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Jennifer Granholm looks back at her years as Michigan's Governor

Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm recounts her time in Lansing.
Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm recounts her time in Lansing.

Former Governor Jennifer Granholm’s book, “A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future,” is on bookstore shelves. It offers her perspective on eight years in the job she described as the toughest facing any governor in the U.S.

She battled budget shortfalls, Republicans in the Legislature, and skeptics of federal efforts to bail out the Detroit auto industry.

Granholm and her co-author, former First Gentleman Dan Mulhern, spoke with me about the book and her legacy.

Jennifer Granholm says she wrote “A Governor’s Story” to offer her  prescription for the nation’s economy to lower taxes and smaller government. She says it’s based on her experience, and an often trial-and-error road to an economic strategy that can work for the entire nation.

“We’ve got a story to tell. So for everybody who cares about how to crack the code to create advanced manufacturing jobs in the American economy, we’ve got the story to tell.”Tough circumstances

But the former governor also uses the political memoir to defend her job performance.

She was highly unpopular when she left office as people held her responsible for failing to fix the state’s economy or stop the seemingly never-ending political gridlock in Lansing.

“A Governor’s Story” focuses almost exclusively on Granholm’s eight years as governor, barely mentioning her one term as state attorney general, the first and only other political office she’s held, or anything else about her life before becoming Michigan’s first female chief executive.

She says the forces that cost the state a million jobs over the course of a decade were global in scope and beyond her control or the control of any governor.

“Anybody who goes into a position of leadership goes into that position assuming that they’re going to be able to fix the problems, but sometimes the circumstances are beyond that leader’s full control.”

As far as the budget troubles that bedeviled her tenure, Granholm says she was set up for failure by her predecessor, Republican John Engler.

She says that’s because he cut taxes without really cutting spending as the state’s economy grew at a record pace, and the tax cuts continued even after the economy stumbled. She says that combination destabilized Michigan’s finances as she took over.

The book is told in Granholm’s voice, but she co-wrote it with husband Dan Mulhern.

The couple

The book is also a tale of the couple’s personal journey. It details Mulhern’s role as husband, spiritual advisor and executive coach, his job before he became Michigan’s first First Gentleman.  

He had an office and staff in the executive office building. But Mulhern says he was focused more on steering their two daughters through adolescence and raising their youngest son, who is now a high school freshman.

The couple is famously close, but Mulhern says there were revelations as they were putting the book together.

“It was fun. It was fun for me to do the book with Jennifer because our lives were so busy that some of these stories I never heard the first time."

Like the fact that the very health-conscious Granholm resumed smoking for a short time during the tense negotiations with the Legislature that led to the brief government shutdown in 2007.

“I bummed a lot of cigarettes from the lieutenant governor,” said Granholm. "A lot for me. I don’t smoke, so I bummed probably half a pack, one pack maybe over the course of several days from him."

The couple now lives in Berkley, California, where they both teach and write.

Granholm also serves on corporate boards and offers commentary on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Mulhern's turn?

It’s not in the book, but the former governor says she’s through seeking elected offices.

It was originally Dan Mulhern who harbored political ambitions that he set aside for the sake of his wife’s career.

Now, he says, a second politician, a second political career in the family is not out of the question.

“Never say never – you never know,” said Mulhern.

Granholm says “blown away” was a mistake

Former Governor Jennifer Granholm says she almost did not seek a second term in 2006. The state was hemorrhaging jobs, her job approval ratings were pretty dismal, and a victory was far from guaranteed.

In her 2006 State of the State speech, Jennifer Granholm struck a sunny tone amid economic darkness.

She outlined an aggressive recovery strategy that included state investments in targeted industries. And she uttered the line that became perhaps the most-famous, or infamous, words of her political career.

She said in five years, "you’re going to be blown away by the strength and diversity of Michigan’s transformed economy."

“I fully ‘fess up to writing that myself and against the advice of my advisors,” said Granholm.

Granholm’s communications and political teams were afraid the phrase would be turned against the governor by Republicans in what was expected to be a tough reelection fight against Amway billionaire Dick DeVos.

And that is exactly what happened.

Republican campaign ads flashed pictures of shut-down factories, Republicans kept up the drum beat, asking the rhetorical question, “Blown away yet?” as the economy continued to falter and more people lost their jobs.

“You’ve got to be somewhat realistic and not too much with rose-colored glasses and I think I had a bit of my rose-colored glasses that night,” said Granholm.

Granholm says it became clear she’d made a big mistake.

“Little did I know that I was really handing Dick DeVos a club with which he would beat me throughout the campaign,” she said.

Unsure that she could win a second term, Granholm says she thought about not running and toyed with asking U.S. Senator Carl Levin to be the Democratic nominee.

That idea was quickly dismissed by her campaign team and kitchen cabinet, including First Gentleman Dan Mulhern, who said there’s no way Levin would want the job.

A powerful campaign message

As the Republicans’ “blown away” ads took their toll, the state Democratic Party and the Granholm re-election campaign responded countered with a powerful allegation.

Democrats basically accused DeVos of sending thousands of Michigan jobs to China.

DeVos says layoffs in Amway’s U.S. operations were unrelated to building a presence in the world’s fastest-growing economy.

A cheap shot?

Greg McNeely was DeVos’s campaign manager. He says the China ads changed the campaign conversation.

"It was a cheap political shot and calling it cheap almost elevates it," said McNeely. "I think the effectiveness is borne out by the election results because ultimately the election question became about that issue and about China."

McNeely says the charge was not true.

"Not a single job went to China. In fact, just the opposite. Amway did then and continues today to make things in America by Americans and sell it to foreign customers. That’s what you’re supposed to do as an American business," said McNeely.


The suggestion has been made that the China ads made it politically impossible for Granholm to make China a stop on one of her many overseas investment missions.

Granholm says that’s not true.

She says there were no China deals close enough to completion while she was governor to make the trip worthwhile.

Granholm has been to China since she left office at the beginning of the year and she says it is a crucial market for Michigan and U.S. businesses.

Granholm says she is very pleased her successor.

Republican Governor Rick Snyder, is making China part of his itinerary as he makes a trade trip to Asia this week.

Coaching the Big Three: Government intervention is new economic reality

In her political memoir, former Governor Jennifer Granholm says she coached the CEO of General Motors on his congressional testimony following a disastrous appearance before Congress.

She was a politician known for her ability to deliver a passionate stemwinder, and she tried to pass some advice along to General Motors’ then-CEO Rick Wagoner.

That was after CEOs from the Detroit Three suffered a fiasco in their first appearance before a congressional committee to appeal for emergency business loans.

They were asked to raise their hands if they flew to Washington D.C. commercial. No hands went up. They were then asked to raise their hands if they planned to sell their jets and fly back home commercial. Again, no hands went up.

"It was just a disaster, so the second time they went, they drove in their favorite car to Washington to make their case and present their new plans," said Granholm. "It was so important to Michigan, so I just remember this conversation that I had with Rick."

"He was a basketball player himself, so he was very open to coaching. I said, ‘Rick, you’ve got to look them in the eye.’ I was in my office by myself gesticulating while I was talking on the phone, saying, ‘You’ve got to make the case from your heart that this industry is going to lead America to energy independence, that we are going to come back because of this industry, not in spite of this industry,’” said Granholm.

Granholm also took to the airwaves, the halls of Congress, and the White House to make the case for a federal bailout.

She could not keep GM and Chrysler out of bankruptcy, but the auto companies did get federal loans to help them survive.

Granholm says the experience of trying to turn around Michigan’s economy as jobs moved offshore or to other states, or simply disappeared taught her some lessons that she is trying to pass along to the public and nation’s leaders.

“There’s some things that worked and some that didn’t and you can learn from us," she said.

Granholm says tax cuts and smaller government are not enough to help a state, a region, or the country compete with nations that subsidize their industries.

She says the federal government needs to help with research, and place bets to help some industries grow, like Michigan did with advanced batteries.

“To stand idly by will only ensure the loss, the continued loss of good-paying middle-class jobs,” said Granholm.

That’s in contrast to the argument that government should not try to pick winners in a free-market economy, and Michigan has stepped back from industry-specific tax breaks and other subsidies since the governor left office.

Governments should choose investments carefully

Charles Ballard is a Michigan State University economist who has written two books about the state’s economy.

 “I think there is a role for this sort of thing, but I would caution you need to be very careful,” said Ballard. “If the state of Washington had gotten in on the ground floor of Microsoft, they would have been great. But if the state of Texas had gotten in on the ground floor and invested a whole lot with Enron which, at the time everyone was saying, 'oh, what a brilliant company Enron is,' that would have been a disaster.”

Ballard says it’s more important for governments to focus on education and transportation and communication infrastructure.

He says Granholm got it right when she called for tougher high school standards, and better worker training and re-training, but he says she still cut funding for higher education year after year when she was governor facing budget crises.

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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