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Wednesday, April 17,2013

What's next for Whitmer?

Checking in with City Pulse readers' favorite politician: Grateful to serve and unsure of the future

by Kyle Melinn
About 13 years ago, 28-year-old Gretchen Whitmer knocked her first door in East Lansing and Meridian Township as a candidate for the 69th state House district.

The eager first-time candidate had a law degree. She had a couple of years’ experience as an attorney. She served on the staff of former House Speaker Curtis Hertel, Sr., father of Ingham County Register of Deeds Curtis Hertel, Jr.

Whitmer enjoyed some name ID as an East Lansing native and daughter of Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Dick Whitmer. 

Still, she was an unknown political quantity running against who was seen as the heir apparent to term-limited Rep. Laura Baird — Mary Lindemann, then-wife of popular Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. Whitmer was not deterred.

“At the time, I looked at who else was running and I said, ‘You know, I could do as good of a job as any of them, maybe better than some,’” she remembered.

The remark wasn’t a personal slight to her spokesman, Bob McCann, who happened to be a fresh-out-of-college candidate that year.

“I just wanted to do it once,” McCann said. 

Enough voters liked what Whitmer had to offer: 281 to be exact. She won the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, a seat in the state House of Representatives. The win proved a political springboard for Whitmer, who this month was named by City Pulse readers as the area’s Best Politician as part of the Top of the Town contest.

“I’m grateful for it,” Whitmer said of the recognition. “I find my name on lists, but when it’s my constituents, Im grateful for it.”

Whitmer is the first Lansing-area elected leader not named Virg Bernero to win the award. And it comes after the mother of two has found herself embroiled in numerous hot issues.

The Senate Democratic caucus leader has become the go-to Democrat for public responses to Republican policy initiatives.

When it appeared the Republican-led House and Senate were playing political football with anti-bullying legislation, Whitmer blew the whistle. Her passionate Senate floor speech in which she called out Republicans went national and helped shame legislative leaders into passing a more complete bill.

When then-Rep. Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, and another female House member were banned from speaking on the House floor for a day for using the words “vagina” and “vasectomy” in debate, Whitmer rolled out the red carpet for a public performance of the play “Vagina Monologues” on the Capitol steps.

When questions arose about House Speaker Jase Bolger’s role in the party-switching fiasco last summer, Whitmer joined with then-Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer in a one-person grand jury request. The inquiry by Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina is ongoing.

When Republicans brought the Right to Work debate to the Capitol in December, Whitmer was among the vocal leaders speaking out about the Michigan State Police’s decision to close the Capitol to new visitors due to security concerns.

All the while, Whitmer was asked for months about her interest in being the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee in 2014. She turned down the request.

Being elevated to the statewide and national scale, Whitmer said she fears, at times, her constituents may feel she is spending too much time on the road trying to promote the Democrats’ vision.

“I’ve got a lot more responsibility on my shoulders, but I’ll never forget where I come from,” she said. “When I’m at Meijer in the produce aisle, invariably a couple people will start talking to me about the substance of bills in front of us or their frustrations in navigating state government.”

It’s this latter part of her work — talking with individuals in the community — that Whitmer says she finds the most enjoyable. It’s the part she’ll miss the most when she’s termed out of the Legislature at the end of 2014.

Whitmer says she isn’t sure where she’ll end up after her term ends. She’s mentioned as a potential challenger to Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette. In 2010, Whitmer was mentioned as an AG candidate, too.

At the time, she declined a run, noting the young ages of her daughters. What has changed four years later?

“They’re four years older,” she said. “The things they are juggling are even that much more complex. At this juncture, I’m not prepared to throw my hat in any race.

“If there is an elected office in my future, it’s something I’m going to have to think long and hard on before I even consider throwing my hat in.”

If this ends up being it for Whitmer as a public servant, she said she’s been grateful to serve.

“I’ve found it very rewarding and a great opportunity. I encourage everyone to think about it.”

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