Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm is one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party. Originally elected to office in 1998, she was the state’s first female attorney general and the first woman to become governor. She was elected governor in 2002 and again in 2006. Upon taking office, she learned Michigan was in an economic downfall and the automobile industry was collapsing.
In her book A Governor’s Story, Granholm describes how her governing strategy went from offense to defense. During the ensuing years, she successfully worked to turn Michigan around by diversifying the economy and doubling the educated pool of workers.
On Sunday, November 17, the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee will celebrate its 25th anniversary with Granholm as its keynote speaker. In the following interview, Granholm talks about the challenges she faced as governor, her options for the future, and the need for more women in office.
Why did you decide to run for public office? I was asked. I was assuming that my husband was going to run for office. I was working on campaigns behind the scenes. But as it turned out, the attorney general decided to retire. I was approached by a couple of people in the Democratic Party. Would I consider running? My youngest was less than two years old, and we had two other young children, and so without the support of a fantastic husband I would not have been able to do it. But with his support and encouragement I did.
At the time I was the only Democrat among a cluster of Republicans. I was the obvious one to ascend [to governor] after the previous governor moved on because of term limits. There was no other [Democrat] in a statewide office that was available or had name recognition.
You have said you needed a “push” to run. Did you have the support of the Democratic Party infrastructure or any women’s political organizations? Yes and yes. Emily’s List, and there’s a whole network of women in Michigan who were very excited because I was the first woman attorney general and the first woman governor. The party wanted to diversify their ticket; women had been relegated to Secretary of State. Yes, I was supported and encouraged and would not have been able to do it without that, and of course the biggest part was my home support.
For women who are married and especially for women with children, how do you decide who has primary responsibility for the children? I believe women with families will only run [for office] to the extent that men feel free to be able to choose to stay home if they are so inclined. The LGBT community has it easier because they are going to make the decision on who works and who stays home based upon competencies rather than on one’s plumbing.
Because of the downturn in the auto industry, loss of manufacturing jobs, and a massive budget deficit, Michigan had one of the worst economies in the country when you became governor in 2003. What specific economic strategies did you develop to turn it around? We didn’t have one of the worst economies, but the worst economy in the nation because of the global shift in manufacturing jobs.
We were laser-like focused on three things. One was to diversify the economy by attracting new specific sectors that we knew we could be competitive in. We identified six sectors and developed policies around those sectors.
The second was doubling the number of college graduates; we had to become an educated state. We were in the bottom third, with respect to the number of adults who had college or university degrees. We developed a whole set of policies around doubling the number of graduates.
Third was to protect people as they transitioned from the old industrial economy to a new economy: making sure that as we progressed that people didn’t fall through cracks and they retained a safety net.
In your book A Governor’s Story, you talk about playing too much defense and not enough offense. Could you explain? Leading during tough times you have to strategically play two parts offense to one part defense. You always have to be proactively communicating the vision, where are we going, what are we doing to get there? You will automatically play defense because things are happening that are beyond your control. You have to play offense on the economy and education to be able to move the ball, because if you’re just playing defense you move backward.
My book is about leadership during a sustained crisis when there are massive global forces at work that a mere governor cannot control. What do you do during that situation, when things are falling apart; how do you continue to move and play offense? With globalization, a lot of organizations are facing competitive challenges from other countries with talent that is clearly well trained and cheaper.
You have to change the culture which is really hard. You have to change expectations for people. In 2005, there was a poll among [Michigan] parents. A question was asked: “Do you think it’s essential that your child go to college?” Only 25 percent of parents thought it was essential. We had to change the culture in addition to changing policies, so that people have the expectations that their child will go to college. That was the toughest part.
In your book, you wrote about the continuing loss of jobs that are caused by globalization and technology. What are the answers for America? The U.S. cannot continue to bow to the altar of laissez-faire, hands off. We have economic competitors who are aggressively recruiting and growing jobs in their countries. When we say government should not be involved in the economy, when we are hands off, we are aiding and abetting our competitors. I think we can craft a uniquely American economic development strategy, but right now we have no such thing.
Governors know that we have to be aggressive. But we don’t have the tools to compete with China and other countries. We need a partner in the federal government that would give us the tools to be competitive, whether it’s allowing us to waive federal taxes, provide other incentives to invest in strategically targeted training for industry, and to be able to create regional clusters of businesses. That would require an active government, not necessarily big government. Right now we have people who think that we should not be doing anything, no government. That is wrong. It will hurt us as a nation.
Are there lessons for other cities from the bankruptcy of Detroit? Detroit is a unique situation. Yes there has been corruption, but the decline of Detroit started long before that. In 1950 there were 300,000 manufacturing jobs, and today there are 27,000. They lost 90 percent of the middle-class economic base. That’s the fundamental problem for Detroit. The bigger issue is what are we doing to keep and create advanced manufacturing jobs for our urban areas. It goes back to the issue of having a tax base so that you can invest in the things that make cities prosperous.
Since leaving office, you have been a journalist and professor of public policy at Berkeley. Will you run for office again? Would you accept a Supreme Court position, if offered? Well, I won’t run for office again. I am not a legislator. I am an executive branch person. But I will always serve in some way, shape, or form. I don’t know about the Supreme Court, but I know I was vetted for the Supreme Court previously. I think my temperament is more to run stuff, to be in charge of an organization, to move the ball down the field, create visions, and hold people accountable. I’m really good at that stuff; that is where my skill set is. If something along those lines came about, I would be very interested in continuing to serve.
You have said: “Once a glass ceiling is broken, it stays broken.” But women represent only 18 percent of Congress, there are only five women governors, and the number of women is decreasing in the California Legislature. What more can organizations like the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee (SBWPC) do to achieve gender equity in elective office? I’m so glad that there is an effort toward recruitment, and recruitment of younger women who may not be willing to look at this as a form of service to their nation. Often women are reluctant to call people and ask for money. But, my whole point to them is it’s not about you. It’s about the changes you want to make. To the extent that you are willing to serve on the board of your favorite charity or to raise money for another entity, why can’t you raise money to help repair the world? Why can’t you be a vehicle for change? If you believe in that change, if you believe in the country, raise your hand to serve. It doesn’t have to be for your whole life; it may be for an interim period. We need more women in the room as we’ve seen in Washington. Without women the whole place falls apart. Recruitment is everything.