MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivered the Mackinac Policy Conference's keynote address Wednesday afternoon.
It focused on unifying Michigan to "fix the damn road ahead."
Watch it here:
Read the text of the speech:
As we begin, I want to start by quoting two famous Americans. One from our past and one from our present. One eloquent and one plain-spoken. One very real and one entirely made up. Both equally prescient and profound.
In 1968, hours after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and just months before his own, Bobby Kennedy said, “We can make an effort… to replace violence that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
52 years later, Coach Ted Lasso, quoted Walt Whitman and reminded us all to “Be curious, not judgmental.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about these two interlocking ideas; seeking to understand with compassion and love; and being curious, not judgmental. That intention drives a lot of the conversations I’ve been having with people all across our state. I will expand on that in a bit.
In addition to pondering leadership quotes from real politicians and fictional coaches, I’ve been governing through a pandemic and facing down challenges that none of us could have imagined. Today, thanks to our effective management of the once-in-a-century virus, Michigan’s economy is poised for a once-in-a-generation recovery.
Our unemployment rate is below the national average and has gone down for eight straight months. In the first quarter of 2021, personal income was up 19.1%, the fourth-highest nationwide, and our GDP grew 7.6%, the best in the Midwest. Our credit rating outlook was boosted by two rating agencies: Moody’s and S&P. We turned a projected $3 billion deficit into a $3.5 billion surplus. We are a top ten state to do business and still boast the strongest automotive manufacturing nationwide.
And we have a massive influx of federal funds—billions to invest in Michigan. And with those resources, we can make transformative change on infrastructure, skills, small business, education, and so much more that has long eluded us because our state’s general fund hasn’t grown in 20 years. It’s a big task, but I know we’re up to it. I also know, however, that there are Michiganders who aren’t feeling the positive economic momentum in their lives yet. That’s why the work we do in this space continues to be so important.
That’s the real work of state government—bringing together: people, communities, and small businesses to get things done. It’s that core mission that brought me into public service in the first place—to serve the state I love and deliver change that makes a real difference in people’s lives. I am very proud of what we’ve accomplished over the last couple of years. Since I last took this stage, a lot has happened.
We partnered to grow over 15,000 auto jobs.
We created the Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners, putting over 160,000 Michiganders on a tuition-free path to higher education and skills training.
We are working to solve the chip crisis by helping to open a new chipmaker in Bay City, creating 150 jobs and bringing supply chain from China to Michigan.
We made the largest education investment in Michigan history—$17 billion—without raising taxes, meeting a decades-long goal to close the funding gap between public schools in Michigan. Four of my predecessors worked on this—but we got it done.
Over 260,000 more people have healthcare too.
And we made a $3.5 billion investment in our roads through the Rebuilding Michigan bond. That’s orange barrels, new roads, and over 45,000 jobs.
And a personal highlight—I was roasted by Stephen Colbert on his late night show for employing too many sports metaphors.
We got a lot done. But we still face big, structural challenges. We need workers to fill open jobs. We need to cultivate, retain, and lure talent in Michigan. There are also too many jobs that don’t pay enough and there aren’t enough Michiganders with the training or education necessary to fill high-skill jobs. We need to do more support more entrepreneurship in Michigan and MEDC needs more tools in its toolbox to compete on a global level and boost our speed to market. Also, housing is unattainable or unaffordable in several communities. In Michigan, too many communities are struggling, unable to attract families to build their lives or businesses to fill their main streets.
That’s why we all need to tackle these big, structural challenges by growing Michigan’s economy, creating good-paying jobs, and building industries of the future. Together, let’s harness our potential to usher in a new era of prosperity for the state we all love.
Recently, we unveiled the MI New Economy plan, a $2.1 billion proposal to grow our middle class, support small businesses, and invest in our communities. I want to thank you for all your input on this plan. Your perspectives and insights helped us prioritize and put this bold proposal together. The plan addresses many of the economic challenges we face with strategic investments in people, places, and prosperity.
The MI New Economy plan is an important start. I want to work with you, the legislature, and anyone who wants to empower Michigan’s families, communities, and small businesses. We have an incredible opportunity right now.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve laid out “what” we need to tackle. Today, I’m here to discuss “how” we actually get it done. This is the biggest variable because it undergirds every challenge we’re up against. None of us has time or energy to waste. And we all know the best plans in the world only matter if we execute. That’s what I want to talk about today and it’s what I have been thinking about for the last several months: the tangible work that goes into the inherently intangible process of getting things done. It’s a Herculean task in this environment. To start, as with so many things, I think about the lessons my parents taught my siblings and me.
My mom was an Assistant AG for Democratic Attorney General Frank Kelley and my dad was the Director of Commerce for Republican Governor Bill Milliken. My family was like many in Michigan—bipartisan, hardworking, complex. I am grateful to have grown up with loving parents who had differing perspectives, a keen sense of 70s fashion, and who gave us kids the space to shape our own views. A lot of us grew up in homes like that. Michigan represents the nation in our demographics, our politics, our industries, our geography, and crucially, our shared priorities. The priorities for most people are the kitchen-table issues: jobs, roads, water, education, childcare, etc.
Upon taking office, I intended to dedicate 100% of my energy to these core issues. But 2020 had a different plan for us all. A recession, a long overdue racial reckoning, a devastating dam failure and flood in Midland, a kidnapping plot, an election, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. We faced the virus head-on, leading with science and medical experts to save lives.
Many people in this room stepped up in remarkable ways through the pandemic, joining workgroups and advising my team to both protect public health and ensure our economy recovered quickly. Thank you. Just as relief in the form of life-saving vaccines rolled out of Portage, Michigan, giving the world a collective sense of hope, January 6th happened.
I was glued to the TV that day, sitting with my husband and kids, watching in stunned silence. We saw brutal attacks on law enforcement and the culmination of so many issues: disinformation, partisan rancor, and political violence come together in a tragic day. That day, we all saw the clearest, most visceral manifestation of the fundamental issue we all face: our political divide.
We see that divide in our state. It appears that we live, increasingly, in two Michigans. There are countless studies, articles, data points, etc. that demonstrate this.
The causes of these glaring realities are multi-faceted, and on some level, they are all correct. But I’m not here to diagnose—I’m focused on the HOW to move forward and get things done in this environment.
In 2017 and 2018, I listened. A lot. I traveled to all 83 counties to hear from Michiganders directly about the challenges they faced. It’s why I have stayed centered on the kitchen-table issues. Families everywhere from Ingham to Iron; Macomb to Mackinac; Kent to Keweenaw; county to county to county largely care about the same fundamentals.
And frankly it’s what I missed most through COVID—people. Being Governor is an isolating job in the best of times, but exponentially so during the pandemic. Every Michigander probably felt a bit of that isolation. But it was a feeling that’s difficult to sum up in a word. It’s the feeling of being alone as things get worse, powerless in the face of global forces stretching your paychecks thinner, anxious as poisonous technology profits off of making you afraid of “others,” and nervous about your children’s future.
So, I zoomed with groups of grocery clerks, nurses, teachers, doctors, child care workers, utility workers, and sanitation workers to name a handful. And as soon as it was safe, I hit the road and I met with people. I mentioned my plan to get out and Fix the Damn Road Ahead in my State of the State earlier this year, and it’s been good to engage again.
I wanted these conversations to be real, off-the-record, unscripted. I didn’t want a facilitator, and while the obvious public safety concerns meant we had to be thoughtful about who was in the room, I wanted to speak to Michiganders directly. No cameras and no mics. Just a table and some chairs. I wanted to talk to a range of people who represented many communities and viewpoints within our great state. So, we invited small groups of three to eight people at a time to sit down and tell me about their lives.
We asked simple questions to guide our talks: How are things in Michigan going? Who are the most important people in your life? What do you worry about for them and their futures? In the next 10 years, what excites you and what concerns you most about your life and the state?
I spoke to a group of farmers in Midland, moms in Grand Rapids, seniors in Kalamazoo, working people in Detroit, small business owners in Macomb, Republicans in Eaton County, legislators in Lansing, and many others.
I approached these conversations as a fellow Michigander. As Gretchen, not Governor. I started each conversation by talking about my girls, wondering what their futures would look like, where they work, if they could or would start families right here in Michigan. And I was consistently humbled by the conversations I had. These people inspired me. They confirmed some of my concerns. And they made me appreciate just how big and big-hearted our state is.
I heard a range of stories: In Kalamazoo, a retired man shared a story about his neighbor, who looks out for him and his wife. They helped fix each other’s roofs despite having opposing yards signs and disagreeing vehemently about politics. A man in Sterling Heights told me he interrupts political conversations during family cookouts with plates of food.
More than once, I heard about families who don’t even see one another anymore because of political arguments.
In Midland—I talked to farmers who worry that a century of their family’s work ends with this generation. They also shared that the days of driving a combine down a two-lane road where neighbors would pull over and wave – are less frequent and the growing trend of angry drivers honking and flipping the farmer off has become more common.
And in Grand Rapids—a mom who works in healthcare said she just wants her boys to be kind because the world they’re entering is full of bullies and bitterness.
The Michiganders I spoke with also shared their concerns: Social media. Mental health. Roads. Education funding. Climate change. Race relations. That we assume the worst of each other and don’t give each other any grace, much less the benefit of the doubt. That we’d rather get nothing done alone than something done together. That too many people think: “I win if you lose.”
One thing that they all agreed on was that the kind of conversation WE were having: direct, respectful, honest, was not happening much anymore. These necessary conversations don’t make for good clickbait. They’re not driven by dunking on one another or making a headline. They’re an investment of time, they may be uncomfortable and may not necessarily end with a concrete answer. But we are all better off for having had them—and that’s the point.
I’ve also been rolling up my sleeves and working alongside people all over the state. Every job I’ve had in my life taught me something. I’ve worked at a lumber yard, stocked shelves at Target, and worked the line at Royal Fork Buffet. To better understand someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes—or a more doable task for a governor—work an hour in their boots.
That’s what I did with a series of events we called Work With Whitmer. Yes, my team loves alliteration.
I stocked shelves at Kroger, made hand sanitizer at American Fifth in Lansing, filled potholes at a road construction site, tagged along with trainers at the Pistons facility, served food at a Coney Island, made fresh potato chips at Better Made, swept the floor at a beauty salon in Grand Rapids, picked apples at Uncle John’s Cider Mill, and helped teachers get their classrooms ready for the school year.
I worked with people. I enjoyed every minute of it. Hard work is in our DNA in Michigan.
When you work with someone, you better understand the complexity of their lives.
Just like there’s no magic bullet to most of the problems we’re confronting, there was no one takeaway from all these interactions. But it was the engagement that mattered—connecting with one another. Seeking to understand. Being curious, not judgmental. It reminded me that while it’s easy to glean differences, what unites us is where our opportunity, our strength, and our best future takes shape. I’m eager to work with anyone to get things done. And most Americans want us to get things done.
Michiganders are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that they want results. I do too. And I have sought to model my behavior, my rhetoric, and my outreach to reflect that belief. I have not always been successful. Nobody is perfect. But I will keep showing up every day and giving my level-best.
People often ask me how I stay upbeat and focused. Many of you have said that you’d never want to switch places with me. Many of the Michiganders with whom I spoke said the same. So how do I keep up hope? Why do I choose to believe? A couple of things. First, my girls. They are the ones I think about when I make any decision. The historic opportunity we have right now to make a real difference in people’s lives.
And on the toughest days I seek inspiration—sometimes it’s from my fellow Michiganders – the unsung heroes doing good work to help their neighbors, little kids getting ready for the school year, making time for a goofy picture, or just getting outside with my favorite guys: Kevin and Doug.
The truth is: I am a firm believer in our democracy itself. I know that despite its faults, it’s worth fighting for. And most of all, I am a believer in people. In us.
I know that at our core, we are so much more alike than we are different.
All the conversations I had during Fix the Damn Road Ahead and interactions I had during Work With Whitmer reinforced that most of us have the same wants and needs, hopes and dreams, fears and faults.
A good-paying job doing work we find meaningful so we can provide for our families. Safe roads and bridges so we can get to work or school, without cracking an axle or blowing a tire. Time with our family and friends enjoying our beloved parks and lakes. Most of us worry about our kids’ futures, their schools, their debt, and their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
Acknowledging the fact that we have so much in common is important because it makes it harder to excuse why we’re so divided.
Having these conversations also brought me back to one of the toughest times in my own life: when I took care of my mom at the end of her life and my daughter at the beginning of hers.
That time forged me. I remember a point when I was really struggling—not sleeping, always working, continuously stressed. And at that point, one of the wonderful hospice people gave me a pamphlet and suggested I read it.
That pamphlet told the story of a man who was riding the subway in New York City. His six kids were running wild. They were annoying everyone on the train. One of the kids bumped into a woman and she had had it. She was getting ready to give the dad a piece of her mind. Just when she was about to read him the riot act, he turned to her and told her that his wife just died of cancer. He said, “I don’t know how I’m going to raise these kids on my own.” And in that moment, everything changed for her because she saw his humanity. Two decades later, I still think about that story and the lesson it should teach us all. It’s a lesson we all need to remind ourselves of from time to time, that can be summed up in a simple word: sonder.
Sonder is the realization that each random passerby is living a life as complex as your own—with their own hopes and dreams, fears and faults, routines and idiosyncrasies—their own story. We would all be better served if we started listening to each other’s stories. We should heed the words of Bobby Kennedy and Ted Lasso and make an effort to understand with compassion and love—to be curious, not judgmental. I’ve often thought about that lesson in the last 19 years.
Now, I’m not naïve. I know how much bitterness and hate there is in the world. I see it. I hear it. In the last two years I’ve often been the target of it. Despite that—hell, in spite of that—I choose to believe in the core decency and dignity of each and every single person.
I hope that every Michigander knows, no matter how much we may disagree, I am rooting for you. I know you get up every day and fight for the things you care about, just like I do. I know you fiercely love and defend your family, just like I do. I know you have moments of weakness, slip-ups, and bad days, just like I do.
But I believe—and I know—that our good days outnumber our bad days. There are times that may seem harder and harder to believe, but I will never give up on that. Because for better or worse, I’m blessed by hope.
Hope keeps me focused on the importance of the task ahead. Healing our divide will take a long time. But it is the most critical thing we must do. And the way to close that gap is for all of us to do the hard work of being uncomfortable. I know it is easy to think that the things happening in Lansing or DC “don’t impact my life” or “my bottom line,” but in this case, the disengaged perpetuate the problem. And sitting on the sidelines is not an option. If we believe, as most of us do, that disagreeing without being disagreeable is a strength; we have to embrace it. We must live it.
My commitment to you today is simple: I will make a seat at the table and work with anyone who wants to get things done for Michigan’s families. Because the truth is we can’t find common ground if we don’t talk to each other. Our futures are bound together, and our problems are our problems.
I will continue both my Fix the Damn Road Ahead conversations and my Work With Whitmer events. I will keep sitting at tables with people who disagree with me and hearing them out.
I’ll strive to see the humanity even in those who fail to see I’m a real person too.
And I’ll infuse kindness and humor wherever I can to diffuse tension. Heck I even sent a birthday cake to Mike Shirkey a few days after he called me “batshit crazy.”
I will always roll up my sleeves and work with anyone, anywhere. So, I hope you will join me at a future Fix the Damn Road Ahead event or give me a chance to work at your business alongside your hardworking employees.
As I finish up, I want to ask all of you to live our shared values and not just say them out loud. We all love this state. We’re all invested in Michigan’s success. And I ask all of you, as leaders, to lean in and help Michigan address the challenges it faces. None of us can do it alone. Michiganders elected a divided government, not a dysfunctional one. We have an historic opportunity with billions in federal dollars to make game-changing investments in our people, projects, and potential. We have put forward bold plans – much of which you helped inform. Now we need to execute.
These are issues we all need to address. Each of these investments would make progress on a shared, bipartisan priority—on the kitchen-table issues. Middle class jobs, beloved public parks, paths to skills and higher education, support for small businesses, and childcare for working families. This shouldn’t be controversial—it’s investing billions of dollars we have into the 10 million people who call this place home.
As we speak, the legislature is passing a bipartisan budget that we negotiated together in good faith and I look forward to signing it next week. The budget will put $500 million into our rainy day fund—the largest one-time deposit ever. It will also fully fund the Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners, expand childcare to 105,000 more kids at low or no-cost, repair 100 bridges, replace lead service lines, and so much more.
The budget is a testament to what we can do when we work together. Let’s continue in that spirit of collaboration to put the billions of federal dollars we have to work. We cannot waste this opportunity, and I ask you to work with me and the legislature to get this done.
I also ask you, as business leaders, to take a stand against efforts to undermine our elections and voting rights – including right here in Michigan, by opposing efforts that would create new barriers to voting.
And my final ask to all of you is to put time on your calendar towards addressing political division. I don’t know what that may look like for you, but it is a problem worth solving.
If we ignore our divide, we will stay stuck and we’ll all be worse off. So ask yourself—what tangible action can you take everyday to turn down the temperature and focus our energy on solving big, structural problems?
We must face our political divide head on. It’s easy to feel discouraged and divided. We’ve had bitter elections. We’ve lost friends and family over politics. We consume different media. We’ve let politics exacerbate the pain of a global pandemic. Cynicism is tempting. But it’s not productive. Because who we are today does not define who we will be tomorrow.
We are a beautiful, big-hearted state defined by our complexity. We’re the rich sound of Motown. The ingenuity of the Motor City. The swagger of the Bad Boys. The blood, sweat, and tears of generations of working families who built the middle class. We are creators and doers and collaborators. We are not destined to be divided.
We can come together if each of us does the work. I promise you I will continue doing my part. I will keep engaging in good faith to get things done because it is what our state needs and what our people deserve. I will work tirelessly to put Michigan first and usher in a new era of prosperity for our families, communities, and businesses. I will live my values. I will make an effort to understand with compassion and love. I will be curious, not judgmental. I hope you’ll join me. Thank you.