As Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer has faced far more than fixing the damn roads, putting her in the running for Person of the Year.
LANSING, Mich.—Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made yet another short list, this time for one of the highest honors offered each year.
Votes are being cast now for TIME’s Person of the Year, and Gov. Whitmer is on the list. She faces steep competition, with the World Health Organization, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and leading coronavirus expert Dr. Anthony Fauci all candidates for the honor as well.
For a woman who removed herself from consideration for both the vice presidency and the cabinet, being on a short list is a defining feature of her 2020. How has the governor of a Midwest state who ran on fixing infrastructure become someone considered for everything from vice president to Person of the Year?
She pivoted from “fix the damn roads” to “save some damn lives” and that tenacity stole the spotlight.
Thrust into Crisis
A briefing Gov. Whitmer received Feb. 27radically redefined both her role as a governor and her entire political career. Weeks before the first case of the virus was diagnosed in Michigan, state health official Dr. Joneigh Khaldun discussed with Whitmer topics ranging from the economic impact of the coronavirus and whether a state of emergency needed to be declared immediately.
Khaldun said she was certain the coronavirus had already come to Michigan, but a lack of support and supplies from the federal level left her unable to prove it. Symptom data later proved Khaldun’s insight was likely correct. Khaldun warned Whitmer that the disease was pernicious, deadly, and could spread even before symptoms were noticed. She warned that dramatic measures would be needed to prevent disastrous spread of the virus.
Their plans, according to that symptom data, were almost immediately effective when implemented and were instrumental in flattening the curve.
A New York Times profile of Gov. Whitmer reads like a Hollywood disaster movie replete with crisis management teams in windowless bunkers writing on white boards and bodies literally piled up in Detroit hospitals. All throughout, Khaldun continued to report on the lack of federal support or involvement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That really took my breath away,” Whitmer told the Times. “That’s when it became clear that there’s no bigger plan. We are just going to have to put our heads down and do what we have to do here in Michigan.”
That moment shaped the rest of 2020.
By April, Gov. Whitmer had become a leader on the national stage, even earning praise from Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. That quickly turned into high-profile feuds with President Donald Trump, which earned her the moniker “That Woman from Michigan,” which was rapidly adopted by her supporters as a phrase of self-identification.
A Pop-litical Sensation
The witty and graceful ways Gov. Whitmer responded to Trump’s aggression toward her was captured quickly in the cultural zeitgeist. Saturday Night Live actress Cicily Strong donned a dark wig and, admittedly, a pretty spot-on Whitmer accent to spoof the Michigander’s response to hostility from the White House and armed protesters that gathered in April outside the Capitol Building in Lansing.
Acting as Gov. Whitmer, Strong reminded Michiganders that the road of the pandemic was long in a way that the governor herself might.
“We’re not out of the woods,” she said, in front of a forested backdrop meant to resemble Whitmer’s home’s back porch. “We never will be. We live in Michigan.”
Whitmer only had one complaint about Strong’s portrayal of her. Throughout the sketch, Strong nursed a bottle of Labatt beer, which Whitmer solidly rejected. Instead she turned Strong’s attention to Kalamazoo and Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale.
“It’s kind of funny, but they got the beer wrong,” she said. “We love Canada, but we drink Michigan beer.”
“Gretchen has always just made people feel comfortable,” Tashawna Gill, political director for the governor’s campaign, told The ‘Gander. “She’s a big person with all these responsibilities, but once she is with those constituents … She knows how to make them feel comfortable. And that’s a powerful thing right there.”
And perhaps the most clear confirmation of making Michiganders feel comfortable in a trying time came from Detroit rapper Gmac Cash, who gave Whitmer her now iconic nickname, Big Gretch. Speaking at a Detroit rally with former President Barack Obama and then-nominee Joe Biden, Gov. Whitmer said that of all the things she’s been called, and titles she’s worn with pride, Big Gretch is her favorite.
She even eventually actually got a pair of Buffs.
The Boiling Backlash
But as both Gmac Cash and Cecily Strong alluded to, there was as much tension as there was celebration of her stances. Armed protesters stormed the Capitol at the end of April, laying the groundwork for a political struggle in the state that followed.
Republican lawmakers spent their time trying, and eventually succeeding, to undermine the authority Gov. Whitmer used to issue emergency orders, pushing for more businesses and industries to return to normal operation and using the pandemic as an avenue to privatize distance learning, while on the lawn protests got weird. But a darker undercurrent to opposition to Gov. Whitmer formed outside Lansing.
More than a dozen domestic terrorists met in the basement of a shop accessed by a trapdoor, finalizing their plans to abduct and murder Gov. Whitmer, and overthrow the state government.
That plot involved preparing a bomb to go off at a bridge near Gov. Whitmer’s property. Court filings report the group agreed to buy explosives for this purpose, using words like “cake” and “baker” as euphemisms to avoid detection. They also used encrypted messaging platforms to coordinate efforts. One conspirator was insistent the plot be carried out early enough to impact the Nov. 3 election.
With a boat painted black, the conspirators monitored Gov. Whitmer’s home at night. During the day, the men drove by the property, taking slow-motion video and making hand-drawn maps of the area. They calculated the response time of the nearest police station and determined destroying the nearby bridge would slow that response. Destroying a highway bridge as a diversionary tactic was also planned.
They planned to attack the house and escape with an unconscious Gov. Whitmer by boat. The group purchased a taser to accomplish this, so she could be brought to a location in Wisconsin to stand unofficial trial.
“If you’re not down with the thought of kidnapping, don’t sit here,” court filings report one conspirator said. To which, another replied “Kidnapping, arson, death. I don’t care.”
The group began discussing destroying Gov. Whitmer’s home.
The intent was to take her to a bunker in Wisconsin and convict her of treason before executing her. It was foiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigations in early October, according to a criminal complaint. At least two of the conspirators had stormed the Capitol with the armed protesters in April.
“When I put my hand on the Bible and took the oath of office 22 months ago, I knew this job would be hard, but I’ll be honest—I never could’ve imagined anything like this,” said Gov. Whitmer in a news conference following the arrest of the Wolverine Watchmen domestic terror cell. “As a mom with two teenage daughters and three stepsons, my husband and I are eternally grateful to everyone who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our family safe.”
A Rising Star
Whitmer’s tumultuous year has come as part of America’s tumultuous year. Her decisive and unapologetic effort to do what she felt needed doing in an unimaginable crisis made her an flashpoint, hailed by her supporters and reviled by her opponents.
At the same time as being considered for TIME’s Person of the Year, a small minority of Michiganders continue to advocate for her impeachment. Just days after the failed plot to kidnap and murder her, a small minority of Michiganders called for Gov. Whitmer’s arrest. Every Saturday in November, protesters in favor of outgoing President Donald Trump have gathered in Lansing, always with slings and arrows and axes to grind for Gov. Whitmer.
“There’s a slim part of the population that is showing up at the capital with their assault rifles and their Confederate flags and Nazi symbolism,” Gov. Whitmer told Axios in May. “But you know what? That’s not what you see as you get across Michigan.”
At any other time, political protest of a Midwestern governor might be too banal for national attention. But now every new development with Gov. Whitmer garners national headlines. Elevated by a refusal to let what she characterizes consistently as absentee federal leadership to endanger Michiganders, Whitmer has become a national political leader.
“I’m never going to apologize for the fact that because there was a vacuum of leadership at the federal level, we had to take action to save people here in Michigan,” she told Axios.
And her leadership has spread beyond just the coronavirus. Gov. Whitmer marched with those mourning the deaths of Black people at the hands of police, spoke at the Democratic National Convention and has been a voice for responding to all crises beyond a political lens.
The flames of coronavirus that have burned across Michigan have forged a leader Gov. Whitmer could never have foreseen becoming. Right now, Big Gretch has waved off positions of political influence that would take her away from Michigan at this vulnerable time. But Gretchen Whitmer has shown that being governor of Michigan is still an office on a national stage. And, though the odds are long, it could lead her to being Person of the Year.