Michigan’s next gubernatorial election won’t happen for nearly another two years, but the first candidate has already entered the race. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democratic former state Senate leader, announced her candidacy in a Medium post on Tuesday.
Whitmer served in the Michigan House of Representatives for five years and in the state Senate for nine, taking on the position of minority leader for her final four years. She has been a vocal critic of the state’s handling of the water crisis in Flint, accusing current Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican who’s reached his term limit, of trying to push blame onto state employees. Flint was “not an isolated circumstance,” Whitmer said in January 2016, but one symptom of a failing system of Republican control of Michigan’s government.
“For too long, our leaders have been content to manage our decline. We went from leading the nation to lagging,” Whitmer wrote in her campaign announcement. “If we want change, we can’t wait for Washington to solve our problems. And we can’t elect the same old politicians, on the same old platforms and expect a different result.”
Outside of Michigan, Whitmer is best known for an impassioned speech she gave in opposition to a proposed anti-abortion law in 2013. Republican state legislators were trying to ban private insurance companies from covering abortion care in the state, forcing women to pre-purchase extra insurance if they thought they might need the coverage. Reproductive-rights advocates called it a “rape insurance” bill, because women were essentially asked to predict whether they might be raped and need to terminate a resulting pregnancy. The bill made no exceptions for abortions required for reason of severe fetal abnormality, either.
Whitmer lambasted the bill in an address that included the story of her own rape. “I’m about to tell you something that I’ve not shared with many people in my life. But over 20 years ago I was a victim of rape,” she said. “And thank God it didn’t result in a pregnancy, because I can’t imagine going through what I went through and then having to consider what to do about an unwanted pregnancy from an attacker.”
“It’s something I’ve hidden for a long time,” Whitmer continued. “But I think you need to see the face of the women that you are impacting by this vote today. I think you need to think of the girls that we’re raising and what kind of a state we want to be where you would put your approval on something this extreme.” Despite Whitmer’s much-publicized opposition, the bill passed and became law. Whitmer later proposed legislation to repeal the new law, but her efforts failed; it’s still on the books today.
Nevertheless, Whitmer’s speech demonstrated her commitment to representing women and advocating for their access to health care in the face of a bloc of old-school conservative legislators determined to punish women (especially poor women, who depend on insurance coverage most) for seeking abortions. In 2012, she participated in a reading of The Vagina Monologues at the Michigan state capitol to protest the Republican leadership’s banning of two female legislators from floor debates for using the word vagina in arguments against an anti-abortion measure. Like Wendy Davis of Texas, Whitmer has proven unafraid to take a bold stance for reproductive rights in a state that’s historically elected a strong slate of anti-choice legislators, making her a worthy argument for electing more women to public office.
No one else has filed paperwork to run for governor in Michigan in 2018 yet, but Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (a Democrat who represents Flint), and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who’s gotten support from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have all been floated as possible opponents for Whitmer. And she’s already taking swings: On Wednesday, Whitmer called Schuette a “failed leader.” As for his response to the Flint water crisis, Whitmer said, “the only people who are better off from all of that are the lawyers who are getting paid from Bill Schuette.”