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After State Of The Union, spotlight will turn to Michigan's Democratic governor

Governor Whitmer and Lt. Govenor Garlin Gilchrist
Jake Nehr
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will deliver the English language response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday night.

Democrats are turning to Michigan’ s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to deliver the English language response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The choice highlights the central role Michigan and the industrial Midwest are expected to play in the presidential election this year.

Trump won Michigan by a fraction of a percentage point, but that was enough to put the state’s 16 electoral votes in the Republican column. It was also the first time the GOP candidate won the state since 1988.

The president did not forget that last December, when he was in the city of Battle Creek for a rally.

“Michigan – thank you Michigan,” he said. “What a victory we had in Michigan. What a victory. Wasn’t that one of the greats?”

"I think everyone knows how important Michigan is in this election." - Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Polls once again show the president could face a tight race in a state that’s politically divided and emblematic of the challenges facing working class Americans. When congressional Democrats were looking for someone to deliver the response Tuesday night, Governor Whitmer says it’s no surprise they cast their eyes toward Michigan.

“I think everyone knows how important Michigan is in this election,” she said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer announced Whitmer will deliver the response and described her as a model to be emulated. Their statement praised Whitmer’s work for clean drinking water in the wake of the Flint water crisis. Also, her still-unfulfilled campaign promise to “fix the damn roads” in a state where under-investment and freeze-and-thaw weather cycles wreak havoc on asphalt and concrete. 

Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI 12) said there was a political component to the decision, especially since it’s widely expected President Trump’s speech will serve as the launch of his reelection campaign.

“Gretchen Whitmer is a talented, dedicated governor in the Midwest and, let’s be blunt; all roads for the presidential (election) in November go through Michigan.”

Whitmer was a veteran of the Legislature when she was elected governor. That includes time as the Democratic leader of the state senate. As minority leader, she put her skills to work to bedevil Republicans, but she never got to serve as a leader in the majority.

She plays something of the same role now since the Michigan Legislature is controlled by Republicans. And Republicans have refused her demand to raise the state tax on fuel sales to pay for roads and infrastructure.

“I know people weren’t excited about a gas tax,” she said. “No one is, even me. But the fact of the matter is I’ve inherited an incredibly serious infrastructure crisis and I’m trying to fix it," Whitmer said.

Her efforts to force Republicans to adopt her ideas led to a standoff that delayed adopting a state budget by the constitutional deadline. There are still hard feelings, but the governor has not given up on her efforts to raise the fuel tax.

"It was all about roads and she wants to raise those gasoline taxes on you. We don't want to do that." - President Donald Trump.

The president, in his Battle Creek visit, referred to Whitmer’s at-home political troubles as she continues to fight with Republicans.

“It was all about roads and she wants to raise those gasoline taxes on you. We don’t want to do that," he said.

Whitmer says she’s glad to serve as Trump’s State of the Union bete noire. She expects she may be re-writing her response until the last minute.

“Responding to something that is totally unpredictable, especially with an impeachment trial going on is very difficult and doing so in just 10 minutes,” she says.

Whitmer’s rising profile may make her an emerging force in national Democratic politics. But it could also make it harder to make deals back home with Republicans and keep the still unkept promises that got her elected.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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