Driving Change Through an Economic Crisis
by Mary Branham
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has led her state through turbulent times and turmoil facing the auto sector—her state’s signature industry. Even during the economic downturn, Michigan still received high grades for management from the Pew Center on the States’ “Grading the States” report.
1. What was the biggest challenge you faced as governor of Michigan?
“Michigan has the toughest economy in the nation. Since 2000, we have lost almost 900,000 jobs due to the global shift of manufacturing jobs to low-wage countries. For 100 years, Michigan’s economy was seven times (more) auto-manufacturing centered than any other state, and therefore globalization has hit us harder than anywhere else. Our massive budget contraction is but a symptom of this enormous structural shift in our economy. This economic challenge culminated with two of the Detroit Three automakers entering into bankruptcy in 2009—the largest bankruptcies in American history. Finally, today we are starting to see a stronger and more stable auto sector.”
2. What was the most surprising thing you learned as governor?
“I was stunned that, before 2008, the nation had no industrial strategy to keep manufacturing jobs in America. We know that we can’t keep the low-skill jobs, but I was stunned that our nation was embracing a hands-off policy that would only serve to facilitate the movement of jobs and manufacturing infrastructure to other nations—nations that are our economic competitors. With the current administration, however, there is now a will to partner with manufacturers to help level the playing field to keep important segments of this vital sector in America.”
3. What has been your biggest accomplishment as governor?
“Two things: I’m proud of our work to educate our citizens—raising standards, raising scores, lowering the dropout rate, educating adults; and I’m proud of what we’ve done to diversify Michigan’s economy. We’re growing six emerging sectors: clean energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences, homeland security, tourism and film. Since 2003, we have over 1,050 new or expanded companies, making Michigan repeatedly one of the top three states in the country in attracting new businesses, according to Site Selection magazine. In no area have we enjoyed more success than with the batteries to power the electric car.”
4. How did you utilize your experience as Michigan’s first female attorney general and federal prosecutor in your relations with the other two branches of government?
“Most of my experience has been in the executive branch, with a small stint as a judicial clerk for a federal appellate court. I had limited legislative experience, which is why I asked a respected, seasoned state senator, John Cherry, to be my lieutenant governor to help forge relations with the legislature. I must say, however, that no amount of sugar or experience would have softened the tough work we’ve had to do in Lansing. The wrenching budgets we’ve wrestled with have made my relations with the legislature prickly, but while it wasn’t pretty, ultimately, we balanced the budget every year and kept our key priorities intact.”
5. What, in your past life, helped you handle the transition to the governorship?
“Values. My first act as governor was to issue a lengthy executive order on ethics, and my administration has not veered from it. When I was growing up, my dad used to say, ‘Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to read on the front page of The New York Times.’ That advice has served me well. I am also blessed with the most fantastic spouse in the world; without Dan Mulhern’s support and willingness to sacrifice, I simply would not have been able to serve in such a demanding role.”
6. How difficult has it been to accomplish your goals during the economic crisis, and what were you able to do to advance those goals?
“We have used this wrenching crisis to make big changes. The crisis allowed us to persuade people to reform education; it screamed the need to diversify our economy; and it exhorted us to protect people from falling through the safety net during the transition from an old Michigan economy to a new one. The crisis demanded that government be more nimble and efficient. For example, Michigan government is the smallest it has been since the 1970s. I have cut more than any governor in Michigan history—resolving more than $10 billion in deficits since 2003. We have cut more as a percentage than any state in the country. I have eliminated 25 percent of state departments, closed 13 prison facilities, and reformed public employee pensions and benefits. We have put every possible task, permit and process online and are now the number one state in the country for e-government, according to the Center for Digital Government’s annual survey. We would not have been able to make tough changes without the impetus of the crisis.”
7. What is the most important quality a governor can have to work with a wide range of people—from constituents to legislators to the business community?
“When tackling problems, it’s important to be both pragmatic and understanding of the value of compromise. You also must be open-minded, since no one person has a monopoly on good ideas. While it is true that each person has their own beliefs, it is important to note that rigid ideology serves no one but the ideologue.”
8. You’re also a wife and mother. How do you balance the demands of the governor’s office with the demands of family life?
“I am blessed with three wonderful children and my husband, Dan, who, as I mentioned, has proven to be the most supporting, selfless husband on the face of the earth. They have made this eight-year journey possible.”
9. What do you foresee as the biggest challenge facing governors next year?
“The biggest challenges facing the nation’s governors are the fallout from the economic realities of a nation still working to grow itself out of a recession, the impossible competitive disadvantage states are in when faced with globalization, and the fact that the electorate is wildly impatient for change. Citizens are filled with anxiety. They feel the need for an improved economy and more personal opportunity and look to their leaders to deliver on both, immediately.”