Photo courtesy of the office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Photo courtesy of the office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

She started practical with big plans to fix our damn roads. We check in on where that’s at, and the fork in the road she couldn’t have seen coming: leading through a global pandemic. 

LANSING, Mich.—In 2018, when Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was running for the state’s top seat, she said she heard the same complaints from other residents living in all corners of the state. 

The roads were littered with potholes and were damaging cars and putting dents in their wallets. 

“You know, I didn’t poll test the phrase, ‘Fix the damn roads,’” Whitmer told The ‘Gander in an interview Friday. “I use it because that’s what everyone in the state was telling me.”

Whitmer said that when the government isn’t getting the state’s infrastructure fixed, it costs Michigan families in many ways. 

“There are so many stories of Michiganders who told me about how a pothole cost them hundreds of dollars, and get new rims on their car, money that came directly out of rent, or, in some cases, out of childcare,” Whitmer said. 

Those stories have directed the governor in her mission to fix the state’s roads. But those plans have been delayed time and time again by new obstacles. First a pandemic. Then, further infrastructural concerns: lead in the drinking water for thousands of Michiganders. 

These widespread issues have worn on Whitmer just as they have residents from around the state. 

“We’ve all been through a lot, and it has been an incredibly tough time,” Whitmer said. “And people have grit their teeth and they’ve done the work and they’ve taken care of themselves and their families and we’re making progress.

“But we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Fixing Michigan’s Water Crisis

In Benton Harbor, Michigan, this year, folks are lining up for water bottle distribution, providing shades of Flint, Michigan, in years prior. Both cities have been depending on free bottled water so their residents can drink, cook, and bathe without the looming fear of the high levels of lead in their city’s tap water.

Miles away in Lansing, Whitmer said she’s been on the phone with leaders in Washington DC pushing for a new infrastructure bill. 

“In that bill, we saw some of our phenomenal congresspeople like (Debbie) Dingell, and (Rashida) Tlaib, and (Andy) Levin, and (Dan) Kildee pushing for increased funding to replace lead pipes,” Whitmer said. “This is not unique to one community in Michigan. This is the truth across the country.”

According to health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prolonged lead exposure can have severe effects on children, such as slowing cognitive development. Federal authorities have said in the years since the Flint Water Crisis that no amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe, but there are levels that fall under a threshold for what is considered an elevated level. 

“Because of the man-made crisis in Flint, we’ve been investigating and testing water more aggressively than other places,” the governor said. “But the fact of the matter is, old infrastructures are reality in communities all across this country, and that’s why the feds really need to prioritize resources so we can replace pipes in Benton Harbor.

“But there will be other communities that we find out about, and that’s why these resources are so critical so that we can do our job of keeping people safe.”

Fighting Pandemic Fatigue 

Another focus of the governor’s has been navigating Michigan through the COVID-19 pandemic, another issue having a direct impact on the lives of everyone across the state. More than 1 million people in Michigan have tested positive for the coronavirus, while more than 20,000 have died from COVID-related issues. 

The pandemic has caused widespread concerns among Michiganders, but with three safe and effective vaccines, the hope is things are improving. 

“I just encourage people to know that we will continue doing our job in state government and keeping people safe, and funding schools for our kids, and fixing infrastructure that we all depend on,” she said.

Whitmer said that people should try to take care of themselves as well: “Whether it’s taking a break during the day just to catch a breath or get a little perspective or get a little extra sleep.”

“We’ve got to encourage and support one another,” said Whitmer, who said she meditates and exercises when she needs to take time for herself. “I think that’s something I’ve been so grateful (for). There’s so many Michiganders out there who’ve done that for me, and I want to make sure that we do that for everyone in the state.”