Gov. candidate tours Copper Country

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mining Gazette Gretchen Whitmer, Democratic candidate for governor from East Lansing, talks during an interview Thursday. Whitmer met with Houghton County Democratic Party members Thursday night.

HOUGHTON — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer stopped in Houghton on a tour of the Upper Peninsula Thursday.

Whitmer previously served 14 years in the state Legislature, including time as the Senate Democratic Leader. She most recently spent six months as interim prosecutor for Ingham County.

“I have found out very quickly about myself after leaving (the legislature) that I have no patience for bad leadership,” she said. “And I have no patience for our state to get the leaders who are going to level with us and put our people first in every decision. I think we deserve better.”

Whitmer said one of her first priorities will be the interconnected issues of education and economic development. She said she would work to ensure a career path for every child and adult, including vocational education, trade schools, community colleges and four-year institutions.

“Seventy percent of our state does not have the skills for 21st century jobs,” she said. “That puts us at a unique disadvantage around the country, where we’re trying to lure more investment into our state, when our people are lacking the skills necessary. It’s not that we’re not smart enough, we’re not strong enough, we’re not tough enough. It’s that our state has neglected to ensure we’ve got the skills.”

In the Upper Peninsula, she said, much of the area is hamstrung by the lack of broadband for universal high-speed Internet access. Whitmer related a story she’d heard from a realtor in St. Ignace who lost out on a sale when a company that had looked to bring 50 jobs to the area pulled out because of the lack of broadband.

“I think that that’s the kind of story that i need to hear on this trip to help really put a finer point on how these policies can really help a community, how if we are connected, what a difference it could make,” she said. “We have all the land, the beauty. There’s so many wonderful, appealing things about the U.P. But if we starve the U.P. of the fundamental infrastructure in the 21st century, it’s a poor mistake that we all pay a price for.”

On energy, Whitmer said she’s had frequent conversations with State Rep. Scott Dianda and former State Sen. Mike Prusi, who have encouraged creating policy creating more energy choice in the U.P.

“Reliable energy is a fundamental need,” she said. “For many months out of the year, you can’t live without it, so I think that’s something we need to make a priority. I’m hearing that as I go across the U.P., how much higher the energy bills are in God’s Country than they are perhaps below the bridge.”

Whitmer said she understands and shares the frustration with government that has led voters to pick outsiders in recent years. However, she said, as a minority member of the Legislature, she fought against some politicians’ tendencies to use political problems for their own gain.

“I’m mad at the people that have gotten us in this position that we are where our population is less educated than the rest of the country, where our municipalities are struggling because of constant pressures that have gone up, responsibilities that have gone up, and support that’s gone down,” she said. “That’s why I’m running. I sense and feel the same frustration that the population that elected Donald Trump and Rick Snyder in the first place do. But by the same token, I don’t think we just clear the whole playing field. We’ve got to put in the right players, we’ve got to put in the right people, the right leaders with a real vision that can move us forward together.”

Whitmer said she was also able to find common ground with legislators in the Republican party, which currently holds the governor’s chair as well as the house and Senate. While she criticized Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts in areas such as right-to-work, she partnered with him on Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which extended health care to 600,000 people in the state.

“The first question of any governor’s got to be, ‘What’s in the best interest of the most people in this state?'” she said. “And I can do that and work with people on both sides of the aisle, and I’m willing to work with anyone who shares that as their goal.”

Whitmer said she is closely watching the progress of efforts to repeal the ACA. She said Republicans may be starting to understand the difficulty of repealing the bill, and may me more amenable to letting the states’ programs stay in place. Snyder has said he would work with Trump and the Republicans to preserve health care for Michigan residents.

“I’m really hopeful that the governor’s successful on that front, so we can continue, because it’s working here in Michigan,” she said. “We’ve seen not just people covered, but what a benefit it’s been to our economy, and a lot of people are better off because of it. I hope that Michigan is permitted to continue on. If that is not the case, a lot of people are going to be in great distress, and we’ll start working on a plan, and i’ll work with anyone who’s interested to ensure that we can continue that kind of opportunity for people here.”