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A Conversation with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) is focused on getting more people vaccinated and hopes to reopen the state this summer despite another surge of COVID-19 cases. Whitmer is also combating a slate of 39 election reform bills proposed by Michigan Republicans that follow in the footsteps of Georgia’s voting restrictions. Opinions writer Jonathan Capehart talks one on one with Gov. Whitmer about COVID-19, voting rights, water infrastructure projects, and more. Join Washington Post Live on Tuesday, April 13 at 2:15pm ET.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

GRETCHEN WHITMER: We are seeing a surge in Michigan despite the fact that we have some of the strongest policies in place, mask mandates, capacity limits, working from home, we've asked our state for a two week pause. So despite all of that, we are seeing a surge because of these variants. And that's precisely why we're really encouraging them to think about surging vaccines into the state of Michigan.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Good afternoon. I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for "The Washington Post". Welcome to "Washington Post Live" and another installment in our series, Leadership During Crisis with the 49th governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. Governor Whitmer, welcome back to "Washington Post Live".

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Thank you. It's good to be with you.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: So let's pick up on the conversation in that clip that we saw of you on "Face The Nation" and talk about something you said to Chuck Todd on "Meet the Press". You said you didn't have, quote, "all of the exact same tools to combat COVID". And you cited a lawsuit by your state legislature and a defeat in the Michigan Supreme Court last October that ruled you needed legislative approval for some of the measures you enacted at the outset of the pandemic last year.

Is that the reason you think for the big increase in COVID cases in Michigan?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, I think that there are a lot of contributing factors to the increased COVID numbers in Michigan. One is, of course, we were very successful for a long period of time. We kept our positivity rates in the single digits for the vast majority of the last year. And because of that, now that we are 15 months in and people are tired, and they're dropping their guard, and their mobility has increased, we also have the variants here in Michigan. And the B117 variant is incredibly contagious.

And so with reservoirs of people who don't have antibodies because they didn't catch COVID in the first place, we are seeing this variant spread incredibly fast. And so there are a lot of, I think, contributing factors to this moment that we are in. And yet we know that it is on every one of us to do our part to take this seriously. And what's happening in Michigan could be happening in a different part of the country tomorrow.

And that's why this is hopefully a moment where everyone sees this is still a very real threat that we have to continue to take seriously. And hopefully, people will avail themselves of these miraculous vaccines that are available, the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines. You can get them all across the country right now. And we're hoping that more people do because that really is an important way for us to get that normalcy we all crave, and to be safe, and get our economy back on track.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: So you mentioned the vaccines. But one thing you did say in that "Face The Nation" clip that we showed in this intro is that you said you were asking the state for a two week pause. What do you mean by pause first?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: So last March when we first saw COVID come into Michigan and the numbers went through the roof, and we saw so much death and hospitals that were overfilling, we didn't know a lot about this virus. We didn't know that a mask was the most important tool that we would have for the vast majority of the following year. We didn't have access to tests or PPE. We certainly didn't have vaccines.

So we had to take a stay home stay safe posture to drive our numbers down. We were successful in doing that. When the virus started coming back in the fall right before the holidays, we took a pause. It was supposed to be a few weeks. It ended up having to be extended a couple of times. But that pause, again, pushed our numbers down. What we've asked people to do is to take a pause, but to do that by not going into indoor dining.

Even though we have 50% capacity, it's still a strong protocol. Indoor dining, resumption of school sports, going back to school right after spring break, these are all things that we ask people not to do so that we could get our numbers down.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: So if I'm hearing you right, a pause is less stringent than the shutdowns that you and other governors across the country instituted last year.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: That's right. I mean, so that legal case that you mentioned in your question, that was a challenge to the executive authorities that I used to shut things down to issue the stay home stay safe order. That was the genesis of the powers that we were exercising to keep people safe. And the Republican legislature sued me. And along a party line vote in our Supreme Court, those powers were eviscerated. And they didn't say I did anything wrong. What they said was the original law from 1945 was not appropriately delegated to the executive branch.

It's a real tenuous stretch of a decision that they made. But nonetheless, it has big consequences. So we do still have some tools. But 15 months, and the most important thing that we can do is to mask up, and to not congregate, not to be indoors, and to get these vaccines. And that's where we are really pushing the population of Michigan to do their part.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Now you've requested more vaccines from the federal government, or your request for-- let me start again. Your request for more vaccines from the federal government have been turned down. Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response team's coordinator has said that they would send more vaccinators and testing supplies. Are you satisfied with the federal response to the emergency in your state?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, let me start with this. On January 20, when the Biden administration came into office, we saw a dramatic, dramatic change in our country's strategy to bring this virus to its knees. And we're so grateful for the leadership of the administration, Jeff Zients, and the COVID response team. They've been great partners to us. What we're seeing in terms of the variant spreading in Michigan is concerning. And of course, I ask for additional help.

They have a national strategy, which is by and large working. I was hopeful that we might see some more vaccines coming into Michigan. But of course, they've got to think about the whole nation. And I get that. I am grateful that they are sending boots on the ground. I am grateful that they have increased access to therapeutics. That's one great way that we can keep people out of the hospital, which is a primary concern of ours with as much spread as we've seen.

And so all of these factors are helping us address the situation here. And we know that with more and more vaccines coming online, soon our challenge is going to be encouraging and educating the public to avail themselves of these vaccines. Right now, supply does still-- is outnumbered by demand. But that could very soon switch. And so it's going to be on all of us to do our part to encourage others to get this vaccine to educate the public so that people understand these are incredible, safe, effective tools that we have to get back that normalcy we all crave.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Let me ask you about two things that are happening on the ground sort of right now. One, apparently over the weekend in the Lansing area, there's right wing militias held an anti-mask rally at a local Menard's and protested COVID regulations at Michigan State University. And I'm getting this from a tweet from Jonathan Oosting up there.

How can you convince anyone that it is vital to wear masks but also imperative to get the vaccine when you have right wing activists who are holding anti-mask rallies in your state?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, I think that's part of the challenge on the ground here, Jonathan. When people look to say, OK, we should just do what we did a year ago. And the reality on the ground is we've got to really take into account what we can and can't get the public to embrace and to support. We saw protesters at a school board meeting not long ago here in Michigan on the West side of the state where they were pounding on the doors insisting that the school board drop mask mandates.

I mean, Michigan has still some of the strongest protocols on the books. We require masks. We have capacity restrictions. We have work from home here in Michigan. These are important aspects to keeping people safe, especially as we are seeing this community spread. And yet, you've just cited a prime example of the challenge on the ground, to encourage people to avail themselves of these vaccines, and also to wear their masks.

So we have still a very divided state. I think that the toll of the politics of the last year around this public health crisis are things that didn't end with the election. They continue. And this is part of our challenge. And that's why encouraging, educating, and really appealing to people who are on the fence. We won't get 100% of the population. But we're going to do our best to get the vast majority of people. Because that's how we get to a place where we can safely congregate, we can enjoy a baseball game, or a football game in the fall, or have a picnic around 4th of July.

And that's really the goal. That's the goal that President Biden set out. It's very doable. But we're all going to have to really pull in the same direction to get the majority of people there.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Governor, let me get your comments on something else. The Republican Party in Michigan is criticizing you for traveling out of state during the pandemic. The Republican Party says you went on a quote, "tropical vacation" end quote to Florida. Was it a vacation?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: So I have traveled out of state three times in the last six months. Once was to go to the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The second one to visit my National Guard troops who were in Washington DC helping to secure the Capitol. And the third was a short two full day trip to check in on my father who is battling some chronic illness. And he's a very private person. I feel terrible that I've even had to share that much. But it was certainly not spring break.

I was doing both my job as governor from a distance and being that of a daughter who was helping out a parent who needed a little help.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Can I ask you personally, how does it feel when-- I mean, there's politics in everything. You are governor. You ran to be governor. And so this comes with the territory. But when the opposing party does battle with you, political battle with you, over your family members, how does that sit with you?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, it's maddening because a lot of these same people would accuse me of not having family values if I didn't show up when a family member needed some help. It is a two day trip. I wasn't out partying in Miami. It's a very different situation than what they're portraying. And I think, unfortunately in this environment, it seems like people are more focused on scoring political points than actually doing the work to keep people safe and to get our economy back on track.

A lot of these same critics are part of the recalcitrant legislature that doesn't want to move dollars that were sent to Michigan by the Trump administration, not to mention the dollars that are coming in as a result of the Biden administration. We've got an incredible opportunity here. If we can drop all of this ugly political tactics and focus on deploying these resources to help businesses, to help people, to get our kids back in school, everyone in the state will be better off.

And so it's unfortunate that this is the moment that we're in. I'm going to stay focused on doing my job because the stakes are really high. And we've got a lot of work to do.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Let's talk about something else the republicans in Michigan are doing. Particularly in the state Senate, they proposed a 39 bill election reform package last month, at the end of last month, that you've threatened to veto. We could get into all the specifics of what's in that package. But my question to you is one, have you vetoed it yet? And two, what is it about this package that makes it unfair?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: So a couple of things. And I'm glad for the question. The package has not come through the legislature to my desk yet. If and when that happens, I will veto the package. There are 39 bills that are quote unquote "solutions", but they are in search of a problem. We had a fair, full, historic election in the state of Michigan and in our country. This is simply an effort to create barriers to voting people.

And I think that it's important to also recognize that a gubernatorial veto isn't necessarily the end of this story. The head of the GOP has already indicated that they will use this weird mechanism in Michigan law where they can go and collect signatures. And if they get to a certain threshold, the policy goes before the legislature. And on a simple majority vote, they can change the law of Michigan and bypass a gubernatorial veto.

So we have got a potential real big fight on our hands. I'm grateful that there are a lot of businesses in Michigan that have weighed in and supported protections that are currently in the law that already make voting fair and safe and have taken a stand against any efforts to erode or suppress voting in the future. But this will not end with a gubernatorial veto. And that's why I'm glad you raised it, because I think there's a lot of confusion about how serious this threat is here in Michigan.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Let me get you to talk about President Biden's $2.3 trillion American jobs plan. You've said the president's infrastructure bill will provide well-paying jobs and fix decaying roads in your state among other things. What do you say to critics who say it's way too expensive a package, and not enough of it is going to actual infrastructure programs?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, you know what? Governor Larry Hogan, republican from Maryland and I, testified in front of the United States Senate Committee as they were starting to talk about infrastructure. And we both encouraged the Congress to be bold, to think about infrastructure not just in the traditional roads and bridges sense, but to think about water infrastructure under the ground, broadband infrastructure. I mean, these are critical components to doing business, to living a life of opportunity in this country.

And frankly, we've seen underinvestment for a long, long period of time. Every state in the nation needs resources to make sure that we've got the infrastructure that supports our businesses and our quality of life. And so I'm excited about this prospect. We need to build resilient infrastructure. We need to be mindful of our carbon footprint and climate change. This is an opportunity to create a lot of good paying jobs, and doing this important work that has long, for too long, been ignored or under invested.

And that's why I support it wholeheartedly. I think that this is an opportunity for us to get our economy back on track to make this a place where we are competitive with the rest of the world and to learn the lessons of the last 15 months. And that is we cannot underinvest in the things that keep us healthy, keep us safe, and keep us competitive.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: We just have a few minutes left. But the last time you and I spoke in this venue in "Washington Post Live", you were under serious consideration to be Joe Biden's running mate. And I'm just wondering, in that process it seemed like everyone who was considered came out of the process bigger in terms of stature, their standing within the party. At least that's my impression. Was that your experience? Does that even ring true to you?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: It was. It was an experience unlike anything I've ever been through. And I'm grateful for having had the opportunity. Because I can tell you, I've gotten to know President Biden quite well. I am thrilled that he chose Vice President Kamala Harris as his running mate. I think it was a brilliant choice. But this is all giving me the ability to build these relationships. And I think that's an incredible opportunity that I had.

I think too, we as a country need to bring voices to the table as we are plotting our path forward, creating opportunity for all. And so wherever there's an opportunity for me to add the Michigan voice or data voice from the experiences that I bring to the table, I'm honored to have that chance.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Do you think it's made you an even bigger target for Michigan republicans who have been going after you as we've just discussed personally, but also politically, and legislatively?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Well, for whatever reason, the last 15 months has, I think, made me front and center in terms of the fight against COVID and created I think some attention that I never could have anticipated and certainly that I never actually was looking for. And yet, I've got a job to do. And I'm going to stay focused on that. I know that I will have a competitive election next year even though I don't know who the opponent will be just yet.

Michigan's a state that every election's going to be competitive. And so I am very sober about that fact. But it would be great if we could find some common ground around the fundamentals right now when we've got resources and such great need. And that's why I'm going to not be thinking too much about 2022 in this moment. But I've got to get my state through this tough time. And that's where my whole heart, and mind, and focus is.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And I'm going to squeeze in one more question. And that is this. You're part of the leadership series. We've been talking to the governors all year during the pandemic. Last question to you is this. Is there a one decision you made you wish you could have a do over on?

GRETCHEN WHITMER: I think any leader who's being honest would tell you, if they could go back in a time machine with the knowledge we have accumulated and make some different choices along the way, every one of us would take that opportunity. We're battling a novel virus. We've learned an incredible amount. We've come a long way. And we are not done yet. This virus is not done with us yet. So I think any leader who is being honest would recognize that if we could go back and do some things differently, maybe we would.

But at every step of the way, I've listened to our best minds, I've listened to our best epidemiologists, and public health experts, and virologists. And I think in the moment we have done, we've navigated well. But certainly, if I could do over with the knowledge we have now, certainly there'd be some changes that I'd make along the way.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Governor Gretchen Whitmer of the great state of Michigan, thank you very much for coming back to "Washington Post Live".

GRETCHEN WHITMER: Thank You.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: And as always, thank you for tuning in. Come back at 2:30. That's just in less than an hour. 2:30 Eastern when my colleague David Ignatius will continue our "Protecting Our Planet" series with former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. You can always head to washingtonpostlive.com to register and find more information about upcoming programs. Until then, and once again, I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer for "The Washington Post". Thank you for tuning in to "Washington Post Live".