that I met last week. They were selflessly volunteering because they wanted to help other people in their community get vaccinated. I saw so much hope in the community that came together in Midland after the historic flooding that happened in the middle of a historic pandemic. There really are encouraging stories everywhere. Some days, I have to be really intentional about finding them, but they’re there. The stories serve as a testament to how important it is to keep perspective in life, be grateful, and continue to live your values.
My mother knew the importance of gratitude, and would light up when she greeted people. Through her example, I’ve come to believe that we should greet every person with the same joy we exude when we greet our dogs. We shouldn’t only reserve that enthusiasm for them! (If you try it, you’ll see that this small change can have a big impact on relationship-building.)
When people would ask my mother how she was doing, she’d answer, “I’m super deluxe!” It was such an unexpected and kind of weird way to answer that it always made people laugh. It was her unique way of starting a conversation.
Shortly after I began my career in Lansing, my mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. She died a year and a half later, just after the birth of my first daughter. That time that I had with her, especially at the end of her life, is something that forged the person I am today and is the reason I do the work that I do. My mother was a groundbreaker in her own right, and I miss her every day.
ASSEMBLING A STAR TEAM TO FACE A HISTORIC YEAR
A few weeks ago, a reporter released a list of all major events of the last year. As he began unpacking the many historical moments, I had to take pause and reflect. What a year it’s been!
I know for a fact that I could not have made it through this time without the team we’ve assembled. We have so many phenomenal people in our office and in state government. The events of the last year have taught me how important it is to seek out expertise — and even more importantly, to listen. Together, my team and I have focused on making informed decisions and moving swiftly to save lives.
As a key player on our team, I have to give special recognition to Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. Dr. J is amazing. She was one of the first people nationally to recognize the demographic impact and the reality of how COVID-19 has hit communities of color especially hard. Dr. J was the reason we had such an aggressive outreach campaign that carried over into other states. We didn’t just save lives here in Michigan, we saved them outside of our borders, too. I believe we’ve been successful thanks to Dr. J being at the forefront of our pandemic response. I feel grateful to have had her by my side.
I’m confident in the work we’ve done together over the last year to help keep all Michiganders safe. But would I go back to March 2020 in a time machine with all the knowledge that we’ve accumulated, if I could? Absolutely! In those early days, we had no idea how important a mask would be. If we’d had a national masking effort, or had the ability to get N-95 masks earlier, or even to make them right here in Michigan — what a great strength that would have been. There’s no question that we’ve learned a lot, and those lessons have helped us make smarter decisions going forward.
But our work is not done — yet. Right now, in early April, our case numbers are high. A few days ago, my team and I got on a call with a number of national COVID-19 experts, including Drs. Ashish Jha, Scott Gottlieb, and Josh Sharfstein. The experts agreed that one of the reasons our cases are spiking right now is because we did such a good job of keeping the spread down in Michigan early on. We have more people here than in other states that don’t have antibodies yet because they haven’t been sick. Additionally, the variants are here, fatigue has set in, and people are changing their behavior and mobility patterns.
We’re moving quickly to get as many vaccines in arms as possible. Experts predict that in the next few weeks we will see high case numbers, but in a month or so the numbers should start dropping off as more and more people get vaccinated. As of April 1st, we’ve put 4.3 million shots in arms; our goal is to give an average of 100,000 shots a day going forward. Our vaccine strategy has been sound, but the nature of this virus is that it’s still present and is going to be a part of our lives for quite a while. That’s why vaccines are so important. In fact, they’re an incredible tool for people to protect themselves and their communities.
As we look forward to our state’s recovery from COVID-19, we need to recognize the incredibly hard toll it has taken on women in the country and in our state. Nationwide, millions of women have left the workforce. This is not just a recession, but a SHEcession, due to the immense impact this has had on women. Women are mostly the ones bearing the brunt of staying home while our children’s school continues via virtual learning. I have great respect for how mothers with younger children have navigated this time. My daughters (one is a freshman in college, the other is a senior in high school) don’t need my help to get online. I don’t need to stand over them to ensure they’re staying engaged while holding down a job and running a household. For many women and mothers, it’s been hard, and I recognize that.
That’s why we’ve done a lot of work helping to make sure there are daycare options available. My budget makes almost a $300 million dollar investment in daycare so that we can help working moms get back into the workforce. We’ve also created paths for training so that people can enhance their skills and get into higher-paying jobs. These are all crucial aspects that will help women get back to work, but we still need to focus on the overall goal of pay equity. That’s another barrier; when you have the same credentials and same work ethic, but don’t make the same amount as a man, it undervalues us women. We need to continue our work towards closing this gap.
LEARNING FROM COOPERATION
I believe important work can be done through learning to listen to one another and cooperating on a meaningful level. Shortly after I graduated college, I took a job with Michigan’s House of Representatives. It was a unique period in our state’s history when we had a tie in the House — 55 Democrats and 55 Republicans. It was an extraordinary time of cooperation between the parties and all branches of government. I feel fortunate that that’s where I cut my teeth in politics.
This cooperative spirit is what I hope we as a state can find again — where parties can recognize that we are Michiganders first. I realize that doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything, but the common good of our state requires that we come together to solve problems.
When I look back to those earlier years in legislation, of course there’s advice I’d love to give my younger self; but I’m not sure she would have taken it. I have come to realize with experience and some age that I don’t know everything about all situations. Asking questions and seeking to understand is important to do first, in order to make the change we desire possible. And that is something hard to accept for a 30- year-old just starting out in the legislature (who is not patient and wants to change the world). But looking at young Gretchen, I would say, “Take it all in. Be in the moment and learn and listen as much as you can.”
RESPONDING TO UNSOLICITED COMMENTS
Unfortunately, there have been moments of not only uncooperative behavior, but public criticism and even dangerous rhetoric that I’ve endured during my tenure as Governor of Michigan. I think it’s one of the tough things about being a woman in the career that I’m in — and many other workplaces, quite frankly. And at times, the onus of doing the calculation about how we will react to someone else’s bad behavior falls on us. That can be a lot of pressure to put on someone who was simply the recipient. We didn’t initiate this, yet we are the ones having to do the calculation by asking all these questions: Do I take this on? Is this a moment where I can educate someone? Do I turn a deaf ear to it? Do I laugh it off and show that it doesn’t bother me?”
It’s exhausting that we have to do all this work to figure out how we respond to them when they’re the ones who are behaving poorly. And yet, this is the reality for women like me.
Just this last week, threatening words were spoken by Michigan’s GOP leader, Ron Weiser, about me and Michigan’s Secretary of State and Attorney General. I didn’t sleep that night because it was very serious. My safety and the safety of my children has been an issue for over a year. Initially, it was the White House that was egging it on; then there were white supremacists in our own state that were creating the heightened risk. This week there was the GOP leader, who is also a Regent at a premiere university in Ann Arbor, telling his supporters that we were “witches” and to get us “ready for burning at the stake.”
After some calculation, I posted a picture of myself holding a book, The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West. It’s an excellent feminist book. I thought that I wasn’t really poking fun at what he said because it’s serious and I take it seriously. But in that moment, I wanted to stress this sentiment: “You’re not going to scare me. I’m going to keep doing what I need to do. Oh, and by the way, everyone should read this book; it’s really a great book.”
HUMILITY OVER HUBRIS
I’ve discovered that a key difference between those leaders who have been able to save lives during this critical time and those who have not comes down to the question of humility versus hubris. As Adam Johnson wrote in an Active Campaign blog post in 2019:
“Humility does not mean that you lack confidence or ability — it is simply defined as ‘freedom from pride or arrogance.’ Hubris is an antonym of humility; it represents an excess of pride and arrogance.”
I believe this distinction is important. Recently, I was talking to someone who’s in charge of hiring new staff. They explained that more and more, organizations are looking for people with a good attitude and have aptitude. After those traits, expertise for the job was third in importance. I found this interesting because you’d think that credentials would be first on the list for hiring a new employee. But attitude is really that important. People who have the right attitude and mindset to want to solve problems, to work with one another, and are humble enough to ask questions are those that I want to surround myself with.
My time as Governor has given me incredible challenges to face, especially in the last 15 months. It has also afforded me an opportunity to make the state better for the people that call it home. I respect how important this responsibility is, and I do not take that lightly.
I can’t imagine how I would have navigated 2020 without my team by my side, my Executive Office Team, my Cabinet, and my partners — the Lieutenant Governor, the Secretary of State, and the Attorney General. Together, we will lead our state out of this pandemic to brighter days ahead. And that will be, as my mom would say, “super deluxe.”