From a local man fighting for clean water to the head of a federal agency bringing electric vehicles to Michigan, these are the names you need to know.
MICHIGAN—As residents of a state, it’s important to be plugged into who’s making moves, who represents you, and who’s responsible for decisions. This past year, we’ve seen a lot change, from new representation locally to sweeping changes around security in our schools, elections, and public life.
Throughout the year, The ‘Gander has covered these events, interviewing and following the state’s top officials. What follows ranges from the leaders responsible for COVID-19 calls to those who are in charge of the state’s economy.
The following list contains Democrats and Republicans, and even someone who’s not in office. The list is arranged by accomplishments and what each leader represents for Michigan.
Putting Indigenous Education in the Spotlight
Chairperson Aaron Payment of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians has been pushing to improve educational opportunities for Indigenous people in Michigan, a cause that has had him speak on a White House panel.
His tribe, the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, has facilitated several efforts to preserve Indigenous culture in the state, as more information has come out about the insidious effect of boarding schools on the lives and culture of Native Americans. In response, Payment has directed several attempts to foster Anishinaabe language and uplift Native voices.
“We’re in a really strange era,” Payment said to The ‘Gander. “As a society, we thought we were farther along with race relations, and I think we really didn’t understand the undercurrent of an anti-government sort of ethic out there.”
Also of note is that Payment has been on the front lines of the fight to remove Line 5, a Canadian pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac.
Fun fact: Payment is a proud Sault Ste. Marie native and a former varsity athlete.
Spurring on Women-Owned Businesses to Bring Back the Economy
Rep. Haley Stevens comes from a line of female entrepreneurship, which is something that she’s tried to infuse into her community as a Congressional representative for Wayne and Oakland counties.
“I come from a family of female trailblazers,” Stevens told The ‘Gander. “My aunt and my mom were both women in business, they ended up going into business together, creating through I think a lot of unexpected expectations they ended up creating a very healthy and vibrant PR marketing firm that was women-run, focused on women’s issues, and I just grew up in that environment.”
The pandemic has pushed many women out of businesses, leading to what’s been called a “shecession.” In response, Stevens has pushed for opportunities in her own district tied to electric vehicles and technology startups. She hosts a Women-Owned Wednesdays roundtable discussion in her position.
Fun fact: Stevens is a fan of Michigan lake life, having grown up going to Torch Lake. At Orchard Lake, she got engaged.
Bringing Electric Vehicles (Plus Manufacturing) Home to Michigan
All long-term Michiganders know former governor Jennifer Granholm, the state’s 47th governor who rose to prominence for environmental stewardship. Appointed by Biden to head up the national Department of Energy, Granholm has captained significant projects from emission crackdowns to international partnerships. Most relevant for Michigan is a push to get more electric cars to the public.
Granholm came to Michigan to promote an executive order stipulating that 50% of new auto sales should be electric by 2030, a mission that is supported by the Big Three. Announcing the action at Oakland University, Granholm said that Michigan has the pole position to build these new cars and all that goes into them, including semiconductors.
“We should be building that whole supplies and guts in the United States, and Michigan is primed to lead it all,” Granholm said.
Fun fact: Touring Michigan to announce the initiative, Granholm was even spotted pulling away in an electrified 18-wheeler, as part of her tour of an EV facility.
Traveling Home From Singapore to Lead Michigan’s Pandemic Response
Michigan didn’t see too much of Chief Medical Executive Natasha Bagdasarian during 2021, as she only took over the state’s top doctor position in October when Dr. Joneigh Khaldun departed.
Bagdasarian inherited a new variant on the rise and an intense uptick of COVID-19 cases. Thankfully, the pandemic is just her area of expertise.
“One of the things that I worked on before COVID even hit Michigan was a framework and toolkit to prepare countries and regions for pandemics, so everything that I’ve done has sort of fallen into place,” she said to The ‘Gander.
Her background is in internal medicine and infectious diseases, having previously worked with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Knowing what it’s like in hospitals, Bagdasarian’s handling of the latest outbreak will be closely watched.
Fun fact: Bagdasarian has degrees from three Michigan colleges, and she met her husband in her first year at Kalamazoo College.
Standing Up for Clean Water, and Environmental Justice, in Michigan
The only name on this list not in political office, Rev. Edward Pinkney garnered interviews near and far for his work spotlighting the Benton Harbor water crisis, which has been going on since at least 2018.
Before the governor reduced the timeline for pipe replacement to 18 months, Pinkney created a fuss at home, demanding clean water and coordinating with environmental advocacy groups to petition the Environmental Protection Agency for help removing lead pipes.
“Joe Biden, even he needs to know about the city of Benton Harbor,” Pinkney said in an interview with The ‘Gander. “He needs to know there’s a major problem here.”
Pinkney is in charge of the Benton Harbor Community Water Council, which has been passing out bottled water and spreading awareness about the dangers of lead for years. His work continues today.
Fun fact: Pinkney is a big sports fan in his limited free time, and he catches local games and follows Michigan teams.
Fixing the Damn Roads, and Pipes, and Schools
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had a busy year in 2021, from passing the state’s most comprehensive education budget ever into law, to flying to Washington for talks with the administration of President Joe Biden, to managing more water and weather crises that befell Michigan—all the while captaining a state and economy battered by COVID-19.
So far, residents have been able to witness Whitmer’s priorities come together: Enhancing the state’s education, investing in sustainable infrastructure, protecting the environment, and steering back toward economic prosperity.
Famously, Whitmer’s campaign slogan was “fix the damn roads.”
“The phrase ‘fix the damn roads,’ I use it because that’s what everyone was telling me,” Whitmer told ‘The Gander.
Whitmer was known for her aggressive approach to masking and tackling the pandemic. She’s now faced with the Omicron variant, which has pushed case numbers higher, even after the state surpassed its goal for vaccinations.
Even as the state’s unemployment rate dips, many Michiganders remain out of the workforce. Whitmer’s push to get more people in the state with post-secondary education and expand apprenticeship opportunities will be a key factor in any economic rebound.
Fun fact: Whitmer, a graduate of MSU and Michigan State Law School, is an avid Spartan fan, even appearing on a fan podcast to preview the game. However, she has said she roots for the University of Michigan over any Ohio team.
Fighting Against Extremism and Authoritarianism
Rep. Peter Meijer is one of Michigan’s newest elected representatives, having been sworn into Congress in 2021 as a Republican from Grand Rapids. Quickly, the descendant of the famous Meijer family has made a name for himself, voting for Former President Donald Trump’s impeachment and discrediting lies about election fraud.
Meijer faces a difficult battle to maintain his Congressional seat come the next election, with several primary challengers, including a Trump-backed member of the administration he testified against.
“The vice president and the next two in the line of succession were inside the Capitol as it was being assaulted,” Meijer said in an interview with The Atlantic. “And for three hours the president was nowhere to be found.”
When he ran for Congress, Meijer hoped to fix the party. Now, he faces many critics that say he betrayed his side. For the moderate Meijer, how he balances those interests could determine the trajectory of his political career.
Fun fact: Meijer’s name doesn’t just resemble Michigan’s most famous superstore. His father is the CEO of Meijer.
Protecting the Rights of Michiganders and Prosecuting Wrongs
Attorney General Dana Nessel had a busy year, facing up to laws she considered unjust and unconstitutional.
She investigated those who willfully and knowingly spread election misinformation. She filed a complaint about the Postmaster General for gutting the postal service. And she carried out a lawsuit against oil company Enbridge seeking to remove its Line 5 from Michigan territory.
Though legal murky waters is Nessel’s area of expertise, her role didn’t stop there. In September, she negotiated a settlement to help Michigan families afford energy bills.
Fun fact: Outside of her job, Nessel has a biting sense of humor. See her social media accounts for proof.
Securing Free and Fair Elections
A relatively unknown figure until late in 2020, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was thrust into the national limelight when protestors inaccurately picketed that the 2020 presidential election was rigged against Trump.
Those protestors coordinated to show up at her house, armed with guns, as Benson was home with her 4-year-old son for the holidays. Still, Michigan’s chief election officer has remained firm and not strayed away from the evidence that the state carried out a free, impartial election.
“The individuals gathered outside my home targeted me as Michigan’s Chief Election officer,” Benson tweeted at the time. “But their threats were actually aimed at the 5.5 million Michigan citizens who voted in this fall’s election, seeking to overturn their will. They will not succeed in doing so.”
Outside of that role, Benson has also made sweeping changes to Secretary of State offices throughout Michigan, where residents can get their driver’s license and perform various tasks. Spurred on by the pandemic and years of public requests, Benson has reduced lines and promoted self-service stations.
Fun fact: Benson came to Michigan accepting the role of dean at Wayne State Law School, becoming the youngest woman ever to assume that position at a top 100 law school.
Promoting, and Legislating, Equality for All
State Senator Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, is the only Jewish and LGBTQ member of the Michigan Senate, but that hasn’t stopped him from making his voice heard in Lansing. Having been in public service for 10 years, Moss has proposed major changes to Michigan government and plans to continue doing so. Those include transparency initiatives like opening up all branches of Michigan government to public information requests, which currently is not the case in Michigan.
“We have been ranked dead last out of all 50 states in the country in terms of ethics, transparency and accountability,” Moss told The ‘Gander. “So every year I have introduced legislation with partners across the aisle to apply the open records law to the state legislature and to the governor’s office.”
Another priority for Moss is strengthening the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which would extend civil rights workplace protections to LGBTQ people. Gov. Whitmer has said she supports this expansion. In 2021, Moss secured the official recognition of Pride Month for the first time in Michigan history.
Fun fact: In 2011, Moss became the youngest person to ever be elected in Southfield at age 25.
Working Across Party Lines for the Common Good
Rep. Fred Upton is not a new name in Michigan politics, as the Republican Representative from Kalamazoo has been safely in office since 1993. But after Trump backed a right-wing challenger for his spot, Upton has found himself packed somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum.
Not only did Upton vote to impeach Trump after the former president helped to rile up rioters who afterward stormed the capital, but Upton has also slid across the aisle to support popular legislation, such as the infrastructure bill, for which he received a death threat.
A lifelong Republican, Upton hasn’t let partisan politics prevent him from proposing bills to help the homefront, such as securing more resources to fight COVID-19 and sending aid to Benton Harbor for its water crisis. Upton has also been vocal about fixing the nation’s supply chain.
Fun fact: Upton is a supporter of Michigan fishing and the Great Lakes, and has worked to prevent Asian carp from entering the ecosystem.