For Gretchen Whitmer, governing no matter the potential political fallout

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With little direction from Washington, the nation’s governors have pulled together a patchwork of mitigation efforts to fight Covid-19. They limited gatherings, ordered masks, closed businesses and encouraged al fresco dining, beer-to-go and prayers at home.

Now, they’re wrestling with what to do about school reopenings at a time when coronavirus cases keep rising. And they are facing huge fiscal challenges as state budgets crater and state economies remain in recession.

“A global pandemic was not on the radar when I ran for governor,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in an interview with POLITICO on Monday in which she discussed the challenges of leading a state during a once-in-a-century moment of crisis.

Whitmer is among the Democratic governors who early in the pandemic criticized the White House for forcing states to manage on their own. In interviews, Whitmer suggested the Trump administration was blocking Michigan’s requests for help and creating a bidding war among states for personal protective equipment. President Donald Trump pushed back, saying states that don’t show appreciation for the federal government should be ignored.

“Don’t call the woman in Michigan,” Trump said during one White House briefing. The phrase stuck, propelling Whitmer to national attention.

She now faces the challenge of balancing a state budget deeply affected by the revenue losses caused by the pandemic. Last week, she said cuts in education and public safety would be “unavoidable” without financial aid from Washington.

Below is our interview with Whitmer, slightly edited for length and clarity:

How do you manage a pandemic when you have an agenda you want to get done?

We’re managing a number of crises at the same time. There’s the pandemic, which has brought a recession. And then you layer on that we’ve had a flooding event that knocked out dams. And on top of that the righteous uprising around racial disparities.

In ordinary times, one of these crises would consume all your energy. And yet, right now, we have to be able to manage all of these crises and do the day-to-day work of state government. We have an ambitious agenda that we still plan to pursue, but certainly this has taken all of our focus getting through these four crises that have simultaneously occurred.

Schools reopening, businesses closing and how to balance the budget — do you see them as short-term decisions or generational?

I don’t know how many governors have kids who were supposed to graduate this year, but I did. I canceled my own child’s graduation. And I have another child still in high school and we’re not quite sure what the future holds.

I just know that I have to make decisions based on saving lives and centered around epidemiology and the science. Doing that has put Michigan in a much stronger position now and has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. We have to do what needs to be done now to mitigate the intensity and the depth and length for which we’re confronting Covid-19.

I think that’s the best thing we can do for this generation of Americans that is growing up right now. To get our arms around this and not see it absolutely last longer and devastate more lives than it already has.

Good management in 2020 might not be good politics down the road. Does that play into your decision-making?

This virus doesn’t care what state you live in or what party you’re in. So we have to make decisions around science. Not getting aggressive will bear a political price, without question. And being aggressive certainly inspires a reaction, but I think that’s the way we shorten the amount of time we get through this. And, ultimately, I think doing the right thing by the science is going to be doing the smart thing politically. Not because that was a calculation but because people will understand it had to be done.

How have you dealt with the recovery versus the pandemic?

Executive orders are important and states that have governors who got aggressive are in a stronger position now because of it. But we’re always very aware that there’s been a lot of sacrifice that’s been made. I think every single governor in the country wants to get our economies engaged, but those that are paying attention to the science are going to have stronger economies in the long-run, too, because you can’t fix economic problems if you don’t get your arms around the health crisis.

And how do you balance a state budget amid a pandemic?

We have a recession. We’ve got the worst recession since the Great Depression because of the mismanagement of the public health crisis on a national level. And every state in the nation is grappling with the impacts on our state budgets. And the sad thing about that is that the dollars over which we have discretion generally are dedicated to public health, public safety and public education. And in the midst of a pandemic, where there are racial disparities on top of it, public health, public safety and public education are the places we need investment the most. So if the Trump administration doesn’t get this [federal bailout] done, every state in the nation is going to be struggling just to be doing the fundamentals.

How have you dealt with the most unexpected of governorships?

A global pandemic was not on the radar when I ran for governor. I am most grateful for the people I serve, the incredible experts I’m surrounded by and my fellow governors. We are all building the plane as we fly it with a vacuum of leadership in Washington, D.C. It’s been some of my fellow governors who I have found to be most helpful in talking things through. We’ve shared our strategies.

We’ve benefited from each other’s experiences and knowledge. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is one of the first ones I’m on the phone with when we’re grappling with a big decision, along with Mike DeWine (Ohio), Larry Hogan (Maryland), Tony Evers (Wisconsin) and Tim Walz (Minnesota). I’m talking to Democrats and Republican governors because every single one of us is confronting the same issues and we’re all trying to get our states in a place where our people are safe and we can get our economies on track.

This article is part of The Fifty, a new POLITICO series that looks at how state and local leaders are responding to current national challenges, from the pandemic to the economic crisis to the reckoning with race. More coverage of these issues here.

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