Whitmer talks jobs, education in exclusive interview

MARQUETTE — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer spent the seventh week of her 2018 campaign touring the Upper Peninsula, laying out a platform focused on education, economic development and jobs — which are all inter-related, she said.

In a Mining Journal interview Friday afternoon, Whitmer called for a culture shift in Michigan.

“I don’t have much patience for poor management and for policies that don’t help people,” Whitmer said, saying the “phony road plan and the Flint water crisis” are what finally convinced her to run.

“I would infuse a major investment into our education system,” she said, emphasizing universal early childhood education, career-ready graduates and affordable post-secondary education.

Whitmer announced her bid Jan. 3 to replace Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who took office in 2011.

At least six other candidates have filed to run, while potential candidates U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee of Flint Township on the Democratic side and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette on the Republican side are widely expected to run, but have made no announcements, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Whitmer, of East Lansing, is a practicing attorney and mother of five. From her election to the Michigan House of Representatives in 2000, she became a senator in 2006 and senate minority leader in 2011, according to votesmart.org. Whitmer was vice chairwoman of the House Democratic Women’s Leadership Caucus and member of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators.

She was unanimously appointed interim Ingham County prosecutor last year after long-time prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III was arrested, according to the Lansing State Journal.

Whitmer said she focused on “listening and engaging” this week at events in 11 of the U.P.’s 15 counties.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in my life in the U.P.,” she said, describing an impulsive jump off Blackrocks at Presque Isle Park last summer. “The U.P. is important to me personally, it’s important to us as a state, and I don’t think enough people out of Lansing know that, much less promote that.”

While the U.P. is unique, “a lot of our fundamental desires are the same,” Whitmer said — like good jobs, education and the ability to retire and “enjoy this beautiful state of ours.”

Whitmer said it’s essential for policy to shift away from cutting taxes and cutting funding, and toward investing in talent and infrastructure to attract businesses.

Her husband is a small business owner himself, she said.

While tax simplification was a laudable goal of Snyder’s tax policies, she said the cost has been shifted onto families without yielding high-paying jobs.

“Business people are telling us that we don’t have enough degree holders to do the jobs currently here, much less lure more businesses (to) locate here, and that’s a massive culture shift,” Whitmer said. “It’s not about cutting costs. That hasn’t yielded careers and jobs where people can make enough to sustain their families.”

Whitmer said she spoke to a real estate agent in St. Ignace who almost closed on a property with a business owner looking to locate 50 high-paying jobs there, but the deal fell through last minute. The reason? No broadband internet access, Whitmer said.

“I don’t think people in the Lower Peninsula have an understanding of what a challenge that is and how that’s really a fundamental infrastructure issue that we’ve got to tackle (in the U.P.),” Whitmer said.

Improving other public infrastructure, increasing revenue-sharing for municipalities and protecting vested public pensions are other aims Whitmer said she supports. She said it’s “unconscionable” to change pension rules on current retirees, though she’s open to negotiated changes.

Mining has provided a good standard of living and quality of life for a lot of people for a long time, Whitmer said, but added, “Also, I like science.”

“I know that we’re talking about finite resources and resources that define us as a state, and so I really think it’s important to balance the interests of protecting our environment, but also ensuring that our people have jobs that pay, that you really can raise your family,” Whitmer said. “Mining may not be around forever. We have to have a diversified portfolio of jobs here in Michigan.”

Whitmer cited concerns about the aging oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac and other potential threats to water resources. Michigan has 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, which “we have not been very good stewards of,” she said.

“We are defined by water in Michigan,” Whitmer said. “It’s a part of our psyche.”

On social and women’s issues, Whitmer said she has a 14-year record she is proud of.

“I am what I am, I kind of put things bluntly,” she said. “I don’t have a poker face, you know. I don’t have one line for one group and another line for another group, and I’m glad about that. I’ve always been an outspoken advocate for access for healthcare for women across the state of Michigan, and I’m proud of that. As someone who is raising two daughters, I’m always thinking about how do we make this world respect them and protect them. … That being said, I think my advocacy really is as much about us being Americans as it is about us being female Americans. It’s about our rights.”

Whitmer said she’d be back.

“I’ll be spending a lot of time here, and I will never take the U.P. for granted,” she said.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.